Pardon us

How the Mass media failed voters in 2006  
November 2, 2006 5:31:45 PM


This year’s Massachusetts governor’s race was fraught with significance. On the Democratic side, we had Deval Patrick, an outsider with Bill Clinton’s communication skills and Howard Dean’s affinity for Web-driven grassroots organizing. If Patrick wins on November 7, he’ll be the first black governor in Massachusetts history and the second elected in the US. The GOP countered with Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, an inexperienced but fabulously wealthy candidate who vowed early allegiance to moderate Republicanism. If Healey wins next week, she’ll be our first elected female governor. Add the teetering national balance between Democrats and Republicans, throw in the potential implications for outgoing Republican governor Mitt Romney’s presidential hopes, and the stage was set for reams of incisive, thought-provoking political reportage.

But what stories ended up defining the race? Here’s my short list: Patrick’s reluctance to admit his ties to (perhaps wrongly) convicted rapist Ben LaGuer. Healey’s foolish, fear-mongering ad about LaGuer and Patrick. The revelation (from a still-unknown source) that Patrick’s sister was raped by her husband, Bernard Sigh, years ago in California, and that Sigh, who reconciled with his wife and now lives in Massachusetts, never registered as a sex offender.

Now let’s try a different question: without going to Patrick and Healey’s Web sites, what’s at the top of each candidate’s to-do list if he or she wins on November 7?

Well . . . Healey wants to finish cutting the income tax to five percent per the electorate’s 1998 vote. But I can’t tell you why Healey thinks she could pull this off when Republican governors Mitt Romney and Paul Cellucci couldn’t, or how much money Massachusetts would lose if she did, or how the rollback would be reflected in a Healey-administration budget. She’d also add charter schools, apparently, and get tough on illegal immigrants and sex offenders, somehow.

As for Patrick, who’s got a fat lead in the polls and seems certain to win, I know he says he’ll cut property taxes instead of the income tax, and spiff up roads and bridges. Apparently he’ll cut property taxes by beefing up local aid, theoretically. And he’ll fund those local-aid hikes and road and bridge improvements by raiding the state’s budget surplus — unless the surplus vanishes, in which case he’ll get the money somewhere else, maybe. Patrick also says we need to fix the funding mechanism for charter schools, which has some flaw I don’t fully understand.

It’s embarrassing to be this half-assed after covering the governor’s race for almost two years. My consolation, such as it is, is that I’m not the only member of the press who’s frustrated by his or her grasp of key public-policy issues — or who thinks that, collectively, we may have let Massachusetts down.
One reporter I spoke with recently rattled off a slew of key topics — taxes, the MCAS, charter schools, the funding mechanism for local aid — and offered this disheartening assessment: “The problem is, I feel like I don’t understand any more about any of these issues than I did before the whole thing started. No one has made any sense of these things. That’s our job, and I don’t think we’ve done it.”

Another journalist put it this way: with the election less than a week away, we don’t really know how Patrick or Healey would control spiraling payroll or pension costs, or rein in rogue agencies like Massport, or manage the ongoing Big Dig mess. For that matter, we don’t even know who they might tap for their cabinet come January. “After the votes are counted,” Journalist #2 concluded, “the question is this: are any of the things that have been major stories during the campaign going to make any difference to the average citizen of Massachusetts over the next four years?”

The answer is, probably not. So what went wrong?

By way of an answer, let’s start with the Globe — which, for better or worse, remains the 800-pound-gorilla of Boston journalism. David Dahl, the paper’s political editor, insists (not surprisingly) that the paper’s coverage of the race has been strong. “I think the Globe always dominates political coverage, and we did it again this cycle,” Dahl says. “We wanted to do the most comprehensive coverage, and break all the big stories, and serve our readers as well as we could. And we still have several days to go.”

This swagger isn’t entirely groundless, especially if you look back to the Democratic primary. Early in 2005, when Tom Reilly looked like the automatic Democratic nominee, Frank Phillips was the first reporter in town to note that some guy named Deval Patrick was weighing a run. After Reilly made Marie St. Fleur his running mate, reporters Walter Robinson and Michael Rezendes broke the story about St. Fleur’s tax woes; St. Fleur withdrew from the race the next day. Later, Joan Vennochi revealed the Reilly camp’s connection to anti-Coke activist Ray Rogers in a column that served as the death knell for Reilly’s campaign. And while the Herald actually reported Patrick’s ties to LaGuer first, the Globe’s Andrea Estes ferreted out the full extent of those ties after Patrick failed to disclose them.

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"Ultimately, it all boils down to one simple question: is it really the media’s job to decide what subjects are worthy of discussion?" It is sad that you should even ask. It is the primary responsibility of the press to ensure that the electorate is aware of all relevant issues so they may cast an informed vote. Shying from or avoiding some issues because they are embarrassing negates the very reason for your existence. There is nothing more elemental to the governance of a state than the integrity of its legal system. When Massachusetts has a demonstrably corrupt legal system incapable of coping with its own corruption and the press avoids the obvious, it has utterly failed in its primary mission. I expect this willful oversight will be remedied by the out-of-state press when they cover Mitt Romney's run for the presidency and his willful failure to address the corruption of the legal system in Massachusetts. It will also be a marvelous opportunity for the guru of civil rights to show the voters his true mettle.

POSTED BY Krogy AT 11/06/06 12:23 PM

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