Gals Gone Wild

Critics of the Inside Track have long accused the Herald’s gossip column of being malicious and pandering. Nowadays, those are some of the nicest things you can say about it.

Halfway through lunch with Chet Curtis, it occurs to me that maybe we should have eaten someplace more private. People tend to notice famous newscasters, especially at places like Game On!, a heavily trafficked sports bar in Fenway Park’s shadow. We’re seated in a deep booth in the back, but people still fix him with stares. Is that Chet Curtis? I think that’s Chet Curtis. Check out Chet Curtis. Chet Curtis, Chet Curtis, Chet Curtis.

This is how gossip starts—which is what the NECN newsman and I are here to talk about. We’re discussing the biggest, pretty much the only, mass-media rumor mill in town—the Boston Herald’s Inside Track, written by Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa. Curtis, being a public figure who was once married to another public figure, has appeared in the Track often. Some items were complimentary. Others, not so much. And this is how it happens: Someone sees you having lunch, pulls out a cell phone, and, as the Gals implore at the end of each column, drops a dime to them.

I ask Curtis if he’s worried that someone will make a call and twist our lunch into something unseemly: My god, I saw Chet Curtis at Game On! He was hand-feeding calamari to a reporter.

“Nah,” he says. “But I might be if you were a woman.”

He’s only half-joking. Six years ago, when Curtis and Channel 5 anchor Natalie Jacobson were in the midst of their divorce, the Track ran a story about Curtis having dinner with a gaggle of young babes at a restaurant near his Marina Bay home. They dubbed him “Mr. Dating Machine.” Curtis’s dates, it turned out, were his two daughters, his niece, and his niece’s friend. The Track printed a retraction, but the damage was done. “A lot of people think it’s funny when something is in there,” says Curtis. “It is, until it’s about you. It can be hurtful publicity.”

Some 15 years after the Inside Track began, Fee and Raposa have burned a lot of people in this town. So it’s not surprising that of the dozens of sources interviewed for this story, most insisted on anonymity. “I understand why people don’t want to talk about them or what they’ve written,” Curtis says. “It speaks to their power.” But if critics are loath to discuss the Gals on the record, in private they’ll rattle off a litany of Track-related gripes: They’re too cozy with the town’s major PR flacks. They’re mean-spirited for the sake of it. They’ll resort to questionable methods to get a good story. It seems only a matter of time before someone claims that they can turn their heads a full 360 degrees. “They’re a microcosm of all that’s good and evil with the journalism world,” says someone in the public relations field. “They’re the evil hybrid of how journalism is done.”

It’s unlikely that many professional gossips would be wounded by such charges—You think we’re too mean? Well, boo-hoo! A spate of recent incidents, though, suggests a more damning criticism can now be leveled at the Gals: They’ve grown lazy, arrogant, and complacent, and their work has suffered for it. Because while the Track has never been held up as a paragon of thorough and balanced journalism, the last few months have seen the column hit new lows.

Tracked down: Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa doing the gossip thing at Tawdry Tabloid headquarters. The Damaging Duo were being grilled about their insensitivity and whether people are afraid of them.
File under: Hard copy.

On the second floor of One Herald Square, Fee and Raposa share a cramped, kitsch-cluttered office. On one wall is a picture of the two columnists with halos above their heads. On another hangs a black T-shirt with yellow writing that says, “If you’ve got nothing nice to say come sit next to me.” The overall effect is of shoulder-slapping, all-in-good-fun chicanery. “No one who knows us is scared of us,” Raposa says. “People have to realize: We don’t wake up in the morning thinking how we can screw somebody.”

If that’s true, then the Gals’ late predecessor is snarling in her grave. Fee and Raposa took over from notorious Herald columnist Norma Nathan in 1991—a woman who set the standard for bitchy, bellicose gossip. Before stepping into their present roles, Fee was a city editor at the paper and Raposa a business reporter. They’ve certainly adapted well. For years now, Boston’s gossip pipeline has seemed to flow directly and consistently onto the desks of Gayle and Laura.

“They own this city,” says publicist Peggy Rose. The Track’s near monopoly, in turn, has resulted in an unseemly scrabble from those looking to ingratiate themselves with the Gals. One victim calls the column “a protection racket”—you scratch my back or I might bite yours—but Rose, who has a good relationship with the Gals, is more diplomatic. “It’s a favor bank,” she says. “It’s not the money-and-bribe relationship they have in New York. The big thing is having photos or giving them scoops so that you can call in a favor later on when you need one. There is a quid pro quo there, no question, but that’s how the game works.”

No doubt, that’s how it works for most gossips, and that’s how it’s always worked at the Herald. Track-friendly car magnate Ernie Boch Jr. and the Avalon nightclub pop up in the column more than most (14 and 9 times, respectively, over a six-month period), not because Boch and Avalon are disproportionately fascinating, but because Peggy Rose reps them, and she has invested heavily in the Gals’ favor bank. “They’ll help you if you’re on their good side,” she says. “If not, they can hurt you.”

For a rookie muckraker, getting people like Rose on your side can mean the difference between a good column and an empty one. But there’s a tradeoff: As your stable of snitches and snoops grows, your potential hit list dwindles. This wouldn’t be a problem in New York or Los Angeles, where celebrities are like fake boobs—everywhere, and on constant display. On a slow day in L.A., gossips can fall back on Julia Roberts shopping at True Value, Colin Farrell eating with his fingers. Here, where celebrities tend to be not that famous, you have to work harder to make them interesting. You run an item about a mutual fund CEO, he’d better be nailing his wife’s manicurist.

Back when Fee and Raposa were still relatively new to the gossip beat, there seemed no end to the colorful indiscretions that found their way into the Gals’ ears—a single 1995 Inside Track had “Bad Boy” Bobby Brown smashing up a hotel room and “hairstylist-to-the-stars” Sandy Poirier being nabbed at the border for carrying contraband Cuban cigars. Today, if recent Track columns are any indication, Boston is in the midst of a gossip drought. On June 20, the lead item was The Game Plan, a movie being filmed locally starring the Rock. On June 21, the lead item was about—and this is pretty fantastic—The Game Plan, a movie being filmed locally starring the Rock. One week earlier, the Gals led with a nugget about former Laguna Beach cast member Stephen Colletti shooting a movie in Rhode Island.

Given such scintillating content, the fact that important people still feel compelled to read the Track six times a week seems to be a product of habit as much as anything else. “I usually hold my breath when I turn to the Inside Track each morning,” Senator Ted Kennedy writes in an e-mail, a canned comment indicating he does no such thing. “I’ve learned some interesting things about myself in the Track over the years—I wish I were half as exciting as they make me out to be.” At this point in their careers, you can bet that the Gals are wishing the same.

On the rare occasions the Track does get hold of a genuinely salacious story, it tends to beat it to death, and the subject along with it. Former Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe, for example, continues to take frequent shots from the Gals for his off-field transgressions, even though he’s now with the L.A. Dodgers. As recently as April, the Gals implied that Lowe is an alcoholic, a bad pitcher, and a worse father. They filed the item under “Lowe Ball.” “The whole thing about my divorce, that’s personal,” he says. “I stopped playing there in 2004. This is ’06. It gets to the point where they make you look like someone you’re not. They talked about everything I did. Some true, some not true. They don’t care. They’re all about the juicy story.”

The Gals’ relentless Lowe-bashing might look like pit bull tenacity, an admirable quality for any gossip columnist, but it also smacks of desperation, as if they continue to pick at the pitcher to spare us yet another item recalling the hilarious antics of the Queer Eye quintet. Sometimes it can seem like they are trying to make up for the general flabbiness of their column with a single ruthless bloodletting.

In December 2004, in one of the more infamous public floggings in recent memory, the Gals announced that longtime Channel 4 sports anchor Bob Lobel was having an affair “with a woman some 20 years younger.” The item also gleefully informed us that Lobel’s third marriage and his career were in jeopardy (if they weren’t already, they probably were after the item appeared). The fact that the Gals and Lobel share the same agent apparently wasn’t enough to squash the story. “It was too good not to print,” says a source. “He’s a household name.” The same source adds that it was Lobel’s failure to make sufficient deposits in the Track’s favor bank that made him a target. “If he had helped them before, maybe they wouldn’t have burned him. See the difference? If you’re not doing favors for them, if you’re not on their good side, you’re fucked.”

Lobel won’t talk about the incident. Johnny Damon’s wife, Michelle, a long-time Track whipping girl, also declines to comment. Sports reporter Hazel Mae—the subject of a recent blind item in the Track about her giving pet names to her breasts—isn’t speaking either. To openly challenge the Track, after all, might inspire the Gals to don their brass knuckles and throw down.

To wit: When I first began reporting this story, I received multiple phone calls saying the Gals were on to me. Before I’d written a word, my boss had received four calls, one of them to inform him that I’m “a punk.” Restaurant owner Joe Cimino sent a letter to this magazine, insisting his name not appear in the article. Before long, disparaging comments about my loyalty to Boston magazine started seeping into our office. (If you see me panhandling outside Store 24, drop something in my cup.) George Regan, one of the Gals’ PR buddies (who, incidentally, represents BoMag and the Herald), asked me to come down to his gym to “settle this.” He also issued a fatwa against me, sending out a companywide directive that no one at his firm talk to me. Ever. (Regan confirms he sent the memo “with pride,” before announcing that any employee who does talk to me will be out of a job.)

In person, the Gals are quite amiable. They’re quick with a joke and chatty when it suits them. When I ask if they have any regrets about what they’ve written, though, they almost laugh me out of the room. But then, hardened cynicism is to the professional gossip what makeup is to the rodeo clown—which is why the Gals often play up their mean streak. “We’ve gone to events where we know we’re two skunks at a garden party,” Raposa says. “There are some people out there who don’t like us—and with good reason.”

We hear: That the Gals often don’t check the “scoops” they’re handed. Our spies tell us it’s because the copy cookers have grown so buddy-buddy with some of their sources that—well, facts schmacts.
File under: Sale-acious!

As malicious as the Bob Lobel attack may have been, at least it had some basis in reality—unlike the Chet Curtis item, where a quick phone call would have debunked the newsman-turns-swinger angle. But the Curtis debacle went beyond shoddy fact-checking. The Gals have long demonstrated a kind of willful naiveté when it comes to intelligence from their closest sources. A decade ago, a Boston magazine story reported that PR spinner Charles Cohen had fed the Track a story about an actress singing “Happy Birthday” to Teddy Kennedy in the Marilyn Monroe vein. The Gals ran with it, but later discovered that it never happened. Oops. As one longtime gossip notes, “The people who call [them] aren’t the most upstanding citizens.”

George Regan has traded with the Gals so often and for so long that he can withdraw favors whenever he wants. “George has a pact with the girls,” insists one insider. “They’ll run anything he asks them to.” Following Red Sox opening day this year, someone told me that Regan had dropped a bunch of names to the Herald—clients of his who he claimed were in the stands—on the understanding that they’d get boldface coverage the following day. And they did. But according to a source, at least one of the people listed—Joe Cimino—wasn’t actually there.

“I wish we were perfect,” Fee says about the column. “We’ve been doing this for 15 years. So if we write 60 items a week, times 50 weeks a year, that’s 3,000 items per year. Times 15 years—that’s, what, 45,000 items? We’re gonna make a few mistakes.”

Deborah Schoeneman, author of 4% Famous, who has written gossip for the New York Observer, New York magazine, and the New York Post, doesn’t buy that defense. “The lesson I learned is that you should call everyone,” she says, “because the person feeding you the information could be an enemy or have an agenda. You have to check that stuff. Any reputable publication would.”

No matter how careful you are, the rapid pace of daily journalism invites errors. What’s important is the response when potential blunders are pointed out. Cimino, questioned about whether he was at the Sox game, says, “I’m a private person. I have no comment.” Regan, for his part, denies he planted a fake sighting. “I bought him the ticket,” he says, along with some things that can’t be printed here. The Gals say they don’t know whether Cimino was there. Herald editor Ken Chandler thinks maybe he fed them the item, but he can’t remember who gave it to him. The only thing any of them can be sure about is that they’re not sure. Confused? You’re supposed to be. It’s the editorial version of the old shell game—shift culpability quickly enough and no one will be sure what happened.

Phantom Fenway sightings, while not exactly ground-shaking, could be seen as part of a bigger picture. A decade ago, the Herald was run by Andy Costello, a respected and, by many accounts, exacting editor. A few years back, Costello was replaced by Chandler, an Englishman known for his fast-and-loose approach to gathering news. “Under Chandler, they’ve become more sensational,” says Dan Kennedy, a former Phoenix media critic who now teaches at Northeastern. “You’ll find more dubious stories. The Herald was more solid when Costello was the editor.”

One Herald insider tells me the Gals get away with more under Chandler than they did previously. Since his arrival, their space in the paper has doubled, and their freedom has increased along with that. There’s also the fact that, after 15 years, the Gals and the Herald have become codependent. The Herald needs them to sell papers or, at the least, to get people like Ted Kennedy to read the rag from time to time. Meanwhile, as the Gals’ grip on power grows tighter, their journalism gets slacker.

Back by popular demand! More tales from the Naked City!… Hear about the naughty newsgirls who passed off another outlet’s story as their own? Seems they “rewrote” some copy without disclosing that they weren’t the original authors.
File under: Bad news.

On June 6, Editor & Publisher ran an item reviewing plagiarism charges against author Dan Brown. The next day, in a sidebar to the main column, the Track printed a similar story—actually, pretty much the same story—with no attribution to E&P. The irony of the episode—an apparent plagiarism of a story about plagiarism—did not escape the attention of the nation’s media watchers. Within hours of the Track piece appearing, the popular blog ran the headline “Boston Herald rips off E&P in Meta-Media Plagiarism story.”

When pressed about the incident by the Boston Globe, Fee said she was running out the door when she rewrote the story. “We should have credited them,” she tells me. The Herald quickly pulled the item from its website, and the staff closed ranks. “If you want to make an issue of plagiarism,” says Chandler, “why don’t you call up the radio and television stations that use our material all the time? The TV, the AM talk show hosts—if the Herald didn’t exist, they wouldn’t have anything to say. And we very rarely get attribution. What we did wasn’t plagiarism. It was poor attribution.”

Chandler’s response, of course, is nonsense—like saying New England winters aren’t cold, it’s just that the temperatures are low. As any media pro knows, there’s a world of difference between using someone else’s report as a springboard for your own story and employing the cut-and-paste option. But this is how it seems to work at the Herald these days. It’s like they’re trained in Jedi mind tricks. Blatantly copy from another news organization? No biggie. Happens all the time. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

The Herald brass perform similar semantic somersaults with regards to a May “We Hear” item, which detailed how Herald deputy managing editor Joe Sciacca would replace departing Phoenix media critic Mark Jurkowitz on Channel 2’s Beat the Press. That would have been a nice little scoop, except that the item echoed a WGBH press release on the switch. “It’s impossible to plagiarize a press release,” says Herald managing editor Kevin Convey. True, but if you want to get technical, isn’t it also impossible to “hear” a press release? Even funnier than Convey’s defense is the fact that Sciacca works in the same building as the Gals—reporting the item properly required no more than a walk down the hall.

Greg Mitchell, the E&P editor, doesn’t see anything amusing about the Gals’ antics. “If there’s any humor in this, it’s black humor,” he says, referring to the Dan Brown item. “With no credit, how would people know that someone else had written it? To say ‘we didn’t mislead our readers’ is patently false. That, to me, calls into question the standards there. If that’s just taken as ‘stuff happens,’ that makes me wonder what else that’s questionable is carried in that column.”

We hear: That the Track Gals like to spend their weekends among friends. The Gals dress up in chimp outfits and get drunk on Midori; Derek Lowe hems and haws over what to name his testicles; and Bob Lobel rides a Vespa in the nude—but Vespa ain’t a scooter, that’s her name! …
File under: Too good to be true!

On May 1, the Gals ran an item about Tommy Lee getting loaded at Avalon before retiring to a local hotel “with four lovelies for a little (Fe)Male Encounter.” This time, Fee and Raposa had an eyewitness to back up their claim: Track assistant Erin Hayes. “Erin’s a hot twentysomething and she got invited backstage,” explains someone with knowledge of the situation. “The four hotties who went back to the hotel? One of them was Erin. Tommy Lee was having sex with people, and she saw it all.” Naturally, Tommy’s people weren’t happy. For one thing, there are questions about whether Hayes made it clear she was a Herald reporter. The Gals dispute this, saying that Hayes did identify herself to the rocker’s handlers, and that “if he didn’t get the memo,” then tough luck.

(As this article went to press, I received a call from the person who suggested Hayes hadn’t sufficiently identified herself as a reporter. The source sounded worried. The gist of the call was that I’d gotten it all wrong, that I’d misheard or misunderstood large chunks of our conversation—apparently, nobody ever said or even implied any subterfuge on Hayes’s part, despite my notes suggesting otherwise. The same day, Gayle Fee sent me an e-mail saying she was “concerned” and that I’d “misquoted” her on the Tommy Lee matter. Once again, the Gals had gone on the offensive; the source had seemingly flipped, and I found myself under renewed pressure to tone down my criticisms. It was like being in a bad mafia movie—at one point, gripped by paranoia, I worried that the Gals might try to clip me.)

Despite the barrage of caveats, qualifications, and veiled threats directed at me, no one denies that Hayes was in the hotel room when things got freaky. “How in God’s name can you offend Tommy Lee?” Fee says. “I mean, his penis has been all over the Internet for the last five years.” This point, while indisputable, raises an important question: Does the world really need another story about Tommy Lee’s package? And even if it does, do the ends justify the Herald’s means?

By the standards of conventional journalism, the answer to this question is easy: Uh, no. Gossip, though, isn’t conventional journalism—hell, it’s not journalism at all. It’s a form of schoolyard sniping that happens to appear in newsprint. In the end, whether Hayes used clandestine tactics in that hotel room is irrelevant. What matters is that she showed initiative, she did the legwork, and she came back with a legitimate piece of sleaze. It was ugly, yes, but good gossip ought to be.

“There’s a dirtiness of it, an underbelly,” says one publicist. “It affects lives and families and children, but [the Gals] don’t care as long as they get their so-called scoop.” A similar charge could be leveled at the Gals’ readers—we don’t care about the families and children either, as long as we get the dirt. We want the Track to tell us that Chet Curtis is a pair of plaid pants and a cheap gold necklace away from being the next Ron Jeremy, absolutely. But—and this is the important part—only if it’s true.

“In terms of standards, I would urge you to consider the context,” says Convey, the Herald’s managing editor. “Maybe you think this particular gossip column should be held to the same standards as pages one through eight.” Good point—it’s not like the Track affects national security. In the end, we can forgive the pandering and the bullying and the backroom dealing. But there are rules.

The thing is, if we stop buying what we read in the Track, we will stop reading it entirely—not out of moral outrage, but because the thrill will be gone. As Dan Kennedy puts it: “Are we supposed to believe what they’re writing or not?” And if not, why stop at Chet Curtis dating his daughter? Why not have Curtis dating Ted Kennedy? Or Dan Kennedy? Or Dan and Ted Kennedy? Go nuts.

One prominent Boston media observer points out that before they started working on the Track, Fee and Raposa were regarded as good reporters. Even now, the duo will occasionally display a certain knack for getting to the core truth of a subject. Fee, for instance, wittily and succinctly sums up her career path: “If the Herald were to close tomorrow and we didn’t have the Inside Track anymore,” she says, “then I’d be greeting people at Wal-Mart, because that’s all I’m qualified to do at this point.”

Published in Boston Magazine, August 2006.