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.