The Herald sticks by a flawed exclusive
by Dan Kennedy
You might think this would be an open-and-shut case. On Wednesday, August 16,
the Boston Herald ran a front-page exclusive by theater critic Terry
Byrne, reporting that the "upcoming season is expected to be the final one" for
Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre. Missing
from the story: any comment from Brustein (except for recycled bits of a 1999
interview) or from anyone else at the ART. The next day, the Boston
Globe came back with a piece by theater critic Ed Siegel in which Brustein
flatly denied the Herald story, saying, "There is absolutely nothing new
about my leaving. I will certainly be here a year beyond this
. . . . It could be another two, three, or four years."
Game, set, match, right?
Not according to Herald editors, who defiantly insist not only that
Byrne's piece was accurate, but that she made the correct decision in not
checking with either Brustein or the ART. The reason, according to managing
editor for features Kevin Convey and arts editor Greg Reibman, was that they
and Byrne believed ART officials would have leaked the story to the
Globe as soon as they got wind of what the Herald was up to.
Insisting that Byrne accurately reported what Brustein had told associates whom
she interviewed, Convey accuses ART officials of playing favorites with the
Globe and then "squealing like stuck pigs" when that results in coverage
they don't like. Reibman, calling the ART "the most arrogant cultural
institution in Boston," adds, "We're confident that they would have called the
Byrne, for her part, says she remains confident that she got it right. Of her
decision not to seek confirmation, she says, "It's something I personally
struggled with, and I didn't feel entirely comfortable. But we weren't going to
gain much by getting a pro forma denial, and there was much to lose."
This Tuesday, the Herald published a letter from ART managing director
Rob Orchard in which he charged that the paper's deliberate failure to seek
confirmation resulted in a piece "which had at its core a fundamental error."
In an interview with the Phoenix, ART spokeswoman Kati Mitchell denied
any charges of favoritism, saying, "I had actually made a promise to Terry
Byrne years ago that I wouldn't give scoops. And I have abided by that." But
Mitchell conceded that she steers some interviews to the Globe simply
because it is a larger newspaper.
Globe arts editor Scott Powers (who, by the way, is leaving next month
to take a similar job in his hometown at the Chicago Tribune) says of
the controversy: "It's Journalism 101 that you have to make all the phone calls
that you can to see whether a particular story is true."
Convey, however, says that would have resulted only in a "ritual denial" from
the ART -- and, most likely, a dime-drop to the Globe. "We're quite
confident that we're right," says Convey, noting that even in the Globe
piece, Brustein talks about scaling back his duties in a way that's consistent
with Byrne's story. Convey adds: "Now maybe Brustein is going to change his
mind. Maybe he's not. Time will tell."
Time will tell, but that doesn't get the Herald off the hook. For
want of a phone call, the paper looks wrong -- and may, in fact, be
wrong -- on an important front-page story. It's no secret that the
Herald lives and dies on the basis of its competitive zeal. In this
case, the editors let that zeal cloud their judgment, to the detriment of their
readers and, ultimately, themselves.