The Herald smears Mike Capuano in an overhyped front-page piece.
Plus, Eileen McNamara and the Moonies, and Danny Schechter's missing lines.
For an Italian-American politician, being accused of consorting with
organized-crime figures is something that goes with the territory. So pervasive
is this ugly stereotype that even such reasonably fastidious public officials
as Frank Bellotti and Mario Cuomo have seen their career ambitions damaged by
persistent whispering campaigns. Thus it's no surprise that Somerville mayor
Mike Capuano, a virtual lock to succeed Joe Kennedy in Congress this November,
was blindsided by a smear last week on the front page of the Boston
The September 21 story was headlined CAPUANO ACCUSED OF FAVORITISM IN
MOBSTER'S LAND DEAL. But the article itself, by Thomas Grillo, was little more
than an excuse to juxtapose the words Capuano and mobster.
Grillo breathlessly reported that Capuano was allowing the family of mobster
Howie Winter to sell some properties they own to the Wendy's fast-food chain,
even though the city had seized the land a year earlier for failure to pay back
taxes. What Grillo did not make clear -- but what was crystal clear in a
follow-up by his Herald colleague Jack Sullivan, as well as in the
Boston Globe and the Somerville Journal -- was that Capuano was
merely following state law and long-standing city policy in giving the Winters
one year from the time of seizure to pay the delinquent tax bill. (Oddly, the
three papers couldn't agree on how much the Winters owe. The Herald said
$175,000; the Globe, "more than $250,000"; the Journal,
As it turns out, this rancid story had been making the rounds for several
weeks before the September 15 primary, when Capuano defeated nine
Democratic rivals in the Eighth District race to succeed Kennedy. Among those
who checked it out was Globe State House bureau chief Frank Phillips.
"There just wasn't a story there," Phillips says, adding that several outside
lawyers he interviewed confirmed the Capuano administration's interpretation of
the law. Indeed, after Grillo's story ran, the Globe followed up with a
piece by Steve Kurkjian, one of the paper's top investigative reporters -- and
he didn't find anything either.
It's not that there's no basis for a story. After all, the proposed Wendy's
has been controversial among neighbors. And alderman Joe Curtatone, a Capuano
foe who hopes to succeed him as mayor, did tell Grillo, "I don't like the
perception that the Winter family is getting special treatment." (Curtatone
told the Phoenix that he thought Grillo's story was "accurate.")
But Grillo's overwrought spin, and his failure to obtain comment from Capuano
or from other members of his administration, creates an impression of mayoral
favoritism toward the mob that just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. What might
have been an interesting inside-the-paper story instead became a front-page
screamer, filled with hype and hot air. "The story was accurate, but it could
have used a different tone," concedes managing editor for news Andrew Gully.
The explanation for why it didn't may lie in Grillo's own background, and in
the way he is alleged to have pursued this particular story.
First, Grillo is a Somerville native who for many years was politically active
in his hometown. (He now lives in MetroWest.) A former teacher and failed
school-committee candidate in the 1970s, he is widely known to be friendly with
officials who aren't exactly friends of Capuano's, such as state representative
Patricia Jehlen. Alderman John Buonomo, who ran against Capuano in 1989 and who
is considering another mayoral run, says Grillo called him seeking comment on
the Winter property and seemed unwilling to listen to explanations that favored
Capuano's position. "He wanted me to confirm things that were not confirmable,"
Buonomo says. "I got the impression that he wanted to run with the story."
Second, although Grillo wrote that Somerville officials failed to return
"repeated calls over one week" and that Capuano himself claimed he didn't have
time to comment, Capuano and his press secretary, Alison Mills, tell a
different story. Mills says Grillo made several calls to City Hall before the
primary, and in a few instances hung up on city officials. Capuano says he did
not personally hear from Grillo until the evening of Friday, September 18,
just as he and his family were leaving for a weekend in New Jersey and
Connecticut. He says he told Grillo he could not talk until he returned home,
on Sunday. "I walked away with the clear impression that he'd call again and
we'd talk," Capuano says. "There was no implication of urgency whatsoever --
all the more reason to think he'd give me a clean shot." Instead, Grillo rushed
the piece to completion over the weekend.
Third, the Herald's own editing system broke down. Because of the
haste, the story was handled by the city desk. Deputy managing editor for news
Jim McLaughlin says Grillo did not tell the desk about his previous political
ties and seemed not to understand that they could create "the appearance of a
conflict of interest." Worse, Joe Sciacca, the Herald's deputy managing
editor for politics and investigations, was never even told the piece was
coming, an oversight that he admits had him steaming. "I was completely
surprised by the story," Sciacca says.
Grillo's side of things will have to go unrecorded: his boss, McLaughlin,
refuses to let him comment. But executive city editor Dan Rosenfeld, who
actually handled the story, offers a vote of confidence for Grillo, a temporary
staff member who's hoping to land a permanent position. "I've worked with Tom
since he came over here in April, and I have complete confidence in him to be
fair with everybody," says Rosenfeld.
As for Capuano himself, the damage is done. As one Capuano aide notes, every
computer search on Capuano's background from now until the end of his career
will turn up a story suggesting that he once played footsie with Howie Winter.
"I'm very unhappy about it," says McLaughlin. "It was factually correct, but I
don't think it was necessarily fair."
Capuano, asked about the impact of the story, sounded unhappy but basically
unfazed, saying he saw it less as a slur on him than on his city -- a community
about which, as he puts it, people joke: "Oh, you're from Somerville. How many
dead bodies do you have in your trunk?"
The twist, as Capuano sees it, is that Grillo, an Italian-American and a
Somerville native, has now managed to contribute to those stereotypes. "I
thought I knew what to expect out of Tommy Grillo," Capuano says. "And that was
The Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church has so far been distinctly
unsuccessful in its efforts to lump Globe metro columnist Eileen
McNamara -- the ghostwriter of a new autobiography that's highly critical of
Moon -- with her disgraced former colleagues Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle.
A Lexis-Nexis search this week revealed that only one paper, the Raleigh (North
Carolina) News & Observer, has run anything on the church's
unsubstantiated allegations that McNamara plagiarized. In addition, the
Boston Herald's "Inside Track" ran a brief item on those allegations
last Wednesday, the same day the Globe reported on them extensively. The
Tracksters' verdict: "not clear cut and . . . not thought to be
Actually, to call the charges "not clear cut" is too fair to McNamara's
accusers, who in fact have no case at all. But Steven Hassan, a former top
Unification Church official who's now a nationally respected expert on
religious cults, doubts that the Moon organization is really trying to mold
public opinion. It's Moon's devotees, Hassan suspects, who are the intended
"It sounded to me like an internal damage-control technique," says Hassan,
who's based in the Boston area. "What they want to do is give something to the
members so that they'll distrust the media. I don't think they believe that
they're going to convince the general public."
McNamara is an unnamed collaborator on In the Shadow of the Moons
(Little, Brown), an autobiography by former Moon daughter-in-law Nansook Hong,
who says she suffered physical abuse and other indignities at the hands of Moon
and his family.
Last Wednesday, the Globe reported that Hong and McNamara have been
accused of plagiarizing from a largely favorable 1991 book about the
Unification Church by George Chryssides, a British religious scholar. Yet the
story -- by Globe staffer Joseph Kahn -- proves nothing except that Hong
and McNamara repeated a few well-known stories about the church. And McNamara,
in a follow-up column, suggests that the Globe made a significant
omission: the fact that both books relied on the church's official
The wispiness of the charges has led some of McNamara's colleagues to
criticize the Globe for reporting on them in the first place.
Unfortunately, it's unrealistic to think that the paper could do otherwise.
Living-section editor Nick King says the Globe was working on the story
even before it knew that McNamara was the coauthor. "If we had a story before
we knew Eileen was involved, then we felt we had a story after we learned
Eileen was involved," King says. (If nothing else, the dispute lends credence
to McNamara's contention that Little, Brown should have gone along with her
request to include a bibliography and chapter notes -- something she has now
been told will be done in subsequent editions.)
Trouble is, in bending over backward to be fair to the Moon organization, the
Globe story ended up being unfair to McNamara, both in tone (A SMEAR
CAMPAIGN, OR DID GLOBE WRITER PLAGIARIZE? reads the subhead) and
substance (Kahn should have made it clear that both McNamara and Chryssides
apparently relied on the same primary-source materials, although King says
McNamara's words follow Chryssides's more closely than they do the primary
McNamara herself declines to speak about the affair in any detail, but she
seems peeved at the Globe's coverage. "What's the story?" she asked in a
brief interview. "It's not even remotely plagiarism, so where's the story
Back in the 1970s, when Danny Schechter was WBCN's "News Dissector," you could
always count on him to weigh in with news and commentary that just wasn't
available in the mainstream.
It appears that's still true.
On September 22, the Globe editorial page published a letter by
Schechter, who now heads the progressive TV production company Globalvision.
Schechter criticized the Globe's coverage of, and editorial on, Nelson
Mandela's recent visit to Harvard.
What's more interesting, though, is what didn't make it into print. Of course,
most letters to the editor are cut for reasons of space. But the Globe
excised a rather stinging rebuke of the media.
"[I]n your editorial, you say `it does seem that the world is at present
bereft of heroes,' " Schechter wrote. "Not true. For years, our company,
Globalvision, has been producing TV shows about gutsy human-rights heroes
worldwide, very much like (and including) President
Mandela. . . . The problem is not the lack of heroes -- but a
media refusal to report on and celebrate them with any regularity. Often, they
have to be 80 years old or dead to be considered newsworthy. No wonder our kids
have so few authentic role models. Why do the media prefer `all Monica, all the
time' to `all the Mandelas all the time'? Ask yourselves that one."
Contacted at Globalvision's headquarters, in New York, Schechter -- a former
Nieman Fellow at Harvard -- sounded more bemused than angry. "I just thought it
was an interesting editing decision," he says of his truncated letter. "I'm
glad they printed some of it. And the Globe's coverage is better than
that of most papers. But the irony struck me."
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here