Tag Archives: Walter Robinson

NEFAC honors James Risen, a free-press hero

James Risen

James Risen

James Risen is a free-press hero. Whether he will also prove to be a First Amendment hero depends on the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Friday, Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, was presented  with the 2014 Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award by the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), which is affiliated with Northeastern University. (I wish I’d been able to attend, but I was teaching.) Risen faces prison for refusing to identify an anonymous CIA source who helped inform Risen’s reporting on a failed operation to interfere with Iran’s nuclear program — a story Risen told in his 2006 book, “State of War.”

Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have pushed for Risen to give up his source, but Risen has refused. “The choice is get out of the business — give up everything I believe in — or go to jail. They’ve backed me into a corner,” Risen was quoted as saying in this Boston Globe article by Eric Moskowitz. Also weighing in with a detailed account of the NEFAC event is Tom Mooney of The Providence Journal.

My Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson, a former Globe reporter and editor, said this of Risen:

There’s no one anywhere on the vast landscape of American journalism who merits this award more than you do. It is hard to imagine a more principled and patriotic defense of the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, Risen has little in the way of legal protection. The Supreme Court, in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, ruled that the First Amendment does not protect journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources. In addition, there is no federal shield law. Thus journalists like Risen must hope that the attorney general — and, ultimately, the president — respect the role of a free press in a democratic society sufficiently not to take reporters to court. President Obama has failed that test in spectacular fashion.

Risen has asked the Supreme Court to take his case, giving the justices an opportunity to overturn or at least modify the Branzburg decision. But if the court declines to take the case, the president should order Attorney General Eric Holder to call off the dogs.

The Stephen Hamblett Award is named for the late chairman, chief executive officer and publisher of The Providence Journal. Previous recipients have been the late New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (now executive editor of The Washington Post) and Phil Balboni, founder of GlobalPost and, previously, New England Cable News.

More: On this week’s “Beat the Press,” my WGBH colleague Margery Eagan paid tribute to Risen in the “Rants & Raves” segment.

The day Mike Wallace called me a “bastard”

Mike Wallace in 1957

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

In late 1997 I heard that Mike Wallace, the legendary “60 Minutes” reporter, had been in town to do a critical story on the Boston Globe’s reporting about Ray Flynn’s relationship with alcohol. So I called him up.

Flynn, the former Boston mayor who was by this time the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, was believed to harbor further political ambitions. And a Globe team headed by Walter Robinson, now a  Northeastern colleague, traveled to Rome and produced a front-page story claiming that Flynn was spending an inordinate amount of time in the city’s Irish pubs. Robinson also reported seeing Flynn stagger out of a North End bar in the middle of the day. (The story is not on the open Web, but you can look it up.)

The Globe article provoked a controversy, and I had written about it for the Boston Phoenix, mainly defending the Globe on the grounds that Flynn had run afoul of cultural changes about politicians’ drinking habits, and that Flynn was widely thought to harbor further political ambitions. (In fact, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress the following year.)

Wallace was having none of it.

“As far as I’m concerned, the Globe never showed the connection between his public performance and his drinking,” Wallace told me. “How were the vital interests of the United States of America damaged? Was it worth two-and-a-half pages above the fold in the Boston Globe?” He then shifted his attention to me. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“Jesus Christ, did they really have to do this to poor old Ray Flynn?” Wallace asked. “And you, you bastard … ” He proceeded to read an excerpt in which I wrote that Flynn was preparing to run for governor because “he can’t think of anything better to do.”

“Is that a fact?” Wallace demanded.

I mumbled something about its being an opinion piece. If I’d been a little quicker on my feet, I might have added that my opinion of Flynn’s motive is shared by a broad cross section of media and political insiders. Still, Wallace had a point.

And he was equally unimpressed with my contention that Flynn ran afoul of cultural changes surrounding alcohol and public drunkenness — that behavior once viewed as acceptable is now condemned, and that journalists, as a result, are less inclined to look the other way.

“You yuppies aren’t telling me that things have changed,” Wallace sneered. “Things haven’t changed at all.” He recalled the case of Wilbur Mills, an Arkansas Democrat who, in the early 1970s, was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Mills, an alcoholic, became publicly involved with a stripper; among other misadventures, he was photographed groping her drunkenly at a Boston club. Mills lost his chairmanship and ultimately left Congress.

“When Wilbur Mills got drunk on duty, so to speak, they ran him out of office. And that was a long, long time ago,” Wallace said.

At one point, he interrupted the interview to interject: “You’re writing this all down so you can make me out to be a horse’s ass.”

In fact, I think what I wrote about Wallace that day was fair and respectful, which you can judge for yourself. I was also impressed with Flynn’s reaction — he was never anything but gentlemanly in my future encounters with him, and he’s gone on to lead a useful and interesting post-political life.

As for Wallace, for many years he was the face and voice of “60 Minutes,” one of the most successful news programs in television history. You could observe that there’s no such thing as a golden age, but I really do think there was a golden age of television news, and Wallace was right in the middle of it. It’s remarkable to think that he made it to 93, and only did his last interview — with Roger Clemens — in 2008.

Like so many others we’ve lost in the last few years, Mike Wallace will be missed.

Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons.

The never-ending story of “White Will Run”

Peter Lucas (left), George Regan and Emily Rooney

There have been a couple of additional developments in the brouhaha over the Boston Herald’s classic 1983 “White Will Run” story.

First, on Friday, Emily Rooney and company decided to broadcast an edited-down version of the “Greater Boston” segment with former Herald columnist Peter Lucas and longtime Kevin White spokesman George Regan that had been killed earlier in the week. I got to watch it on the set.

Rooney, on “Beat the Press,” explained that the video wasn’t too incendiary to air — rather, she and others at WGBH-TV (Channel 2) decided it was inappropriate for a show intended as a tribute to White and his legacy.

Second, today the Boston Globe publishes an op-ed piece by my Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson, who was the Globe’s City Hall bureau chief in 1983 when Lucas reported — erroneously — that White would run for a fifth term.

The dispute has always been over whether Lucas screwed up, as Regan claims — or if, as Lucas contends, White set him up as punishment for the rough treatment Lucas had meted out to him in his Herald column. I’m with Lucas, and Robinson comes down firmly on his side:

As the city celebrated the mayor’s life, warts and all, Regan tried to rewrite a settled chapter from the city’s rich political history, about a storied occurrence in which the mayor settled a score against a columnist he disliked intensely. Did he not remember that White, just after his declaration of retirement, hurried off to give Lucas a two-hour interview that Regan himself said that night was done “to make up’’ for the harm that was done to the columnist?

Denying that White was involved in such a clever prank, Robinson writes, would be “a bit like saying that Churchill didn’t much enjoy whiskey and a good cigar.”

Strangely, the Herald itself still hasn’t published a word about one of the most storied moments in its history. I’ve got to believe we’re going to hear something from 70 Fargo St. before this is over. After all, it’s the never-ending story.

The Globe, the Phoenix and the pedophile-priest story

Jim Romenesko has posted a letter from my friend Susan Ryan-Vollmar on the Boston Phoenix’s groundbreaking work in exposing the pedophile-priest story, and on the Boston Globe’s ongoing silence about the Phoenix’s coverage, which predated the Globe’s by nearly a year.

I think Susan, a former Phoenix news editor, gets it fundamentally right. The Globe got the documents that led to Cardinal Bernard Law’s departure. The Globe richly deserved the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that it won in 2003. But I agree with Susan that Kristen Lombardi’s reporting for the Phoenix warrants more public recogntion than it has received.

Susan, Kristen (currently a Nieman Fellow) and I all worked at the Phoenix together and remain friends. I consider Kristen to be the finest reporter I ever worked with. Susan is a first-rate editor who did much to shape and focus Kristen’s stories. Walter Robinson, who was the Globe Spotlight team editor that covered the priest scandal, is now a valued colleague at Northeastern.

But Susan has laid down the gauntlet, and Romenesko has asked Globe editor Marty Baron to respond. This bears watching.

For Democrats, a couple of taxing situations

When the word came down Tuesday night that Patrice Tierney, wife of U.S. Rep. John Tierney, would plead guilty to federal tax-fraud charges, many of us political junkies were dumbstruck. With exotic elements like $7 million in illicit foreign gambling profits and a ne’er-do-well brother holed up in Antigua, it was not your typical political scandal.

Today’s news that Suzanne Bump, the Democratic candidate for state auditor, has tax problems of her own may prove to be more important come Election Day. More about that in a moment. First, back to the Tierneys.

Republicans and the media are both calling on Tierney, a Salem Democrat, to reveal what he knew and when he knew it with regard to his wife’s tax woes. They’re absolutely right. As soon as possible, Tierney should sit down for a wide-ranging news conference and answer any and all questions. And woe be to him if any of those answers turn out to fall short of full disclosure.

But the media have an independent role here, too, and I hope they are working on it even as I write this. For me, the big question is whether the Tierney scandal resulted in any taxes being unpaid. It would appear that it did not.

Based on the stories I’ve seen, it seems that Patrice Tierney’s crime consisted of accurately reporting her brother’s income, but labeling it as legal commissions rather than as ill-gotten gains. Congressman Tierney said in a statement that “there are not any allegations of any income-tax loss to the government.” Nor are federal prosecutors seeking any sort of restitution. Along with the question of the congressman’s involvement, that is the big issue the media should be investigating.

Will this endanger Tierney’s re-election prospects? Put it this way: North Shore Republicans are eating their collective heart out that their candidate isn’t Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins or former congressman Peter Torkildsen, whom Tierney defeated in 1996.

Instead, Tierney is facing William Hudak, an extremist who has compared President Obama to Osama bin Laden and who has flirted with the birther movement, which believes Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States and is thus ineligible to serve as president. For good measure, Hudak’s campaign wrongly claimed last winter that U.S. Sen. Scott Brown had endorsed him.

Unless there are more Tierney-related bombshells, it is still difficult to imagine a Hudak victory.

The Bump matter, though it does not involve anything as spectacular as federal charges and foreign intrigue, is likely to have a more deleterious effect on her campaign for state auditor. A veteran political figure who most recently served in Gov. Deval Patrick’s cabinet, she was caught claiming both Great Barrington and Boston as her principal residence, saving more than $6,000 in Boston property taxes.

The story, which appears on the front page of today’s Globe, was reported by my Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson’s students. Bump insists she did nothing wrong, but the state Department of Revenue says otherwise.

The difference between Bump and Tierney is that Bump’s actions, whether legal or not, definitely cost taxpayers. They raise serious questions about her ability to act as a watchdog over how state agencies spend our money.

What’s more, the Republican candidate, Mary Z. Connaughton, is credible and visible. As a former member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, she was an outspoken advocate for cracking down on runaway spending at the Big Dig. Moreover, if it looks like Democrats are going to do well on Nov. 2 (no sure thing), a lot of voters — even Democrats — may want to elect a Republican to keep an eye on the books.

The paradox of the Tierney and Bump stories is that the more serious matter is less likely to have an effect on the election. More broadly, though, both stories put Democrats on the defensive at a time when they can least afford it.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Walter Robinson on the latest church scandal

Here’s an inspired idea: ProPublica called up my Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson and asked him about the burgeoning pedophile-priest scandal in Europe, which is starting to rattle the papacy itself. Robinson, as I’m sure you know, headed the Boston Globe’s investigative team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for exposing Cardinal Bernard Law’s complicity in a similar scandal.

Of particular interest are Robinson’s comments about claims that Pope Benedict did not know about what was going on in Germany when he, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was the archbishop. Robinson says:

I don’t know of any archdiocese where the archbishop or the cardinal archbishop was not kept fully informed and in most cases was not heavily involved in decision-making involving any priest who was accused of abusing minors. In every diocese in the U.S.,  including those headed by cardinals, there was personal knowledge by the cardinal archbishop when news of abuse surfaced. It was true in Boston, it was true in L.A., it was true in Chicago.

The fact we have one archbishop in Munich that claims not to know anything is enough to make one suspicious.

And not just Europe. Today the New York Times reports that the future pope had a hand in enabling and covering up for an American priest “who molested as many as 200 deaf boys.”

To paraphrase a famous question from a different time and place: What did the pope know, and when did he know it?

The friends of Tim Cahill

Congratulations to students in Walter Robinson’s investigative-reporting class at Northeastern University for their detailed, unflattering look at State Treasurer Tim Cahill’s campaign contributions, a story that led the Boston Globe on Sunday.

Cahill, an independent candidate for governor, has, according to their reporting, benefited mightily from his official position, raking in tens of thousands of dollars from firms with which his office does business.

Today, Republican gubernatorial candidates Charlie Baker and Christy Mihos pounce, while Gov. Deval Patrick remains silent.

Blowing the whistle on handicapped parking

Miss Media Nation and I visited Harvard Square yesterday. I dropped her off at a bookstore, then went look for a handicapped parking space. I found one not far from Brattle Square.

As I was backing in, it occurred to me that I might be causing myself some hassle. Our handicapped placard obviously wasn’t for me. My daughter was a couple of blocks away. If a police officer questioned me, I’d have to ask him to walk back to the bookstore with me so he could see that my daughter was, in fact, there.

I did it anyway — no problems. But it would have been a whole lot easier if I were one of the chosen few who use the handicapped parking spaces in front of Boston police headquarters, wouldn’t it? Another great job by students in Walter Robinson’s investigative-reporting class at Northeastern University.

Getting Hubbed

I’ve got a profile of Universal Hub co-founder and blogger-in-chief Adam Gaffin in the new CommonWealth Magazine. Here’s the nut:

The idea behind Universal Hub is pretty simple. Every day — during breaks at work, while he’s on his exercise bike at home, or sitting in front of the television with a laptop — Gaffin tries to stay current with some 600 to 700 blogs in Greater Boston, looking for items that are unusually newsworthy, quirky, or poignant. He links to the best of them, along with an excerpt, some commentary, and a headline. He cites mainstream news sources as well, offering words of praise or disparagement.

What emerges from all this is something approaching a community-wide conversation. It’s like talk radio, only better, richer, more diverse, with people able to talk not just with the host but with each other through the comments they post. Universal Hub isn’t exactly an alternative to the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, but it’s become an essential supplement — a source for hyperlocal and offbeat news you won’t find elsewhere, and a place to hash out the big stories of the day.

“It gives you a place to have a discussion with folks who you might not otherwise be talking to,” says Gaffin.

Also in the new CommonWealth, Gabrielle Gurley takes a look at a new model of investigative reporting, driven by students and non-profit foundations. Gurley focuses on my Pulitzer-winning Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson, whose students are regularly breaking important stories in his old paper, the Boston Globe.