The Tyranny of the Meek
April was a grim month in Boston. The FBI began investigating allegations of fraud within the fire department. The number of homicides for the year rose to 20, including a victim who was shot and killed while playing basketball in the late afternoon sunshine. Meanwhile, questions arose about House Speaker Sal DiMasi’s ethics—from how he obtained a sketchy third mortgage to the conduct of various state representatives on his watch.
Dark as those days were, they provided exactly the kinds of titillating topics that motivate good newspaper columnists. Short of a firefighter killing the speaker over a lovers’ tryst, you generally couldn’t find material better suited to arouse someone’s journalism pants.
Instead, the Globe‘s three metro columnists—Adrian Walker, Kevin Cullen, and Yvonne Abraham—all but ignored the biggest headlines of the month.
Collectively, the 22 columns they wrote included pieces on racism in the western Massachusetts hamlet of Turners Falls, a departing Irish premier, the Spanish Catholic Center in DC, a mother who lost her son 15 years ago, and a Kenyan orphanage. There was one on the Boston Marathon. Two on becoming a U.S. citizen. A Yankee hater made an appearance. A Sox lover did, too.
Adrian Walker did slap the mayor for failing to address the press regarding the FBI probe, but then let it go. Kevin Cullen touched on the mayor’s raising parking fines, though the treatment was so light, a gentle breeze could have carried it away.
The tone and subjects were emblematic of what many columns at the once mighty Globe have become—more Oprah than Oliphant. A quick review of the metro columns over the past year, for example, reveals the same pattern as in April: plenty of human interest stories, but not nearly enough with mettle. Call it approximately 3-to-1 on the soft side, by an admittedly subjective count.
What’s strange is that under Brian McGrory’s editorship, the Globe‘s City & Region pages as a whole have become stronger. The former columnist’s section brims with outrage-inducing reported pieces, like its scoops on the fire department. (Roughly 100 firefighters since 2001 have claimed career-ending injuries while filling in for their superiors, which meant they retired with a much larger pension.) Unfortunately, this fury hasn’t been equaled often enough by the paper’s opinion peddlers. The effect is off-putting: robust reporting abutting frail commentary.
There’s been no better recent example of this than on April 22. The front page of that day’s City & Region featured a story about five people injured in shootings across Boston, and another on the mayor’s response to new polling showing an 80 percent approval rating among women. In the latter, the Globe reported that Menino struck "a beefcake pose, playfully flexing his shoulders and pectoral muscles." Rather than connect the dots—between the intractable brutality and the pompous mayor—Walker wrote the aforementioned marathon column, concerning a woman running in honor of her deceased friend.
Menino must have loved it.