Weakened watchdogs

By ADAM REILLY  |  June 19, 2009

But were things really that much better in the (alleged) good old days? Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer ran communications for former governor Mike Dukakis in Dukakis's first term, and covered state politics for United Press International before that. He longs for the days when the state-budget process was covered in minute detail, in contrast with the broad-stroke treatment used today. But he also recalls trying — and failing — to get the media to cover the de-institutionalization of the state's mentally ill and mentally disabled populations in the late 1970s. "Peter Goldmark [then the secretary of human services] would say to me, 'How come we can't get more coverage?' " recalls Widmer. "And I'd say, 'I know it's good stuff, and I know it's important, but it's kind of boring.' "

Like Widmer, veteran human-services lobbyist Judy Meredith suggests going easy on the sepia. Also in the '70s, she recalls, the sweeping, centralizing restructuring of the Massachusetts court system "was hardly covered. It had profound positive effects on the Commonwealth — but there was no scandal."

More with less?
Even if sexiness trumped substance in the Golden Age of State House coverage, though, the fact remains: there used to be more journalists in the building working to hold wayward politicians' feet to the fire. Now there are fewer — and after the Globe's travails run their course, there could be fewer still. Surely that's not a good thing?

This is a hard point to argue — but Rachelle Cohen, the Herald's editorial-page editor, suggests a caveat worth pondering. In the old days, says Cohen, who covered the State House for the Associated Press and the Herald, "If you wanted to go through campaign contributions, you had to sit there hand-copying everything. Sitting at a computer, using searchable databases, you can now do in the blink of an eye what used to take days. And if you run a newsgathering operation, and know what you're doing, you can do a hell of a lot more with fewer people."

Since the Herald is down to one full-time State House staffer, Cohen is hardly a dispassionate observer here. Still, her point is bolstered by the fact that Sean Murphy — the Globe reporter responsible for the aforementioned pension-abuses stories — is actually based outside the building.

Apologists for the status quo also make a point of noting that the State House News Service — the subscription-only, all-Beacon-Hill outfit — is stronger than it's ever been. But even taking that into account — and if scandal was always king, and today's journalists work more efficiently than their predecessors — the fact remains: the diminishment of the Globe's State House bureau would be a major setback for the public interest. As the DiMasi case suggests, politicians will always be tempted to tend to their business, not to the Commonwealth's, on Beacon Hill. And in the ongoing fight to prevent this from happening, the citizens of Massachusetts need all the help they can get.

To read the "Don't Quote Me" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/medialog. Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly@phx.com.

Editor's Note: In a previous version of this article, it was written that Boston Herald editorial-pages editor Rachelle Cohen worked at the State House for the Herald, United Press International, and the Associated Press. She did not work for UPI and the correction has been made above.

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