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Not a Nice Newspaper

Why, they ask, do you only give us the bad news?

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Thursday, September 18, 2008
Paul Shoul photo
Organized crime boss Al Bruno leaves the Hampden County courthouse.

In more than a dozen years working at the Advocate, I've heard plenty of criticisms of my work and my paper. I try to be a good sport about most of it.

After all, I get paid to publicly pass judgments, and particularly to inflict on readers my opinions about which public figures are scoundrels or frauds, empty suits or bums, or even—oh, those rare but happy days—capable, well-intentioned, honorable people. So it only seems fair that when a critic lets fly with his or her opinion that I'm blinded by my biases, hopelessly bleeding-hearted, or just plain lousy at my job, I keep my mouth more or less shut. Don't accuse me of fabricating facts or "misquoting" you (the last refuge of the loose-lipped source with day-after cold feet) and you can call me a bum, too. Deal?

But there's one criticism that would be hard to let pass without comment: that the Advocate isn't nice enough.

Why don't I write more positive stories, this particular brand of critic will ask. Why do I always focus on the bad stuff, and not offer readers some good news?

After a few dumbfounded moments, I'm usually able to recover enough to offer an honest (if invariably all-around unsatisfying) response: I think I write plenty of positive stories—at least by my definition of positive. A community group organizing against police brutality, or fighting to make the election system fairer, or working to wrest control of the city libraries from the hands of an officious group of out-of-towners? I'd call those all positive stories. Corrupt public officials being sent to jail? Sounds like good news to me.

I get why that answer might sound glib to some people. And I get why people have a deep desire for "happier" news stories. When the national economy's in the tank, when your city's government is in such shambles that the state takes over, when you worry that your kid's learning more about gang signs than algebra at school, a nice article about the hard-working Eagle Scout earning his final badge, or the mama bear adopting the orphaned raccoon, can be a welcome respite. When people are worn down by a seemingly endless stream of bad news—locally, nationally, internationally—and disheartened by the increasing ugliness of public discourse, of course they want the occasional reminder that not everyone is a creep, not everything is so bleak.

Here's the problem, though: a lot of the news is, in fact, bleak, and some of the newsmakers are, indeed, creeps. And a lot of those creeps are expert at exploiting the public's weariness over bad news, and casting those who tell the unpleasant truths as obstructionists or party-poopers.

Recall how much mileage then-Mayor Mike Albano (and his enablers at the Springfield Republican) got out of slapping the "naysayer" label on anyone—community activists, rival politicians, reporters—who dared to question the wisdom of building a city's economy on a third-rate, taxpayer-funded ball park and a collection of mobbed-up bars? It was a cynical ploy, and an effective one—so effective that it helped Albano win the 2001 election over state Rep. Paul Caron, whose so-called "doom and gloom" message was, in fact, dead-on accurate, and who might very well have helped prevent Springfield's eventual crash.

If the public is vulnerable to the slick dishonesty that kept Albano in office for so long, some blame lies with the mainstream media, which has largely trained its readers and listeners to accept the facile explanations, the empty cheerleading and all-around pap they serve up on a daily basis. Conventional wisdom says the media revel in the kind of bad news that makes for shocking headlines; "If it bleeds, it leads," as they say. And while car accidents and house fires do comprise an inordinate amount of local news coverage, I'd counter that, overall, the Valley media are way too tame, and way too skittish about covering controversy. It's not that I've got anything against sweet photos of kids at a peach festival—except when it comes at the expense of, say, deep coverage of city government.

 

Some of the media's timidity is due, no doubt, to the chronic lack of resources across the industry, which has all but abandoned the notion of investigative or enterprise reporting. In some newsrooms, too, there's an unfortunate tradition of undeserved deference to authority, a peculiar brand of circular logic that suggests that if someone can get himself elected to public office, then he must be a worthy individual, above questioning, much less reproach. In other cases, old-fashioned laziness is to blame.

But in the Springfield media market, at least, there's been another, more insidious force at work: the Springfield Republican. The Republican has a number of excellent investigative and news reporters on its staff; it also has a commendable tendency to fight back when officials try to deny reporters access to public records. But those strong points have too often been undercut by one of the Republican's less honorable traditions of trying to wield undue influence over local politics—often successfully.

The Republican's power over certain elected officials is shamefully legendary; plenty of weak-kneed city councilors and legislators learned quickly that when David Starr—one-time publisher of the Republican, and now its president—called to "discuss" some matter or other, they'd be wise to stop, drop and roll. Those who rebuffed those advances could expect scant attention in the news section and regular drubbings on the editorial page.

Starr's meddling played out in other ways, too. Did you ever wonder, for instance, why the paper's coverage of the Springfield Library and Museums Association's sneaky, destructive decision to sell off the Mason Square library has been so tepid? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Starr is a long-time member of the SLMA's board. Not that you'll often read about that little conflict of interest in his newspaper.

One of the Republican's biggest sins, of course, was its shameless shilling for the charlatan Albano, whom the paper doggedly continued to present as Springfield's knight in shining armor, despite the ever-mounting pile of evidence to the contrary. Even today—after Albano left the city in financial ruin and moved to East Longmeadow, after the feds sent a number of his cronies off to jail on corruption charges—the newspaper still persists in periodically trotting out the old mayor and various members of his gang as credible sources.

To be honest, the Republican's disservice to its readers has been a gift—unintended, of course—to the Advocate. Over the years, I've watched the definition of the "alternative" press morph. Independent, non-corporate? Given how many alternative papers are owned by giant corporations (including, from 1999 until last year, the Advocate), that definition no longer fits. Politically liberal? That one comes closer, but read a few columns in most alt weeklies and you'll see a fairly wide range of political perspectives.

My favorite definition has always been the most literal: the job of the alternative press is to offer readers an alternative to whatever the mainstream press is offering. In Springfield, for many years, that included critical, intellectually honest coverage of the shenanigans at City Hall.

I've had readers tell me, sometimes apologetically, that the Advocate's coverage of Springfield got duller over the past few years. Often they're the same people who told me, only half-jokingly, that Charlie Ryan's election in 2003 was good news for the city, but bad news for my paper. The Advocate, to be blunt, had a field day during the Albano years, when the corruption and bad-faith dealings, thuggy behavior and generally lousy governing could have kept a squadron of reporters busy around the clock.

Those years ended, of course, in what I saw as the ultimate "good news" story: the election of Ryan, and the restoration of integrity and professionalism to City Hall. Sure, there were plenty of meaty stories to cover: the string of corruption convictions, the city's fiscal struggles, the tensions around the arrival of the Finance Control Board, the reshuffling of various political alliances. But—according to some faithful readers, at least—it just wasn't the same.

Ryan's ouster from office last year, after two terms, felt like a shock. Maybe it shouldn't have. Ryan was a fine mayor, perhaps the city's finest, but he was no snake-oil salesman. After four years of tough news—of trash fees and unhappy labor negotiations and all-around belt-tightening—voters apparently got nostalgic for the old days of shiny promises and smooth operators.

People, it would appear, prefer the "good news" stories because—stop the presses!—they're just more pleasant to hear after a hard day. Maybe it's human nature to want to believe that most people are good. Sadly, it's also the nature of some humans to steal, lie, cheat and exploit the generous hearts of their neighbors. Unfortunately, Springfield voters seem to have an uncanny ability to put a good portion of those lesser humans into public office.

Lately, I've been hearing positive feedback from readers left unhappy during the Ryan years. Their renewed enthusiasm for the Advocate and the perceived new energy in its Springfield news coverage coincides, not just fortuitously, with the election of Mayor Dom Sarno. The Advocate's skeptical coverage of Sarno's lackluster performance, and our questioning of the political motives behind some of his decisions (or, more precisely, his lack of decisions) has landed the newspaper in the new mayor's doghouse, a place we occupied throughout the Albano years.

This time, however, we're not alone. The Republican, for one, has not given Sarno nearly the same slack it accorded Albano (whether that's for virtuous or self-serving reasons remains to be seen). Sarno hasn't been able to charm the local media in quite the same way Albano managed to (which is interesting, since Sarno is personally more likeable). Perhaps four years of the Ryan administration encouraged us all to adopt higher standards for our political leaders.

Or perhaps the mainstream media is feeling increased pressure from the ever-widening pool of other media, most of it on the Web. The public forums at MassLive.com might not achieve Algonquin Roundtable-like heights—Thurber and Parker would likely have little use for the sputtering racists and overgrown adolescents nursing their grievances there—but it has been an invaluable place for real people to knock around the issues, more or less unimpeded by media gatekeepers. (It also counts among its contributors some very thoughtful and provocative minds; "NoPol," if we ever meet, please let me buy you a beer.)

Then there are all the local bloggers—Tom Devine and Bill Dusty, Michaelann Bewsee and Mike Dobbs, "City Notes" and the late, lamented "Urban Compass"—whose work varies widely in content and perspective but is united by a shared commitment to honesty and an absence of knee-jerk deference. They are the real "alternative" press these days, and we're all richer for them—and not just because it means the Advocate isn't the only grumpy voice allegedly raining on City Hall's collective parade. I guess the miserable love company.

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