A new source of Mass. political coverage

Did you know that Republican congressional candidate Nathan Bech wants U.S. Rep. John Olver to save the planet by not sending mail to constituents who don’t want it? Or that Watertown councilor Jonathan Hecht is running hard for a state rep’s seat? Or that former Ted Kennedy aide Melody Barnes has signed on with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign?

These are just a few of the tidbits you can glean at PolitickerMA.com, which slipped quietly into view in mid-June. The goal of the Politicker project is to provide intensive coverage of state and local politics, combining original reporting with blogging on what other media outlets are saying.

I mentioned Politicker earlier this year when James Pindell, who blogged the New Hampshire primary for Boston.com, left to become the national managing editor. So far, Politicker has set up shop in about 15 states, according to the list under “PolitickerMA Partners.” The goal is to launch a Politicker site in all 50 states.

In an instant-message conversation with my Reinventing the News students this past spring, Pindell said Politicker’s revenue base will likely be issue-oriented ads aimed at the political and public-policy community in Massachusetts. Smart move. It doesn’t strike me that anyone is going to read Politicker other than serious political junkies. The mass media are giving way to many little niches, and Politicker aims to occupy one of those niches.

Politicker reminds me of a slicker PoliticsNH.com, which Pindell ran during the 2004 primary season, and which no longer exists. (Politicker appears to have acquired the name, as it now forwards to PolitickerNH.com.) Pindell’s earlier project became briefly famous for sponsoring a contest to find a wife for Dennis Kucinich, who was then single. It was great fun, though Elizabeth Harper, the woman whom the congressman later married, was not one of the contestants.

Another similarity to PoliticsNH is the presence of an anonymous columnist. At PolitickerMA, the nom de opinion is “Wally Edge.” In a story in the New York Times back in February, Politicker founder Robert Sommer (who’s also publisher of the New York Observer) described the undercover columnists who are being turned loose in each state as “the secret sauce,” and could include lobbyists, political consultants and former officeholders. Edge’s views seem benign enough so far, but I’m skeptical about this innovation. I’d rather such insiders be identified so we know their associations and potential conflicts.

PolitickerMA’s staff reporter is Jeremy Jacobs, a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism who has worked for The Hill, among other places.

An early fan of PolitickerMA is Bay Windows editor Laura Kiritsy, who writes that the site “has already provided me with hours of late-night, on-deadline procrastinating thrills.” Kiritsy especially likes the lists of best and worst Massachusetts campaigns, which are pretty amusing.

Oddly enough, there are no RSS feeds [correction below] at PolitickerMA, though you can sign up for a daily e-mail.

As the news-media landscape morphs into something totally new, PolitickerMA is the sort of project that’s worth keeping a close eye on.

Neither the Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald provides the kind of small-bore coverage that is Politicker’s purview, especially as they shrink their staffs.

State House News Service does a good job of covering the Legislature, but it charges high subscription fees and is aimed mostly at media and political professionals.

Blue Mass Group rounds a lot of political news, but it’s partisan and almost wholly dependent on what its members can find in other media.

Politicker is exciting because it suggests a possible way out of the morass in which journalism finds itself these days. If it succeeds, it will occupy a sweet spot between full-service news organizations, which are shrinking, and citizen journalism, which is important but which does not meet the need for a reliable, edited news report.

And it gives young journalists who wish to cover politics some reason to hope that they’ll be able to make a living at it.

Correction: Robert David Sullivan has found an RSS feed. I was deceived by the lack of an RSS symbol in Firefox.


Gmail aliases

As I vowed, I’ve started experimenting with different mail systems. Right now I’m playing with Apple Mail, Gmail and IMAP. Unfortunately, I’ve found that when I send a message using my Northeastern address, the receiver still has my Gmail address sprinkled throughout the header, since I’m using the Gmail SMTP server. So there’s still a good chance that some of my intended recipients will see my messages as spam. Hmmm.

Beating the press

I’ll be doing my semi-regular turn on “Beat the Press” today at 7 p.m. (WGBH-TV, Channel 2). Among our topics, not surprisingly, is the Time magazine report on the alleged Gloucester “pregnancy pact.”

In Gloucester, a murky clarification

Gloucester High School principal Joseph Sullivan deserves a lot of credit for (more or less) standing by his words and standing up to Mayor Carolyn Kirk. But his statement, published yesterday in the Gloucester Daily Times, clarifies nothing, and leaves the story exactly where it stood on March 7, when the local paper first reported Sullivan’s concern that some of his students were getting pregnant deliberately.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped the media from wrongly proclaiming that Sullivan is confirming a story in Time magazine, which reported last week and in a follow-up that the principal had revealed the existence of a “pregnancy pact.” As we all know, Time reporter Kathleen Kingsbury wrote that seven or eight young women had agreed ahead of time to get pregnant and raise their babies together. That very specific allegation is what set of a media feeding frenzy. And Sullivan, in his statement, doesn’t address it.

Let’s deal with Sullivan’s statement first. Here is the heart of it, as he describes the interview Kingsbury conducted with him:

Her direct question to me was whether I thought the distribution of birth control prescriptions or prophylactic devices at the Health Center would have prevented the spike in the number of pregnancies that have been reported this year. I told her “no” because my sources had informed me that a significant number of the pregnancies, especially among the younger students, were the result of deliberate and intentional behavior….

I honestly do not remember specifically using the word “pact” in my meeting with the Time magazine reporter, but I do specifically remember telling Ms. Kingsbury that my understanding was that a number of the pregnancies were intentional and that the students within this group were friendly with each other….

I believe everything I told Kathleen Kingsbury was and is accurate.

What’s crucial to our understanding of the story is whether, as Kingsbury contends, the students set out ahead of time, by agreement with each other, to get pregnant. Sullivan doesn’t even mention that. Though he says what he told Kingsbury was “accurate,” he not only does not say that what she wrote was accurate; but he adds that he doesn’t know whether he uttered the word “pact,” which she quoted him as using. Thus he is openly questioning her accuracy, even as he appears not to be. As for his reliability on the underlying facts, Sullivan is not very reassuring, writing:

My only direct source of information about the intentional pregnancies at the high school was the former nurse practitioner at the Health Center. My other sources are verbal staff reports and student/staff chatter, all of which I have found to be very reliable in my experience as a principal and all of which I filter myself for accuracy and keep confidential.

This is old news, telling us nothing we haven’t known since March 7. That’s when Gloucester Daily Times reporter Karen Grieco wrote that the high school’s unusual spike in teenage pregnancies may have been at least partly the result of deliberate behavior. Here is the top of that story:

Pregnancies at Gloucester High School have spiked to more than three times the normal number this year, and anecdotes of girls deciding to intentionally become pregnant have been reported by one school official.

“To have this many is extremely unusual,” said High School Principal Joseph Sullivan. “The volume frightens me.”

To get to the bottom of the problem, Sullivan investigated and came up with a startling revelation: According to his conversations with upperclassmen, some younger students may be becoming pregnant on purpose.

Kim Daly, nurse practitioner for the high school, was unable to confirm specifics but did say that the majority of students reporting pregnancies this school year were in the younger grades.

This story had been out there for slightly more than three months on June 11, when, Sullivan says, he was told that Kingsbury was outside his office, hoping for an interview. Thus Gloucester’s very real social problems were already well-known at that time. The gasoline that transformed this into a media conflagration was Time’s one additional touch — that there was a “pregnancy pact.” It’s helpful that Sullivan confirmed 95 percent of this sad story in his statement yesterday. But it’s the last 5 percent that’s in dispute.

Even so, Sullivan’s statement is being taken as vindication of Kingsbury’s reporting, especially by Kingsbury herself. Taking a slightly different tack is the Boston Herald’s Jessica Heslam, who suggested on Wednesday that Time’s story was crumbling. Today she dutifully reports Sullivan’s statement, but I detect a whiff of skepticism.

The Boston Globe’s James Vaznis, too, fails to acknowledge that Sullivan’s statement doesn’t really address the heart of Kingsbury’s story. Vaznis also makes no mention of his own paper’s June 6 story, by Tania deLuzuriaga, which followed up the Gloucester Daily Times’ reporting about allegations of intentional pregnancies. That’s ironic, because Sullivan yesterday essentially confirmed everything that the Globe had a week before Time.

Which brings us back to where we were a few days ago. The one aspect of this story I don’t think anyone seriously disputed was the interview Sullivan gave to Kingsbury (although his statement now has me wondering). The real question, as I wrote on Tuesday, is what steps Kingsbury took to verify the information Sullivan gave her.

Though Kingsbury has not interviewed any of the seven or eight girls, she has claimed to have spoken with at least some of them. She implied that once again yesterday, writing, “So far, the students TIME has identified as allegedly setting out to get pregnant have declined to speak publicly about their reasons for doing so.”

On Wednesday, Kelly McBride wrote about the Gloucester story for the “Everyday Ethics” blog at Poynter.org. McBride faults Time for running with the story strictly on Sullivan’s say-so. I’m not sure I agree. Sullivan was and is an authoritative, on-the-record source, and Kingsbury backed him up with similar quotes from the school superintendent, Christopher Farmer. Plenty of journalism, good and bad, has been produced with no more than that.

But now we have a situation in which Sullivan has confirmed everything except the most explosive element of the story, and we still don’t know what else Kingsbury has as verification. Of this we can be reasonably sure: There’s more to come.

Muzzling freedom of speech

Please have a look at The Phoenix’s annual Muzzle Awards, a Fourth of July roundup of local anti-constitutionalism that I’ve been writing since 1998. You’ll see why Nat Hentoff likes to say that the human sex drive is exceeded only by the urge to censor.

Among those who get singled out are Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, whose agencies have banned a respected academic, Adam Habib, from the United States. Habib is scheduled to appear at an academic conference in Boston on Aug. 1, but that’s not going to happen unless the ban is lifted.

Habib is supposedly being kept out because he has ties to terrorism. But he denies it, and the government has provided no evidence to back up its claim. What we do know is that Habib, of South Africa, is a Muslim and has criticized the war in Iraq and U.S. policies in the Middle East.

Also getting whacked is Comcast, for firing longtime Boston television personality Barry Nolan over his campaign against Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Comcast was within its rights to terminate Nolan, but it was an utterly unnecessary, no-class move.

I’ll be on “NightSide with Dan Rea,” on WBZ Radio (AM 1030), at 9 p.m. today to talk about the Muzzle Awards. If you feel like calling in, don’t be shy.

Illustration is copyright © 2008 by K Bonami.

Reason #11 revisited

A Media Nation reader thinks I should note that a restraining order taken out against Shawn Hendricks, head of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal council, has been dropped. Fair enough.

But I think I should also note that, according to this Cape Cod Times story, Hendricks has admitted to using steroids; to engaging in some sort of “a tug-of-war battle” over his son; and to “smashing his arm through a glass door during a fight with his wife.”

Glad I could clear that up.

More (less?) on the “pregnancy pact”

Gloucester Times reporter Patrick Anderson pours more water on the “pregnancy pact” fire.

By the way … sorry for the InstaPundit-style one-liners. I’m not really around today, but caught this and thought it was worth sharing.