By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Thoughts on that memo

If you go back and read the Boston Globe’s July 26 report on the John Keaveney memo, you’ll see details that no doubt led reporter Sean Murphy and his editors to let down their guard.

Keaveney, a former safety officer for Big Dig contractor Modern Continental, supposedly issued an internal warning about those death-dealing concrete panels in 1999. It now appears that the memo may have been faked. But it’s not hard to see why Murphy set aside his customary journalistic skepticism. Consider a couple of excerpts:

“Keaveney’s letter was mailed to a Globe reporter without Keaveney’s knowledge. He was contacted and verified it was his letter.” This speaks to what might be called the chain-of-custody issue. Murphy apparently believed that some anonymous whistleblower mailed him the memo. Thus, when Keaveney verified its authenticity, it looked like an anonymous tip had been confirmed by an on-the-record source — the best on-the-record source, given that Keaveney was the guy who actually wrote the memo.

“Keaveney said he blames himself. ‘I am part of the problem,’ he said. ‘I failed to open my mouth. I failed to push the letter I wrote for results. I am partially responsible for the death of this mother…. Oh, yeah, it has been very difficult,’ he said, his eyes welling up with tears.” This, obviously, is pretty compelling stuff. It doesn’t prove anything. But reporters are constantly in the position of having to judge the character of the people they interview. Given what Murphy already believed about Keaveney — that he had not sought the limelight but, rather, had been outed by an anonymous whistleblower — this must have been the clincher.

Now, of course, the Keaveney memo has turned into an embarrassment for the Globe. By the next day, metro editor Carolyn Ryan was declining to provide a copy of the memo to Slate’s Timothy Noah. On July 29, we learned that the memo’s authenticity was being investigated. And, yesterday, Modern Continental announced that it believed the memo had been fabricated. Though the memo’s authenticity has not been definitively disproven, Modern Continental offered some compelling details about dates and letterheads. (Herald story here; Globe story here.)

So what does this mean for the Globe? Surely this is embarrassing, but is it a scandal? Based on what we know so far, I’d have to say “no.” Murphy acted in good faith, and his editors went with a story they had good reason to believe was genuine. They didn’t dot every “i” and cross every “t,” and I’m sure they’re kicking themselves now. But I think this is a story that most news organizations would have gone with.

A few observations:

1. It’s never the initial wrongdoing; it’s always the cover-up. That obviously applies to Keaveney, who, as far as I can tell, was in no legal hazard before July 26 — but who’s up to his neck in it now. But it applies to the Globe as well, and editor Marty Baron seems to be aware of that. Baron is not doing a Dan Rather, raving about the memo’s authenticity long after we all know it’s a fake. Instead, he seems determined to get to the bottom of it. And, to his credit, he’s keeping Murphy on the story. Murphy’s done as much as any journalist over the years to expose problems with the Big Dig. It would be ludicrous to pull him off the story now.

2. The Globe should have tried harder to contact Modern Continental. The Kennedy School’s Thomas Patterson tells the Herald that the Globe’s failure to quote anyone from Modern Continental may have amounted to “a rush to publication and an unwise one at that.” It’s hard to disagree. According to Murphy’s initial story, he couldn’t reach anyone from Modern Continental “last night,” indicating that the story was, indeed, rushed. (Among other things, that haste led the Globe to overstate Keaveney’s credentials, as it acknowledges today.) But would it have made any difference? Consider that it took a week for Modern Continental to go through its files in order to issue the statement it made yesterday. No news organization was going to wait a week. Still, the Globe certainly could have waited a day in order to get someone on the record, even though it might have lost its exclusive.

3. The memo might be genuine. Keaveney’s lawyer continues to insist that the memo is authentic. Yes, yes, that’s what lawyers are supposed to do, but surely it’s of some significance that he’s staking out an absolutist position for his client rather than trying to cut some sort of deal. And according to today’s Globe story, by Jonathan Saltzman and Murphy, there’s little doubt that Keaveney had been concerned about the safety of the tunnels for quite some time:

In recent days, several colleagues and friends of Keaveney, said they had heard him express doubts about the safety of the epoxy-and-bolt ceiling hanging system as far back as 2003.

Edward Hawthorne — a safety officer for Bond Brothers Inc., an Everett-based construction company — said he recalled Keaveney sharing his concerns with him last October at a training session for safety officers sponsored by Associated General Contractors, a trade group.

When he heard of the July 10 ceiling collapse, Hawthorne said, he thought, “Wow, Johnny was right.”

Two Norwell neighbors — James Dakin and Timothy Foley — said Keaveney had on numerous occasions expressed misgivings about the quality of work on the Big Dig, including at a 40th birthday party for Keaveney in 2003.

Foley said he recalls Keaveney telling him long ago “to floor it when driving through the tunnel.”

If this is all true, I wouldn’t give up just yet on the possibility that Keaveney’s memo was authentic, despite some problems with dates that cast it in serious doubt.

If you heard me on WRKO Radio (AM 680) this morning with Scott Allen Miller, these are the points I was trying to make. No, the Globe hasn’t covered itself with glory. But every honest journalist who looks at this would have to conclude that it could have happened to any of us. Not every mistake is a scandal.

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  1. Anonymous

    I agree about Murphy, but feel his editor let him and the paper down. The memo may turn out to be authentic. More likely, though, is that this will spin off into a “he said, she said” thing that will never get resolved, with the Globe cast in a role that is by now quite familiar.

  2. D. Sands

    Dan, I disagree that every honest journalist would have to conclude that it could have happened to any of us. The paper photographed this guy looking disgruntled. Ouch. He may have very well had his suspuscions about the safety of the project, as the paper reports today. But why believe him? There are too many components of Keaveney’s story that don’t add up. I’d have given this memo another run through the spin cycle. There was no initial indication that another paper had the memo — and no real way to tell — but you can’t run this without talking to Modern Continental.I mean, the third grader prompting this guy to want to write an internal memo? Sketchy..Sounds like he was going for the tearjerker and Murphy fell for it. There’s no way they should have run this story. I also doubt this relationship between the memo being written SEVEN years ago, and Keaveney recognizing it “immediately.” Personally, I don’t remember notes that I wrote last week. But that’s just me. You’re right though, Dan, this isn’t a scandal by definition. The Globe will get it right. But still: Another black eye on the fallout from this death and it appears that there is no end in sight.

  3. Anonymous

    The Globe has a history of rushing Big Dig stories into print since Baron came along. Remember the embarrassing retraction they had to print a few years back about the fire escape doors that didn’t work? But don’t be letting Murphy off the hook here. Anyone who knows him can tell you he often suffers from tunnel vision – no pun intended – on stories he’s covering. He develops a premise first, then tries to fit the facts to it. And he’s a well-known conspiracy theorist.

  4. Anonymous

    “Not every mistake is a scandal” — as long as it’s the Boston Globe that’s making them, huh?

  5. x glow bee

    Scandal? No. Example No. 2,345,098 of how far the Globe has fallen? Yes.

  6. Anonymous

    Why did the Globe rush the story? Is it because the Herald’s coverage (you know that smaller paper with the scrappy reporters) was superior? Pride goeth and all that.Come on, even a green reporter knows better than to run with a story without first seeking a comment from all parties involved — especially the SUBJECT of the story, Modern Continental in this case. It’s the cornerstone of honest journalism.Sure a reporter can get caught up in the excitement of a good story, then it’s the editor’s job to reign in the exuberance and provide perspective. Remember that old chestnut: It’s better to be right than be first.Scandal? Yup.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 4:37: Where is your evidence that the Globe did not seek comment from Modern Continental? That’s a serious charge. If it’s true, then it is indeed a scandal. But no one is alleging that.

  8. Anonymous

    You’re right, I should have been more clear: Without giving Modern Continental an opportunity to comment.The story should have been held until an official was reached. I want to be able to count on my newspapers to provide me with the most accurate information they can gather. It may still be imperfect, but at least they should strive for the best they can deliver.

  9. Anonymous

    From the original story: “Efforts to reach representatives of Modern Continental last night were unsuccessful.”Key words in there – “last night.” We can guess that Murphy called after 5 or 6 p.m. seeking comment on a memo that was years old. Even if he was able to reach anyone, would they have been able to confirm or deny the existence of such a document? Bottom line: They should have held off a day or two and gotten all their ducks in a row, but Murphy and Baron have been desperately seeking a Pulitzer or something for its Big Dig coverage so their judgment was once again clouded. This wasn’t “breaking” news under any circumstance. A good story if it was true? Absolutely. But it’s nothing they couldn’t have held a day or two to nail down.

  10. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 4:55 and 5:16 — I agree. I’ve already criticized the Globe for that. On the other hand, you could build a stack of Globes and Heralds from here to Jupiter that contain the phrase “could not be reached last night for comment” or some variation thereof, often on quite serious matters.

  11. Anonymous

    Hold on, boys. The Globe is in the business of selling newspapers first and foremost. Everything else is second. So, this story will end up on the profit sheet…as well as the front page. So maybe they’re embarrassed, but we all know this will blow over and they can go back to ruining the real estate market with their doom and gloom.

  12. Amusedbutinformedobserver

    Modern Continental should not be permitted to keep a story out of print by simply being unavailable for comment. This is a huge story, they should not be “unavailable for comment,” there should be someone available around the clock, especially when newspapers are on deadline. Also unanswered is whether the Globe held the story trying to get comment from Modern Continental — when was the story turned in and when was it approved for a chaser?Still waiting for the Herald story about its reviewer who was sent to jail for peddling discs he was given to review.

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