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

Before the Globe, there was CommonWealth

The Boston Globe Spotlight series on the state Patronage Department — ah, I mean Probation Department — is public-interest journalism at its best.

Commissioner Jack O’Brien has been suspended. There’s a chance for genuine reform. And the absurd gubernatorial candidacy of hacked-up state treasurer Tim Cahill has been brought to a merciful end, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

But credit should also go to CommonWealth Magazine and its blog, CW Unbound, which has been beating the drums about the Probation Department for months. CommonWealth, published by the nonpartisan Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC), has put together a compilation of stories it’s posted on the Probation Department mess. (Disclosure: I used to be a regular contributor to CommonWealth, and I’m still listed on the masthead.)

On May 3, for example, CommonWealth reporter Jack Sullivan wrote about a court case involving Stephen Anzalone, who was challenging his rejection as a probation officer even though he would have been the seventh member of his family to draw a paycheck from the agency.

And on April 14, editor Bruce Mohl interviewed House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Murphy on why he opposed a plan by Gov. Deval Patrick to bring the out-of-control agency under the executive branch’s wing.

The Globe, as the region’s largest and most influential news organization, is doing what it does best: driving the agenda and forcing public officials to do what they should have done a long time ago. And CommonWealth, like other smaller players, is performing its role admirably as well: by keeping the story simmering until it was ready to come to a boil.

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  1. B.A. DuBois

    I’ve always been one to critique the Globe when it counts, but this time, good for them… and Dan, I’ve always been one to disagree with you on occasion, but this time, you’re dead-on… this is the very best kind of journalism.

    Question, now, of course is, what happens next. Will there be some hearings, some firings, and everything goes back to whatever sleaze passes for normal? Or will there be actual constructive change?

    And what other rocks should the Globe uncover to see what scurries out?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @B.A.: Good question. What’s most depressing to me about this is the sense that you could turn over almost any rock at random in Massachusetts and find exactly the same sort of thing.

  2. Mike Benedict

    Dan, what we can expect is loud and furious cries from the GOP over how this is exactly the sort of thing that happens when
    1. Government gets too big, and
    2. Government gets too Democrat.

    Of course, when corporate misdeeds emerge — and emerge they do — those same screamers bite their tongues.

    I’m not saying this episode of patronage isn’t a disgrace; it is. But anyone who attempts to claim that this is somehow the inevitable byproduct of government has their head buried deeply in the sand.

  3. ben starr

    @mike. Why not just acknowledge that the Democrats (of which I am one) are abusive of this state’s political system instead of finding an angle to take a shot at the opposition? Total straw man.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @ben: As we know, one of the worst abusers exposed by the Globe is Tim Cahill. Since he’s no longer a Democrat, do the Democrats really have to take responsibility for him? Why? Finneran, DeLeo and all the rest, yes, of course.

  4. L.K. Collins

    The Globe‘s Spotlight articles are always well researched and well written.

    Dan is right to give them the credit that is due.

    Our Mikey doesn’t seem to realize the political realities of the State of Massachusetts and hence can’t accept that the corruption in the state has the tendency involving the Democrat more frequently than the Republican….You can tell that it really bothers him.

    As for Cahill? The Democrats have to accept a certain degree of responsibility for him because his public service has been as a Democrat, not an Independent. That does not mean that he isn’t fair game for the Democrats, but they risk the historical connection making their comments seem hypocritical.

  5. Michael Pahre

    You seem to have missed an even bigger case of elbowing.

    The Boston Herald’s editorial page is basically claiming credit for their paper instead. They point to an editorial in 2007 and a Howie Carr column — to read it you need to assemble a genealogical chart — that appeared the same day as the Globe’s first Spotlight Team story.

    As a news media critic (or something like that), care to referee? Throw that left elbow at your colleague on Friday’s show!

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: I have no doubt the Herald has also done some good reporting on the Probation Department, though not as systematically and thoroughly as the Globe (or CommonWealth). For that matter, if we started doing a search, I’m pretty sure we’d find that Sunday wasn’t the first time the Globe reported on the story, either.

  6. Jack Sullivan

    There are lots of people that deserve lots of credit here but it took the weight of the Globe’s Spotlight team to spur needed action. I liken it to the clergy sex abuse scandal, although clearly not on the same moral or criminal level but with similar journalistic machinations. There were a series of articles over the years – Fr. Porter, Fr. Geoghan, Fr. Lavigne — documenting individual rogue priests. I remember Kristen Lombardi at the Phoenix writing a series of damning articles on the Archdiocese’s protection of Geoghan, Jason Berry’s book and articles and the Ledger before and after with some very solid stuff regarding South Shore priests. And we had good coverage of individual civil and criminal trials of priests as well as some solid reporting on church holdings when I was at the Herald. But it wasn’t until the Spotlight series that the lid blew off and all the ribbons got tied together.
    Lots of people in our business can take pride that this story has been out there for the public to see and credit can be spread around. But officials felt no pressure and were content in knowing there wasn’t any widespread rage until Spotlight weighed in and the spit hit the fan. I, for one, am glad the Globe still exists and carries the heft to trigger action. But if it was “just a Globe story,” they’d be the only ones following it and it would die on the vine. We all have a piece of it.

  7. Mike Benedict

    @ben: Just look two responses below mine and there goes your straw man.

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