The Tyranny of the Meek

The Globe, of course, is the same place that spawned Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle—two fiction writers masquerading as journalists. But just as some of the paper’s lowest points have been due to its columnists, some of its highs are owed to the same group. Writers like recently departed Steve Bailey, a business columnist in name only, who gave the governor a beating on casinos equal to the one doled out by Speaker DiMasi; or David Nyhan, who railed against political malfeasance on Beacon Hill and in DC; or McGrory, who bemoaned…well, just about everything but always on behalf of the embattled, voiceless everyman. In a way, McGrory read like a dollar-store Hemingway knockoff. (It was tough for the man from Southie. So the man from Southie had to be tough.) And yet there was something oddly enthralling about McGrory’s tales of urban woe. Not to mention necessary, because they balanced out more-ruthless columns.

Like Eileen McNamara’s. She was merciless. For 12 years, she was destination reading in City & Region. In 1997, McNamara won a Pulitzer for commentary after less than two years as a metro columnist, then followed that up by hammering away at the Catholic Church during the abuse scandal. Perhaps her best column dealt with former Attorney General Tom Reilly’s gubernatorial aspirations—a "hapless" campaign, according to McNamara, sullied by "doublespeak" and "incompetence." Sexy, right?

But that was written near the end of McNamara’s run, when even she started to soften. "The paper was changing," one former Globie says when asked why McNamara began taking fewer shots. "They didn’t want the brassy, ballsy, in-your-face columnists anymore. They wanted feature stories. Which is crap." A little over a year ago, McNamara swallowed a buyout, one of more than 200 newsroom employees to do so since 2001. (When asked her reasons for leaving the paper, McNamara declined comment.)

In the past few months, the downsizing and defections have continued. Gossip columnist Carol Beggy decided to leave, as did longtime sports section mainstays Jackie MacMullan and Gordon Edes. All were blows to the Globe‘s overall quality, but whether or not gossip and sports thrive in the Globe is less important than the paper’s fielding superior news columnists: It may sting when the Pats lose, but not as much as when politicians rule unchecked. Though Joan Vennochi and Scot Lehigh are thankfully still around to crack heads, they’re just two intrepid voices among hundreds. And their real estate—the gray, pictureless op-ed page—does them no justice, rendering them less visible than their metro compatriots.

All of which makes it more urgent for the trio of metro columnists—now among the few established names left at the paper—to become must-reads. In a city that needs bold opinions, particularly now that Bailey is gone, who among them is up to the task? Walker is inconsistent. So is Abraham, who just returned to writing this spring after spending much of her first year as a columnist on maternity leave. Cullen, meanwhile, exhausted much of his first year finding his chi. What kind of cattle prod does it take these days to make a Globe columnist earn his feed?