Until this moment, Media Nation has resisted the conspiracy theorists who’ve been wondering about those nearly identical stories that appear in the New York Times and the Boston Globe on the same day.
But now there are three separate incidents, and as every journalist knows, when you’ve got three, you’ve got a trend. So let’s review, shall we?
We begin with “Animal House,” the Democratic congressional crash pad occupied by Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and our own Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts. A worthy feature? Absolutely. Alex Beam certainly thought so, and his piece appeared in the Globe on Jan. 18. So did my former Boston Phoenix colleague Mark Leibovich, whose Times article (sub. req.) also appeared on Jan. 18.
Next up: Sen. Barack Obama’s days as a student at Harvard Law School, the subject of lengthy, front-page articles last Sunday in both the Times (by Jodi Kantor) and the Globe (by Michael Levenson and Jonathan Saltzman).
Finally — and shame on me for not reading the Times first thing this morning — it turns out that Jackie MacMullan’s Globe story on Ted Johnson’s debilitating series of concussions is competing with this front-pager in the Times by Alan Schwarz on — yes — Ted Johnson’s debilitating series of concussions.
So what is going on here? My guess is that it’s not a conspiracy, but it’s not a complete coincidence, either.
Obviously if the New York Times Co., which owns both the Times and the Globe, were looking to save money, it would simply run the same story in both papers. And if the Times Co. were coordinating coverage in some way so that the Globe could neither beat nor be beaten by the Times on local stories, I’m reasonably confident that the Globe newsroom would be leaking like Scooter Libby.
But pure coincidence? That seems pretty unlikely.
Which leaves us, then, with the usual journalistic sausage-making.
Let’s take the “Animal House” story, which is probably the most transparent. The Times is working on a story, and Delahunt figures his hometown paper, the Globe, will get pissed if he doesn’t say anything. So he makes sure someone at the Globe knows about it, as well as when the Times story is slated to run. (You could work this in reverse, too, with Schumer as the tipster. But what about Durbin and the Chicago Tribune? Pathetic. The Tribune picked up the Times piece off the wires 10 days later.)
With Obama, Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, to name just one possible suspect, is quoted in both stories. I’m not saying he tipped anyone off, but these things can come out in conversation through the proverbial friend of a friend of a friend.
Which brings us to MacMullan’s story. It didn’t register this morning, but now this passage makes a certain amount of sense:
Johnson toyed with going public with his story before. He shared his struggles with the Globe last summer, but later requested his comments be put on hold. The recent suicide of former NFL defensive back Andre Waters, who had multiple concussions and suffered from depression, finally prompted Johnson to come forward.
One interpretation is that MacMullan got word that the Times story was coming out, and that she wanted everyone to know she had it first — or, at least, she would have if Johnson had been willing to let her tell his story last summer.
The Times Co.’s ownership of the Globe is such a radioactive topic in these days of downsizing that many observers don’t want to hear any interpretation except the most nefarious. From what I can see, though, these three stories merely add up to One of Those Things.