Like Rhee, Steve Burgard, director of Northeastern’s journalism school and a specialist in media ethics, thinks the Globe made the right call, albeit for different reasons. “It’s not unusual at all for law-enforcement or military officials to ask editors to withhold publication of information they’re concerned about,” Burgard observes. “But in this case, it seems to me [the BPD] would have had to demonstrate that publication would, in fact, cause real harm to individuals — because the newsworthiness of this truce and the almost historic setting in which these groups got together is so obviously an important city-news story.”
Ultimately, the question of whether the Globe made the right call is another iteration of a well-worn theme. (As Gay Talese recounts in The Kingdom and the Power: The Story of the Men Who Influence the Institution that Influences the World, there was sharp disagreement within the New York Times over whether to dilute and downplay a story on the pending Bay of Pigs invasion. The diluters and downplayers won.) And even if, hypothetically, some connection between Smalley’s November 5 scoop and Norfleet’s murder is ultimately revealed, a strong pro-publication argument could still be made. To wit: the Globe proceeded cautiously and with the endorsement of knowledgeable sources; there was no reason to anticipate Norfleet’s death; to not publish would have been tantamount to self-censorship.
Having said that, it seems odd that when the Globe reported Norfleet’s death on November 29, it made no mention of Smalley’s November 5 piece. (Like most other news outlets, the Globe loves to congratulate itself for getting there first.) It’s also striking that, on November 30, a Globe piece by Smalley and Brian Ballou relayed criticism of the Herald from the mother of the 14-year-old whom the tabloid had identified by name as a possible suspect in Norfleet’s killing. An odd combination, to say the least.
Patrick vs. the press
Last week, speaking to the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, governor-elect Deval Patrick had some choice words for his audience. According to the AP’s Glen Johnson, Patrick said some reporters “were openly contemptuous” of his campaign and failed to grasp the communal aspirations that motivated his supporters. “Whether it was skepticism, distraction, or the cynicism so many of us try to pass off as sophistication, some of your reporters missed ‘it,’ ” Patrick complained. “And ‘it’ is a bedrock democratic principle: to make any difference in our common reality, people must see their stake again in their neighbors’ dreams and struggles, as well as their own.”
“Put your cynicism down,” Patrick exhorted. “Don’t trivialize optimism and hope.”
What to make of Patrick’s sermon? First, it’s worth noting that — by painting the print media as bunch of cynical naysayers — Patrick is inoculating himself against future criticism by the press. As a pre-emptive move, it’s akin to outgoing governor Mitt Romney poking fun at the Massachusetts media while he travels the country prepping for his 2008 presidential bid. (“We have two factions of media in Boston,” Romney quipped during a recent visit to Washington, DC. “On the one hand, we have the Hillary-loving, Ted Kennedy apologists. And on the other, we have the liberals.”) Patrick’s comments also come at a time when he’s looking for a way to transform his grassroots organization into a tool for governance, as the Globe’s Frank Phillips reported this week. Whether Patrick can pull this off remains to be seen, but switching the old enemy (Healey) for a new one (the press) could certainly help the cause.