The Other Side of the Hill

When I was a reporter, there was nothing better than taking a shot — no matter how cheap — at a pol. But when I went to work for the state treasurer, things sure looked different.

In December 1989, when the commonwealth was in the grip of a bitter cold snap and a fiscal crisis, the lieutenant governor, Evelyn Murphy, was on vacation in Florida. Since she was the candidate for governor, it could be argued that she belonged on freezing Beacon Hill, wrestling the state’s finances into shape. That was the argument my editors at the Boston Herald, where I wrote about pols and politics, used when they first found out about Murphy’s days in the sun. But the reasons hardly mattered: at the Herald, sniping at pols was a giddy blood sport. “Big or small, we shoot ’em all,” one of my bosses, managing editor Andy Gully used to say.

So we lined her up for a kill shot. I jumped on a southbound plane with a photographer, and we staked out Murphy on Sanibel Island, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. We found her soon enough, jogging along a road in shorts and a T-shirt. The next day, we splashed her picture across page one, her middle-aged thighs flouncing across more than 300,000 newspapers. It was a terribly unflattering photograph, an image that became one of those iconic campaign symbols, like when Mike Dukakis rode in that tank with a helmet strapped to his head, looking for all the Flying Squirrel, only more dour.

Of course, that photo wasn’t the only reason Murphy lost in 1990, but it certainly didn’t help. Meanwhile, back in the newsroom, I was greeted with the highest praise in tabloid journalism: “Nice hit.”

Reporters, it occurs to me now, speak like underworld hoodlums.

I quit journalism five years ago, mostly because the money ran short. I stayed in politics, though. I just moved to the other side, going to work for Joe Malone, the former state treasurer, shifting from bomb tosser to bomb catcher. But I loved being a reporter. If you’re young and have a curious mind, there’s no better job on the planet. And there was no better job in journalism than covering Beacon Hill in the late eighties and early nineties when the state was heaving with crisis and change, the death of Dukakoids and the rise of Weldites.

And we political writers spoke in underworld terms, because we were, in fact, a sort of underworld, mob unto ourselves. As young reporters, we were shamelessly in love with the power of our craft. Most of our time was spent chasing stories that could splash on page one, or that at least could lead an inside page. We didn’t care much about committee hearings, unless a fight broke out. We all knew how a bill became law, but we weren’t interested in process. We dished dirt. We expected our phone calls to be returned. When they weren’t, we took that to mean the pols were hiding something and there was going to be hell to pay. We figured most pols were overdue in their accounts to the devil anyway. In my book, they were all pretty much rogues, and we never cut them any slack. Every misstep and misstatement found its way into the paper.

The only people we respected were older and gruffer reporters. During one of my first days in the cramped State House pressroom, Peter Lucas, a legendary Herald columnist and long-time State House fixture, apparently got fed up with the blue haze drifting off the tip of my cigarettes. So he pulled me and another chain-smoking reporter aside.

“When I have to go to the bathroom,” he barked, “do I piss all over your desk?”

“No,” I stammered.

“Then when you have a cigarette, don’t blow smoke in my face, all right?”

That was the last cigarette I smoked in front of Peter Lucas.

Our real hero, though, was Howie Carr, who had the sharpest pen in town and used it to skewer pols like so many chunks of rare meat. Then and now, Howie had a genius for invective, a gift for the viciously funny putdown. There was the time the State House released a cookbook and Howie showed up at some event, asking political figures to name their favorite dish. When he got to William Bulger, the diminutive Senate president responded, “Roast reporter.” Howie’s comeback: “How about strawberry shortcake?”

Not that guys like Howie (an occasional Boston magazine contributor) made the job any easier for the rest of us. Not long after, I was part of a group of reporters interviewing Bulger inside the Senate reception area when he spotted Howie down the hall. “Here comes that barbarian,” Bulger snarled and began to walk away. “This press conference is over.”

No one took it personally on my side. In my trade, politics was never personal. Hell, people were rarely people—they were ducks in a shooting gallery. Once, a cop who was involved in an exam-stealing scandal I wrote about invited me to his house for a cup of coffee. He didn’t want to argue his innocence. He only wanted to show me that he was a regular guy, with a wife and kids and a mortgage. Most times, reporters don’t see that at all.

When Pat Purcell bought the Herald in early 1994, he gathered the staff into the newsroom and announced, among other things, that the paper would “de-emphasize” political stories. For me, it was time to move on. Plus, by then I had a family to support, which wasn’t easy on a journalist’s salary.

I took a high-paying position as Joe Malone’s flack, which is what reporters call the press aides and mouthpieces politicians hire. I knew the basic requirements of the job, since much of it involves reacting to what reporters ask and write.
But now I was the guy answering the late-night phone calls. Now I was the one ranting about stories built on anonymous sources. I was the one lobbying for positive ink for an elected official. I was the one arguing with editors about why and how they packaged their stories. (Okay, granted, I argued with a lot of editors when I was a reporter, too.)

Reporters are still among the best people I know, and I continue to believe that journalism is an honorable craft. Because the public is so tuned out most of the time, the press is the only institution that holds government and politicians accountable. A reporter’s call sets off all sorts of alarms in most offices, and criticism from the media is a major factor in shaping public policy.

But after five years of covering politics, being in the practice of politics quickly taught me how much I didn’t know—or, rather, how much I had chosen to ignore. I learned, for instance, that the people who work in government are, in fact, people. Their intentions are generally good, and they wrestle long and hard with serious issues and questions that most people ignore. And I learned that governments—the institutions and the people that run them—rarely get credit for the things they do right.

Admittedly, I became a partisan for my boss, so much so that I even helped run his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor. Nevertheless, I honestly believe there is no shortage of success stories in government. Two dozen tax cuts in a row. Welfare reform. Declining workers’-compensation rates. An overflowing unemployment insurance trust fund and a $1 billion rainy-day fund. Even the state’s unfunded pension liability has been virtually eliminated. During Malone’s tenure, the treasury’s operating budget shrank every year, to the point where it is now half of what it was eight years ago.

But no reporter ever called to ask me about that. Reporters, it turns out, don’t have peripheral vision: They don’t see all the good things going on in government because they’re too focused on a few headline-grabbing bad things. It’s a hazard of the trade, I suppose.

That’s why I’ve come to believe that reporters, much like politicians, could benefit from term limits. Our representatives and senators are good for two, maybe three terms before they burn out. After that, instead of thinking every problem has a solution, they begin to believe every solution has a problem. Reporters are the same way. They write the same stories again and again, quoting the same pollsters and pundits, often migrating into Sunday-morning punditry themselves. After a while, they run on automatic. They even stop doing their own research, instead relying on political operatives who package stories for them, complete with photo ops and spin or, worse, blind quotes and low tips.

I was guilty of that, too. Hey, I was the guy who caught middle-aged, heavy-thighed Evelyn Murphy jogging down a Florida road in the middle of her winter vacation—exactly the kind of gotcha story that makes me wince when I see it now.

But I’d also like to think that after having been in government, after sitting at the table where the decisions are made, I’d be a better reporter if I ever chose to go back. I only wish I knew then what I finally know now. I’d spend more time looking for heroes instead of villains.

Eric Fehrnstrom was a former assistant state treasurer and the Boston Herald‘s State House bureau chief.