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

Further thoughts on that memo

Former Modern Continental safety officer John Keaveney now confirms that he was the tipster who sent to the Boston Globe’s Sean Murphy the memo he’d written about safety problems, thus admitting that the Big Dig contractor was right in asserting that the return address on the envelope was in his handwriting.

Keaveney is otherwise sticking by his contention that he warned of safety problems in May 1999, but it doesn’t look good. In “A note from the editor,” Globe editor Marty Baron says that “the admission that he misled the Globe about the mailing of the memo raises concerns about credibility.”

Moreover, the Boston Herald today reports that Keaveney appeared unconcerned about safety problems later in 1999 even as they were unfolding right in front of him. That lends further credence to the possibility that Keaveney wrote his memo warning of safety problems not seven years ago but, rather, a little more than a week back.

Today, a few questions as this story continues to unfold:

1. Who is Jeff Gram? A number of observers, including Media Nation, have said that the Globe had reported receiving the memo from an anonymous tipster. But, in fact, Murphy’s original July 26 story actually says this: “Keaveney’s letter was mailed to a Globe reporter without Keaveney’s knowledge. He was contacted and verified it was his letter.” In a carefully parsed sentence yesterday, the Globe reported, “It is unclear who sent the memo to the Globe; the return address was not Keaveney’s.” Other stories contain similar wording. So I was mistaken.

Today’s main Herald story (already linked) reports that Keaveney “last night admitted to the Globe he sent the letter using the name Jeff Gram, a Modern employee, in order to protect his family against ‘repercussions.’ ” (The Herald story also claims that the Globe had reported the memo had been sent “anonymously,” which, to repeat, appears to be a mischaracterization of what the Globe has actually said.)

Gram’s name, though, has not appeared in any of the Globe’s coverage. According to the Herald, the Globe contacted Gram and he denied having sent the memo. Baron tells the Herald: “We never reported that he had sent the letter, nor did we include his name in any of the stories. A key question was who had sent the letter. It made no sense to involve him in the controversy if he denied sending the letter and we had no information to the contrary.”

Good or bad call? Bad, with a caveat. Boston University journalism department chairman Lou Ureneck tells the Herald: “I think that information should be in the story, at least in descriptive terms. If there was a name on the envelope, and a check with that [person] got a denial, the plot thickens, the story complicates and the reader should know about that.”

Ureneck is absolutely right. The Globe didn’t have to name Gram. But it should have revealed that the person whose name and address were written on the envelope had denied ever sending it.

2. Was Modern Continental given adequate time to respond? This really goes to the heart of the matter because, ultimately, the mess the Globe finds itself in isn’t about a document — it’s about a source and his credibility. Despite the attempts of some, like the Herald’s Howie Carr, to compare this to Dan Rather and the National Guard documents, the Globe has an on-the-record source who says he wrote the document in question and stands by it. It’s a classic “he said/he said” situation.

Except that, in the initial story, it was “he said/he couldn’t reached for comment.”

Remember, that story asserted that no one from Modern Continental could be reached “last night,” which shows that Murphy’s story was on the fast track. As I wrote yesterday, I think the Globe should have waited a day, even if it risked losing its exclusive. But would it have made a difference?

When CBS News showed the phony National Guard documents to the White House hours before its story ran, the non-response it received appeared to confirm their authenticity. Only later was it revealed that the documents, supposedly from the early 1970s, were almost certainly of more recent vintage.

Likewise, if the Globe had managed to obtain a statement from Modern Continental “last night,” what would we have learned? My guess is that the spokesperson would have said one of two things:

  • “We can’t comment until we have had a chance to investigate the authenticity of this memo.” Or —
  • “We question the authenticity of this memo.”

The statement would have been tossed into the Globe’s story, and our perception of what had happened would not have changed one bit.

As we’ve seen, it actually took Modern Continental executives a week to vet their files and issue their statement that they believe the Keaveney memo had been fabricated. No news organization would have given a company a week to respond on such an important, fast-moving story as the Big Dig.

But would a day have been enough for Modern Continental at least to raise some serious questions? We’ll never know.

3. Did the Globe violate its own policies? In 2003, the Poynter Institute’s Jim Romenesko posted the draft of a memo written by Globe editor Baron on an ethics policy he and other editors were formulating. (Click here and scroll down.) In a section titled “Fairness,” Baron wrote:

One of the most common complaints from the subjects of our stories and our columns is that they are not given ample opportunity to respond to accusations against them. Some say they were not called at all for a response. Others say they were called at the last minute without being provided ample time to respond thoroughly or knowledgeably. Many times, they say they were called for a general comment but never alerted to very specific allegations that would be made against them by others we interviewed.

In the cause of fairness, we must allow principal subjects of our stories a reasonable period of time to respond to any allegations against them. They should not first learn of allegations when they read our paper in the morning. During a major breaking story, the response time obviously becomes abbreviated. However, when stories are in development over several days or weeks, we should allow more time for a response.

We also should be open to the possibility that a response may be sufficiently persuasive to justify significantly changing, holding, or even abandoning a story.

This is not to suggest that we soften our stories or columns or hold back when we have assembled sufficient documentation and conducted all appropriate interviews. It only means that our stories and columns need to meet basic standards of fairness.

If the subjects of our stories cannot be reached, we should make every effort to explain why. For example, if someone could not be reached because he was traveling, we should say so. If they were called only late at night, we should say so.

I quote it at length because Baron seems to have covered every contingency. No doubt the Globe had on its hands a “major breaking story” in which “the response time obviously becomes abbreviated.” What also seems clear, though, is that Globe editors were not “open to the possibility that a response may be sufficiently persuasive to justify significantly changing, holding, or even abandoning a story.”

There are several reasons that news organizations obtain comment from the targets of their reporting. One is fair play. But another, more important, reason is that reporters know they might be wrong.

Yet there are times when a reporter is absolutely convinced that he’s right, and that giving a source too much time to respond will risk diminishing the impact of the story. Sometimes, for tactical reasons, a news organization will give a source almost no time to respond so that he can’t spin it ahead of time. I’ve been in that situation myself, and it’s something that has to be thought through with the top editors. Always, the overriding concern is: Is there any way we could be proven wrong on this? Obviously Murphy, Baron and company didn’t think there was. And they got burned.

But we all know that you could plug up the Big Dig tunnels forever with copies of the Globe and the Herald that contain the phrase “could not be reached last night for comment” or some variation thereof. It’s not pretty, but it’s part of journalism as it’s actually practiced.

I think the Globe violated at least the spirit of Baron’s draft by giving Modern Continental so little time to respond. But if the Keaveney memo’s authenticity had not been challenged, no one ever would have noticed.

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  1. Anonymous

    Good take on the flap.I think this underscores how a lack of seasoned people at the Globe and at other big city dailies due to the brain drain that results from buy outs and other cost cutting measures hurts readers and — by extention — the reputation of good papers everywhere.

  2. Anonymous

    I used to work in state governemnt as a spokesman and there is no doubt that the Globe had a special relationship with the Inspector Generals’ Office and the Auditor’s Office whereby the Globe would get a report from those offices over the weekend and then contact the “targets” of those reports on Sunday night. These stories would be run on the front page on Mondays with the target’s quote only being “we haven’t seen the report”. This was the plan by the Globe and the report writer’s not to allow the target’s a chance to respond. Why would they do this? Well, its because most of the reports were bogus. A headline of “$3 million in state funds unaccounted for” almost always were simply paperwork errors that were easily corrected within days.Seems that the Globe is still up to its old tricks….

  3. Anonymous

    this is the second front page correction for Baron as editor at the Globe. (both stories were about the Big Dig.) how many big city newspapers editors have that kind of record?

  4. PRrag

    Giving the other side proper time to respond can make or catastrophically break a story. Unfortunately, this once again shows speed to be the natural enemy of journalism.

  5. Anonymous

    The most egregious part of this scandal — yes, Dan, it is a scandal — is the failure of the Boston Globe to report that the Modern Continental spokesman,Gram, denied to a Globe reporter that he mailed the memo. According to the Herald, he was interviewed by the Globe and never did they include that in any story.That is deceptive.That is ignoring the facts to put forth a preconceived notion.That is not good journalism.

  6. lou ureneck

    Dan,I like your use of questions to analyze the Globe’s handling of the Big Dig memo. Like you, I’m generally supportive of the Globe’s coverage, but left a little uneasy by the overnight turn-around on the story and the missing detail on the return address. Nonetheless, the Globe’s reasoning (as articulated by Marty Baron this morning) is sound and responsible. Marty put it out front where it belongs. Bravo. But the reason I’m posting is to suggest that this technique of listing unanswered questions can be an excellent way for a newspaper to help readers sort through a story that is growing complex. No doubt Globe reporters have a list of questions to which they are working hard to get answers. It would be useful, I think, to share some of those questions with readers. It helps us know what is known, what is unknown and what needs to be known in order to bring clarity to the developments.Lou UreneckBU

  7. Anonymous

    in response to above from lou, isn’t the time to answer unanswered questions before you publish the story on the front page?blogs are for unedited, real-time potings; i thought newspapers went through fact-checking prior to publication. it was good engouh for the globe that keaveney was willing to be quoted on the record? so was joe mccarthy.

  8. Anonymous

    What I find interesting is that the Globe is now in a position where their reporters are potentially constrained from pursuing this story. That is, when I read the Globe today it doesn’t (can’t ?) report the discrepancies that the Herald is reporting.The Globe has to get out in front of this, admit that it didn’t do it’s due diligence and then get on this story

  9. Rick in Duxbury

    Suggestion for the Globe masthead:”What is (or should be) the truth”

  10. Anonymous

    Murphy needs to be pulled from this story at long last. He’s obviously been spoon-fed nearly every “scoop” he gets about the project from that retired judge Ed Ginsburg who was supposed to be recovering costs from Bechtel. Ginsburg didn’t get anything except a big wet kiss puff piece in the Globe Magazine. It’s sickening.

  11. Scott Allen Miller

    Dan! I must have either changed yoru mind or completely misunderstood your POV because you’re blogging much of what I’ve been saying about this. You said more than once that it’s common practice to publish one-sided stories, as if to justify the Globe’s actions. My point was and remains that the Globe (read: Marty Baron) rushed to the presses with this story and it’s coming back to bite them on backside.I would agree that if Modern Continental had refused comment or this was a truly breaking story you go with it. That’s not what happened here at all. (Thanks for being on with me, Dan!)The Powers That Be should have taken a long, deep breath and asked a few key questions: First among them — and this is the biggest parallel to Dan Rather’s Memogate — Who is Jeff Gram, and why did he send this memo? A simple phone call before the story ran (instead of after) would have proven he wasn’t the source and had never even seen the memo. Would that have killed the story. Maybe not, but it might have slow down the momentum a little. That would mean risking that the Herald had the same memo and might have broken the story first, but better to be the second to be right than first to be wrong. If you think that sounds naive, well, who would you rather be right now, Sean Murphy and Marty Baron doing damage control or Casey Ross and Dave Wedge gleefully piling on?Don’t forget it was the Herald that first reported on August 2 that Gram’s name was on the envelope and that he knew nothing about it. In the spirit of following up on the story, why didn’t the Globe report that the alleged source was denying being the source? Marty told the Herald, “It made no sense to involve [Gram] in the controversy if he denied sending the letter and we had no information to the contrary.” That’s BS. The Globe could have reported that the alleged source denied sending the memo without identifying him by name. As the story began to stink, the Globe was hoping they could avoid the embarrassment of having run a story about a memo that came from, well, only God knows whom. Echoes of Memogate. (That’s why I call this memogate, with a miniscule “m”.)Baron admits they rushed this to the presses (with factual errors about Keveaney’s background, to boot) because it was a breaking story. But it was NOT a breaking story!!!! A breaking story was the collapse of the tunnel ceiing panels as they were going to the presses. An interview with the writer of an alleged whistleblower from 7 years ago can wait a day until the story could be better corroborated. This was a DEVELOPING story with ongoing investigations, accusations, and revelations.Marty wrote that 2003 memo for good reason. Anecdotally, I know the Globe has played his 11th hour “could not be reached for comment/no comment” game quite a lot and still does. Nice to see it backfired on them for once.Finally, Baron’s front page note from the editor was NOT a correction. It was a set of excuses for his lack of editorial judgment on this story. It was as if he was saying the story should have been right because they did so many other things right.Given Keveaney’s cred issues now, it’s time for the Globe to retract the story. They broke the story. Now they need to fix it.

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