The Tyranny of the Meek

By John Gonzalez | Boston Magazine |

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.

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?

Kevin Cullen is all worked up. He is on the phone, telling me about why he got into the business. While attending UMass, he wrote a story for the student newspaper about former ABC newsman Max Robinson, who had given a speech bashing his network. It was a smaller-scale Dan Rather moment, only without the bloated lawsuit and shameful public whining. "I was like, ‘Whoa, this is pissah!’" Cullen says. Some professional reporters were on hand to chronicle Robinson’s tirade, but they glossed over it. Cullen told the tale with unvarnished honesty, receiving national attention as a result. He was hooked.

As this story bleeds into the next, and Cullen talks about his love for Boston and journalism, it becomes apparent why the Globe tapped him to become a metro columnist: He’s funny and sharp and, best of all, actually from here—a guy who likes to curse and laugh and doesn’t apologize for dropping his r’s. When Cullen (a 23-year veteran of the paper) and Abraham (who’s been with the Globe for nine) were installed as columnists a year ago, the choices were heralded internally and externally—and with good reason. The duo has something the Globe is short on: deep reporting experience. Problem is, reporting chops don’t always translate into the passionate, gritty columns that readers love and a city needs.

The old saying in the newspaper business is that you try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Cullen is big on the f
ormer. Sob stories are his forte, so much so that one snarky Boston magazine staffer (not me) created a Cullen game: one point if the column is a tearjerker; two if it concerns the Red Sox or the North End; three if it involves cancer or Ireland; four for mental handicaps. In April, Cullen penned a 12-pointer about a mentally retarded Red Sox fan with cancer living in the North End. Even the severely dehydrated cried.

Examples of less weepy Cullen columns are harder to come by. He took some tough shots at Hillary Clinton following the Samantha Power "she’s a monster" flap. He bestowed Mitt Romney with the memorable nickname "Mitty Cent" after the pol’s disastrous attempt to win over a group of black kids in Jacksonville, Florida. And in mid-March he walloped the Justice Department for refusing to settle with families "whose loved ones were slain by Bulger’s bullets and the FBI’s complicity." Mostly, though, Cullen’s pen has been too kind. Shame, since pens can double as shanks. (It’s true. Oz once featured a how-to.)

"It’s going to take a little longer to get going on popping off and opinionating," Cullen admits. "I listen to the talk-radio people—there’s the outrage of the day. Well, if you’re outraged every day, then you really fucking aren’t…. Do I need to write a column and say that Tom Menino has been here too long and he needs to go? I don’t know. Right now I don’t feel the need to do that."

There was a time, though, when Cullen didn’t have those reservations. One former colleague says, years ago, news would break and Cullen would cobble together mock columns for his peers. "We would be on the floor laughing our asses off," the ex-Globie remembers. "He was a funny son of a bitch. I’d like to read those columns in a paper. He’s acerbic. And he sees through pomposity."

The question, then: Why isn’t Cullen utilizing that x-ray vision now? "I’m very conscious of not just smacking people left and right," he says. "When Howie [Carr] calls you a hack, it doesn’t mean anything anymore."

McGrory says that Cullen is still developing his voice, and that it often takes a columnist a year or more to do so. And even if Cullen never becomes an ax man, McGrory is fine with that because he didn’t envision Cullen filling that role in the first place. "Is his strength politics and that stuff? No," McGrory says. "He never pretended it would be. His strength is stories from the street, and he’s doing that well."

So are his two contemporaries. And just as Carr’s never-ending hack-a-thon wears thin, so, too, do the Kleenex-exhausting Lifetime movies that double as the Globe‘s metro columns. Mixing it up would be grand—perhaps hammer the cause as regularly as the paper weeps for the effect. But the former Globie who fondly remembers Cullen’s mock columns says, "I just don’t think the paper wants it."

A frightening thought. One current Globe employee takes that thinking a step further, adding that editor Marty Baron isn’t a larger-than-life personality, and he doesn’t like his columnists to be, either. "[The Phoenix] did that piece saying this is Marty Baron’s newspaper," the staffer says. "I think he likes quiet. I think you’re seeing a reflection of him, for better or worse."

Baron balks at that suggestion, saying he welcomes aggressive columns. Baron also says he doesn’t intervene one way or the other with his columnists, and Cullen and Walker confirm they’re free to write what they please.

"Some people think what makes a good column is the latest outrage," Walker says. "Eileen [McNamara] was a good example of that. Her columns were mostly about what outraged her…. None of this has anything to do with Marty. He doesn’t walk over to everyone’s desk and tell them how they should do their jobs every day. And my God, wasn’t Marty the editor when Steve Bailey was a columnist?"

Fair enough. But Bailey was predisposed to swagger and brawling. The remaining columnists appear less naturally inclined to adopt the same edgy gait, which is why the editors need to prompt them to do so. In the Globe’s current lineup, there is no McNamara to balance the McGrorys. No one doubts that Baron likes hard-hitting investigative work—the Spotlight Team’s various successes (from exposing the Catholic Church to taking down local repo men) are evidence of that. But collectively filleting institutions is a different proposition from tasking your columnists to pick individual fights.

Ultimately, how its columns shrank in stature matters less than the Globe’s growing them back to an appropriate heft. We need the Globe’s columnists to speak to us and for us about the big issues. Actually fighting City Hall—not to mention Beacon Hill—would be a fine start. Piggybacking off what’s reported in the paper wouldn’t hurt. Fewer nods to sickly children and the Irish would help. And please, above all, leave the sickly Irish children be.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2008/05/the-tyranny-of-the-meek/