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

How Robert Healy helped save the Globe

Tip O'Neill

Mark Feeney has a nice tribute to Robert Healy in today’s Boston Globe. But Healy, the paper’s former executive editor, who died on Saturday at 84, was a lot more important to the Globe than Feeney lets on. In fact, Healy, with considerable help from future House Speaker Tip O’Neill, had much to do with the Globe’s rise as New England’s dominant media institution.

O’Neill’s actions in the 1960s, goaded by Healy, revealed that Robert “Beanie” Choate, owner of the Boston Herald Traveler, had improper dealings with the FCC that allowed him to circumvent the ban against owning a daily newspaper and a television station in the same market. The Herald was stripped of its license to operate Channel 5 in 1972, leading to the death of two separate incarnations of the Herald. (Today’s Herald is essentially a start-up that dates back to the early 1980s.)

The story was revealed in John Aloysius Farrell’s biography of O’Neill, “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” which I had the great pleasure of writing about for the Boston Phoenix in February 2001. The story of how O’Neill and Healy made common cause is a rollicking tale involving the Kennedys, a corrupt deal that resulted in John Kennedy winning an undeserved Pulitzer Prize for “Profiles in Courage” and O’Neill’s fear that if his role in helping the Globe were discovered, the Republican Herald would crucify him.

Farrell has a great quote from Ben Bradlee, retired executive editor of the Washington Post, who said of Healy: “This little angelic-faced Healy. He looked like a choirboy. Nobody would think what he was up to. He and I shared stuff. I loved the fact Choate was in trouble.”

Healy himself said of O’Neill: “He did right by the Globe and all right in the Globe through the years.”

Not exactly a tribute to the journalistic ethics of the era. But a great story nevertheless.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. M. Charles Bakst

    I was puzzled by your reference to today’s Boston Herald being “essentially a start-up that dates back to the early 1980s.” When I was growing up in Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s, there were essentially three big Boston papers: The Globe, the Herald-Traveler and the Record-American. Despite the Herald name, today’s Herald really is the current incarnation of the old Record-American. M. Charles Bakst, Barrington RI

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Charles: Here’s why I call the current Herald a start-up (albeit one that is now almost 30 years old). When the Herald Traveler lost Channel 5, the paper was sold to Hearst, which owned the Record American, a tabloid that did indeed bear some resemblance to the modern Herald.

      But Hearst stopped publishing the Record. Instead, it put out a broadsheet called the Herald American that was very mainstream and that tried to compete with the Globe on its own turf throughout the ’70s.

      Toward the end, Hearst converted the Herald American into a tabloid, and a bit of the old Record American sensibility came back. But the paper collapsed in the early ’80s. Rupert Murdoch didn’t so much rescue it as let it die and start a new paper based in the same building.

      You can’t really consider the modern Herald a successor to the Record American because the Record ceased to exist 10 years before Murdoch arrived on the scene.

  2. In re: The boston newspapers in the 50’s were the Globe, the Post, the Herald, and the Record/American.

    The first three were broadsheets; the Record/American was a tabloid that publsihed three times a day.

    The Christian Science Monitor occupied a modest ‘independent’ voice.

    The evolution to a two paper town is a bit more complicated than indicated above.

    mike iwanowicz

  3. BP Myers

    There’s a terrific history of (and if I remember right, a whole chapter dedicated to) Boston newspapers within “Common Ground,” J. Anthony Lucas’ seminal work on Boston’s busing travails, one of the best books I ever read.

    Of particular interest is how the Globe came from the back of the pack, just one of dozens and dozens of Boston dailies at the turn of the last century, to its position today.

  4. Tom Edsall

    You beat me to the punch. As a friend and admirer of Bob, with whom I played poker, tennis and squash, I spent many evenings with him discussing the history of the Globe, especially the story of killing the Herald’s Channel 5 licence with the active support of Tip and the rest of the Massachusetts delegation. Before I ran into your piece here, I was going to write something myself after reading the Globe obit. Bob’s role cannot be underestimated. The Herald was using the revenues from Channel 5 to crush the Globe. Bob was sent to Washington with a mandate to do whatever he could to prevent the renewal of the licence, and, he fulfilled his mission, saving the Globe. Thanks
    Tom Edsall

  5. Brian Beaulieu

    I was a young sportswriter for the Herald Traveler in the late 60s until 1972, and worked for Hearst for 18 months qfter that, when they killed off the afternoon edition of what they first called the Herald Traveler Record American. In the sixties the papers were neck and neck, and Ernie Roberts told me he was convinced that the Herald would be the dominant player. He left the Globe in 1963 to become the Dartmouth College sports information director and returned five years later as sports editor, just as Tom Winship was turning the Globe around.

    As my friend Charlie Bakst knows, politics makes strange bedfellows, and the Tip O”Neil story puts him at odds with the Kennedy family. It was rumored back then that the Kennedys owned Herald stock through straws, and there were several connections. When Jackie Kennedy bought her house on the Vineyard, the Herald had the exclusive story. I remember that, in the days of hot type, the type was locked in a newsroom safe until the third edition (too late for the Globe to rewrite). This was because some printers worked as spares at all three papers and may not have had any loyalty to one paper.

    Also, when Ted Kennedy drove off the bridge (it was kept off page one because of the moon landing) he chose Channel 5 to broadcast his statement. I saw Kennedy in the Herald newsroom more than once.

    Finally, there was the story that JFK, had he lived, would have become publisher of the Herald after his second term, and set up his library in
    Boston. How could the Globe top that? Years later I put this question to a retired top editor of the Herald, and he did not deny it.

    So the Herald was Republican and the Kennedys were Democrats, but the association went back to 1946 when JFK returned from the war and wrote book reviews for the Herald.

    The period that I worked in Boston may not have been the glory days of journalism, but there is no thrill like working in a three-paper town and going up against the competiton. I have tons of stories to tell, but probably never will.

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