Tag Archives: Walter Robinson

The church, the Globe and cognitive dissonance

Crux cardPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

Some two decades ago Cardinal Bernard Law invoked the wrath of God in denouncing The Boston Globe for its coverage of the pedophile-priest scandal. “We call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe,” Law told a crowd. Ten years later the Globe had Law himself on the run with a series of reports revealing the cardinal’s role in covering up the scandal.

And now? Cardinal Seán O’Malley was the star panelist Thursday night at an event sponsored by the Globe to mark the debut of Crux, its website devoted to covering the Catholic Church. O’Malley thanked Globe owner John Henry and his wife, Linda Pizzuti Henry, for launching the site. He praised John Allen, recruited from the National Catholic Reporter to write for both Crux and the Globe. And he expressed the hope that Crux would help foster “a better understanding of Catholicism.”

Among the crowd of several hundred: Globe reporter Walter Robinson, who led the Spotlight Team in its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of O’Malley’s predecessor. Michael Keaton will play Robinson in the movie.

Needless to say, much has changed over the past dozen years. A lot of it has to do with the man who was the subject of the panel discussion: Pope Francis, whose openness, humility and charisma have given the church an infusion of energy, even as he struggles to deal with the sexual-abuse crisis — an effort in which Cardinal O’Malley is his principal lieutenant.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a project like Crux without a catalyst such as Francis, the subject of endless fascination since his selection in 2013. “We saw a need for more reporting, more journalism about the church,” said Globe editor Brian McGrory in his introductory remarks.

Crux, as I wrote last week, is a free standalone website aimed at the English-speaking world, and intersects with the Globe only tangentially. How tangentially? Well, this morning Michael O’Loughlin has a story on the BC event in Crux, and Derek Anderson covers it separately for the Globe.

If you were looking for some critical analysis of Francis’ pontificate thus far, you didn’t find much on Thursday. O’Malley called Francis “one of the most extraordinary leaders of our day,” and there was no disagreement from panelists Allen; Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School and a former ambassador to the Vatican; BC theology professor Hosffman Ospino; and Robert Christian, the editor of Millennial, a website aimed at younger Catholics.

On a range of hot-button social issues such as LGBT rights, divorce and the role of women in the church, panelists talked about Francis’ compassion and outreach but played down the possibility of significant shifts in doctrine. As O’Malley said of the pope, “He hasn’t changed the lyrics, but he’s changed the melody.”

One of the more interesting lines of discussion began when Margery Eagan, who writes a column on spirituality for Crux (and who co-hosts Boston Public Radio on WGBH 89.7 FM), asked if Francis might bridge the gap between someone who is “a liberal Catholic” or “a cafeteria Catholic” such as herself and “a conservative Catholic” such as Glendon.

“I’m going to resist being called a conservative Catholic,” Glendon replied. “I think Francis helps us to explode those categories, which I don’t believe are relevant to Catholics.”

That led to a question from the audience, read by Crux editor Teresa Hanafin (audience members were instructed to write their questions on cards), as to whether Crux could help Catholics get beyond the liberal-conservative divide that Glendon believes is irrelevant.

“The purpose of Crux is to get the story right,” Allen replied, adding it was his goal to offer “an intelligent, thoughtful, serious presentation of the Catholic Church.” He described the divide as having a lot to do with a lack of contact with people outside their own groups: “I think we’re less polarized than tribalized. We live in affinity communities.”

He offered as an example his wife, whom he described as liberal, Jewish and suspicious of conservatives. Several years ago, when he was researching a book about the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei, he said, his wife became friendly with some of the members.

“Friendship is the magic bullet when it comes to tribalism,” Allen said. “I want to create a space where all these tribes can become friends.”

Walter Robinson to return to the Globe

Walter Robinson

Walter Robinson

The legendary Walter Robinson is returning to The Boston Globe after seven years as a distinguished professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

All of us in the School of Journalism were saddened when he told us recently that he planned to leave for an undisclosed new position. Today we learned that he’s been called back to the Mothership.

While at Northeastern, Robby led a pioneering class in investigative journalism that regularly produced front-page stories for the Globe. He is going to be difficult to replace. What follows is Globe editor Brian McGrory’s memo to the staff.

I am delighted to share the news that Walter Robinson, the highly decorated former Globe editor and reporter, is returning to our newsroom for what he describes as a “third act,” and what I say is a great development for our organization.

Robby, fresh from seven years of teaching investigative reporting at Northeastern University, will assume the position of part-time editor at-large. In practical terms, this means we’ll get his services about 20 hours a week, more often, I suspect, in shoulder seasons, and perhaps less when the fairways or his two grandsons beckon. We’ll work all that out.

Robby will apply his monumental talents to his own projects, meaning the town’s power brokers will again live in dread of his strangely low voice on the other end of the line. I’ve also asked Robby to help reporters and editors across the enterprise think in more investigative terms. This work will be in addition to the Spotlight Team and our Metro-based investigative squad, not any part of either. Robby will report to [managing editor for news] Chris Chinlund and me.

I feel a bit foolish reciting the accomplishments of someone so well-known and pivotal to the Globe across so many decades. But Robby has won virtually every major reporting award to be had, most notably the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 when he led the Spotlight series on pedophilic priests and the efforts by the Boston archdiocese to protect them. Robby has been the Spotlight editor, the Metro editor, City editor, White House correspondent, Middle East bureau chief, a lead reporter on four presidential campaigns, and as a pup, a City Hall and State House reporter. In truth, Robby, who is 68, never entirely left the Globe fold, having been a consultant to the newsroom for the past seven years, and a very valuable one. Over that time, he worked with more than 100 Northeastern students to produce a steady stream of page one stories. Indeed, one more is in the writing stages now.

Our investigative reporting is quite simply the most vital work we do; look no further than last week’s extraordinary Spotlight series on off-campus student housing, or Maria Sacchetti’s stunning story this week on the FBI agent who shot Ibragim Todashev, for proof of that. We need more, and Robby’s return will help guarantee we get it.

Look for a restart date on June 15.

Brian

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.

Huskies on the beat

My Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson’s students once again lead the Boston Globe, this time with a first-rate investigative story on expensive shift-swapping abuses within the Boston Fire Department.