Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Media Blame Game and the Whitey Tipster

The drama involving the Icelandic tipster that helped the FBI finally land killer mobster James “Whitey” Bulger is one of those once-in-a-generation confluences of craziness. Naturally, the media had a field day.

But hopefully today marks the end of The Boston Herald’s jihad against the rival Boston Globe for outing the tipster that nailed Whitey and pocketed $2 million.

Like many, when I read the Globe expose Sunday, I wondered if they should have outed the tipster. Even as a Herald alum who loves my former paper, I worried one of Whitey’s pals – and he surely has some left – might scare her, stalk her or worse. I worried the media would have a field day chasing her down.

But some proper Globe explanation and the Herald’s overreach in its coverage has tempered my fears.

First off, it’s obvious to note that the Herald’s outrage was likely fueled by simply being beat. Ask any  honest editor or reporter if they would have printed it and the immediate answer would be, “Hell, yes.” Of course they would. And the Globe was absolutely right to do print it – in almost the way they did.

That is not to say the woman deserved to be outed. She didn’t. It’s a shame she was. “America’s Most Wanted” vet John Walsh, who knows something about tipsters and their impact on violent crime, is right that anonymous tipsters should have a right to privacy.

But the mistake wasn’t the Globe’s or the media’s.

Within hours of Whitey’s arrest, word leaked from law enforcement sources that the tipster came from Iceland. The minute any good journalist knew the tipster was a person from Iceland (a land of just 318,000 – who knew?) who had spent time in Santa Monica, it was only a matter of time before the Globe’s intrepid lead Whitey reporter, Shelly Murphy, tracked the woman down.

So the outrage should be pointed at the leaking feds, first and foremost.

In fairness, the Globe should have done a better job at telling the story behind the story before the controversy hit. It’s fair to say that, once Whitey (and most of the woman’s neighbors and friends) learned the tipster was from Iceland, he figured out exactly who it was. And it is important that the feds didn’t warn off the Globe when they were told of the paper’s plans.

Could they have made more effort to speak to the tipster? Possibly. The tipster was clearly blowing off the reporter in Iceland – twice – so she couldn’t have reasonably done more. But if, as it seems, the Globe had her email address, why not send her an email or letter from Globe editor Marty Baron? Would that have worked in getting her to speak? Probably not. But it would have shown the Globe went far beyond reasonable means to track her down, give her a chance to speak and warn her that the story was coming.

As Dan Kennedy and others noted, the Globe should have explained their rationale as the story was published – either in the paper edition Sunday or online. The New YorkTimes and other media are doing a great job of authoring compelling ‘story behind the story’ pieces online and as subscriber-only content. Sure, they are mostly for news geeks like me and my kind but they help set a historical record of historic pieces of journalism – and follow the wise PR strategy of getting out ahead of your critics.

Lessons learned on all sides. It won’t help the poor woman in Iceland fending off TMZ and nosy neighbors (and hopefully not worse). But don’t blame the Globe for good journalism.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Scott Brown's Revealing "Thank God" Non-Gaffe

We all know that a gaffe in politics is when a politician gets caught telling the truth. But the gaffes that stick are when candidates for high office do or say something that fulfills a notion that the media covering them desperately want to expose as a character flaw.

The best example in my time covering politics was the infamous Howard Dean scream the night he won the Iowa primary. I had covered the Vermont Governor’s rise from obscurity to frontrunner and, like many, had sensed the quirks in his personality. So when Dean appeared to become unhinged on stage, the media (my paper included) played it up – big time.

This has happened in politics countless times (Muskie’s tears, Michael Dukakis’ frigid answer to Bernie Shaw's rape question). So now it appears to be Scott Brown’s turn.

Fair or not, many in the media – and public – have seen Brown as a genuine good guy who is simply in way over his head. They believe the populace was charmed more by his barn coat, rugged looks and pickup than by his positions, stances and intellect.

Brown gifted to that crowd the “Thank God” moment yesterday, responding to Democratic front-runner Elizabeth Warren’s joke that she didn’t have to pose naked for Cosmo to help pay for her college education. The critics have pounced and blamed this as proof of Brown’s “frat house humor.” The media played happily along – in part because it’s just plain fun and politics is personality – but also because it drives home a part of Brown’s personality they have wanted to showcase.

Surely the Brown Brigades will cry media bias and try to utilize the clever but not-so-convincing spin that this somehow showcases elitism by Warren, the Harvard Law professor. That, for now, appears to be an overreach. Of course, it could lay the groundwork for a time when Warren does slip – and the media can turn the tables on her the same way.

For now, keep in mind another so-far ignored political tidbit in all this: Brown’s gaffe – intended or not – may just appeal to one key demographic in this election. Call them the former frat boys, NASCAR Dad’s, the Man Cave set or whatever you’d like but men of a certain persuasion, certain age and certain ideological bent were key to Brown’s tide of independent vote-getting in toppling Attorney General Martha Coakley. It was no accident Brown spent more time on sports talk radio than NPR – and it wasn’t just because they lobbed softball questions.

Is that proof the critics of Brown’s comment are right? Possibly. But is Brown crazy like a fox? The jury’s still out.

For now, I’m calling this gaffe what it seems to be – something that cuts both ways for Warren, Brown and the media.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Get in the Race – Or Get Out

There are key moments in the delicate rhythm of any political campaign - predictable moments like debates, big speeches, fundraising deadlines and even some polls. Those moments must be seized, harnessed and, with a bit of luck and skill, capitalized upon.

That is why the performances of the non-Elizabeth Warren Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in last night’s Boston Herald-UMass Lowell debate were so befuddling. Waking up today and seeing the Herald splash of “Bravo” to the Harvard Law professor and the Globe saying frontrunner Warren “stood firm,” must have been heartbreaking for the other five candidates remaining in the primary field.

But while they’re all surely blaming the media for ignoring their fine moments – and, truth be told, there were a few – they truly only have themselves to blame.

This applies more to candidates who actually have a shot, namely Alan Khazei and, to a lesser extent, Bob Massie and Tom Conroy. The moment passed and you let it pass. It’s time to get in the race or get out.

Let’s face it: the media likes a simple storyline. They are spread far too thin these days to be able to care about much more. Warren v. Brown is easy – it’s Democrat v. Republican, liberal v. conservative, Obama ally v. Obama critic, even man v. woman.

Very simply, one of these candidates is going to have to stand in front of the freight train that is becoming the Warren campaign or she will roll right into the general election matchup with Senator Scott Brown that she and her handlers so want.

Does this mean that they need to go negative? Of course not, though the time may come for that if they are within striking distance. The goal now is to stay afloat, to stay viable and to stay competitive at least into 2012.

How? Draw out differences and shatter the inevitability cloak surrounding Warren.

City Year co-founder Khazei and former lieutenant governor candidate Massie probably have the best odds there. Khazei and Warren clearly disagree on President Obama’s jobs bill. Khazei let the moment pass last night but he ought to be out there today drawing that distinction, making the case for his plan over hers and taking the fight to Warren as best he can.

Massie, like Khazei, has rejected political action committee donations – which Warren, to date, has not. Either or both candidates should be trying to widen that gulf and showcase Warren as the creature of the Democratic special interests while they represent the voice of the grassroots.

Are these issues enough to topple Goliath? Surely not. But they will allow at least two of the Davids to fight another day.

With fundraising reports for the latest quarter out soon, expectations are that Warren may well blow away her competitors in that key media measuring stick. Newton Mayor Setti Warren’s hasty retreat will only act like chum in the water for a media only too eager to write a few more political obituaries.

It’s up to the challengers now. They missed the first big moment last night, to their detriment and Warren’s clear gain. There aren’t many more moments like that left before they become afterthoughts and also-rans.