The Globe strikes back at CommonWealth

CommonWealth Magazine last week published a story reporting that several scientists who were interviewed by freelancers working for The Boston Globe’s advertising team were not told that those interviews were for branded content sponsored by the tobacco giant Philip Morris. I was among those who offered a comment to CommonWealth’s Colman M. Herman.

Earlier today the Globe issued a response. I am posting it in its entirety, followed by a counter-response from CommonWealth. First, the Globe statement:

BOSTON, April 4, 2022 — We conducted a review of all written correspondence with the medical doctors, scientists, and their representatives who were contacted to participate in the Thank You, Scientists branded content series that is referenced by CommonWealth Magazine. This series, written by freelance journalists and labeled as branded content, focused on recognizing the careers and contributions of scientists across industries and their positive impact. The series made no mention of any products.

In each case, we found that the individuals and/or the PR representatives who support them were in fact informed that their participation was for a branded content piece funded by Philip Morris International, and about celebrating scientists.

Our journalism is funded by subscribers and, like nearly all our industry colleagues, advertisers. Branded content has become an essential and widely used product by many news organizations. Done well, it creates a better experience for advertisers and for readers and it helps support our industry.

When working with an advertiser on branded content, Boston Globe Media’s advertising team maintains an editorial firewall — the newsroom and opinion teams have no involvement. We are deeply committed to honoring the integrity of our journalism and demand that our Studio/B team and the freelance writers with whom we work are transparent throughout the process.

This includes disclosing the nature of the work as branded content to potential sources and subjects. We share who the sponsoring entity is. When we publish, we clearly separate and label the final product on our print and digital platforms so that readers are aware that the articles are not produced by the Globe’s journalists. This is all common industry practice.

We are surprised by the journalistic tactics employed by CommonWealth. An individual who described himself as a freelance writer emailed the Globe seeking comment without identifying whether he was working for a specific publication or pursuing a personal agenda. He never mentioned the misleading claims that he went on to raise in the story. He didn’t follow up for any specific response. We would expect far more of an organization that undoubtedly holds itself to basic journalism standards.

We will continue to see and set the highest possible standards in assembling and publishing this kind of work.

CommonWealth editor Bruce Mohl’s retort is on the publication’s website, so I will simply link to it rather than reproducing all of it. I think perhaps the most substantive criticism offered in the Globe statement is that Herman’s attempts to obtain comment from the Globe were insufficient. Here’s what Mohl says about that:

He [Herman] did reach out to many officials at the Globe during the early phase of his reporting, when it was unclear who he would submit the story to, and never heard back from any of them. He did not follow up more recently when the focus of the piece became clearer.

Mohl also says that the Globe shared emails and texts with CommonWealth showing that the scientists were aware of Philip Morris’ involvement. He writes that CommonWealth “has reached out to all the scientists quoted in its article to ask them about the Globe’s documentation, but had not heard back from any of them yet.”

A new and disturbing wrinkle to Philip Morris’ ads in The Boston Globe

Update (April 4): The Boston Globe has issued a statement responding to the CommonWealth article. CommonWealth editor Bruce Mohl has issued a counter-response. Read them both here.

Colman M. Herman has a scorcher for CommonWealth Magazine: “Scientists object to inclusion in Globe’s Philip Morris ads.” It seems that a number of scientists were interviewed for what turned out to be sponsored content — that is, paid advertising — without their knowing that’s what they were doing. Herman writes:

The Boston Globe is facing a growing chorus of criticism from public health advocates and media critics for working with Philip Morris to create and publish stories featuring interviews with prominent scientists, many of whom say they were never told the true purpose of the interviews — for inclusion in Philip Morris ads.

Herman writes that Globe executives declined his repeated efforts to obtain comment. This is just a mess. Herman interviewed me; and, as I wrote last June, neither the Globe nor any other media organization ought to publish ads from tobacco companies, especially all these years after they stopped accepting cigarette ads.

No, good government on Beacon Hill will not lead to bad government

You would think that reforming the opaque workings of the Massachusetts legislature would be something everyone could agree on. In fact, though, you can always find someone to defend the status quo.

Last summer, for example, New England School of Law Professor Lawrence Friedman wrote in The Boston Globe that the legislature should keep its exemption from the state’s public records law even though Massachusetts is only one of just four states with such a secrecy statute.

“It is not difficult to imagine state representatives and senators censoring themselves out of concern that their words might be taken out of context,” Friedman wrote. “Perspectives about proposed laws and their implications could go unshared and, therefore, unconsidered.”

Now Raymond La Raja, a political science professor at UMass Amherst, has written a commentary for CommonWealth magazine arguing that efforts to make committee votes public are misguided and would lead to more power for the legislative leadership. Such a move would also create incentives for grandstanding by members, La Raja argues, conjuring up the dysfunction in Washington as a warning:

Congress is an obvious example of where “messaging” has become more important to many than legislating. Using Twitter, members can score political points against opponents, shame colleagues, and try to torpedo discussions on policy. Calling out colleagues on committee votes or internal deliberations is especially valuable to extremists who value purity. The model here is the Freedom Caucus, whose members call other Republicans “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) and threaten to enlist primary opponents against them. This kind of behavior erodes goodwill and the ability to forge the kind of compromises that make democracy possible.

CommonWealth contributor Colman M. Herman disagrees, writing that the Massachusetts legislature “is one of the least transparent legislatures in the entire nation.” Herman is right. And the idea that good government will lead to bad government is absurd. If our elected officials need secrecy in order to do the right thing, then we are in mighty bad shape.

CommonWealth report shows that the state’s new public records law isn’t working

Following up on my WGBH News column about the legislative exemption to the state’s public records law, I want to call your attention to this excellent article (which predated mine) in CommonWealth Magazine by Colman Herman.

Herman took a look at the (slightly) improved public records law more than three years after it took effect — and what he found demonstrates the need to go back and reform the law root and branch. Among the lowlights:

  • Provisions aimed at toughening the penalties for compliance have been ineffective. Among the most egregious offenders are the State Police and the Boston Police, which, he writes, “take extraordinary measures to withhold documents in their entirety from public view.”
  • A provision that was supposed to make it easier for members of the press and the public to access public records without having to pay high fees has fallen short of that goal. Herman reports that when he asked for copies of disciplinary actions taken against massage therapists over a five-year period, “officials demanded $2,000 before it would turn over any records.”
  • Agencies regularly cite the multiple exemptions built into the law in order to deny access to such obviously public documents as MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak’s contract — which was turned over, Herman writes, but only after a considerable delay.
  • Turning enforcement over to Attorney General Maura Healey has had mixed results, with the attorney general’s office in some cases failing to uphold orders issued by the secretary of state’s office.

“The adages are many — information is the currency of democracy, sunlight is the best disinfectant, democracy depends on an informed citizenry,” Herman writes. “But in Massachusetts, these beliefs often still get shunted aside when it comes to accessing public records even under the new Public Records Law.”

Herman’s article is further evidence that open government in Massachusetts is more myth than reality.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The Herald’s curious quote from CommonWealth

How did CommonWealth Magazine reporter Colman Herman’s words end up in former state inspector general Greg Sullivan’s mouth when Sullivan was quoted in the Boston Herald? It’s a great question, and John Carroll asks it at his blog It’s Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.

Here’s what happened. As Carroll noted Friday, both The Boston Globe and the Herald ran stories about a sweetheart deal the Red Sox have had with the city since the 1940s after Herman reported the previous day that there seemed to be no legal basis for it. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is said to be investigating. The Globe credited CommonWealth; the Herald didn’t.

But what is stranger still is that the Herald story, by Richard Weir, quotes Sullivan as saying something that Herman wrote, word for word: “No other single private entity is allowed to close off a street in Boston on a regular basis.” Carroll adds he has it on “good authority” that Sullivan contends he never said it.

Perhaps it’s also worth pointing out that CommonWealth and the Herald have a poisonous relationship. For reasons that were never clear, a couple of years ago the Herald went after CommonWealth’s publisher, the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, a nonprofit think tank. Here is an example. (Note: I used to write a media column for CommonWealth and remain a friend of MassINC.)

It’s hard to know what to make of the latest weirdness without hearing from Sullivan and the Herald. Now that Carroll has documented it, I hope the principals will weigh in.

Update: A couple of people reminded me of this CommonWealth story, which challenged the Legend of Gidget, one of the foundations on which the modern Herald was built. So maybe that’s where the animus began.