The story has long been the stuff of half-forgotten media legend. In the 1950s, the then-mighty Boston Herald won a highly coveted license to operate a local television station thanks to the intervention of powerful friends, including Joseph Kennedy and the Eisenhower White House. The underdog Boston Globe — outmaneuvered and outpoliticked — struck back with some tough reporting that showed the Herald’s owner had sought improperly to influence the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
It took more than a decade of hearings and legal machinations, but in 1972 the Herald lost its TV station, and has been limping along in various incarnations ever since. The Globe, meanwhile, emerged as the dominant media institution in New England — the largest daily newspaper and a powerful force not just in reporting the news, but in defining the region’s political and business agenda as well.
Now comes new evidence — previously hinted at but never fully revealed — that the Globe had a powerful secret ally. In his forthcoming biography, Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century (Little, Brown, 768 pages, $27.95), Globe Washington-bureau editor John Aloysius Farrell reveals that the Globe was assisted by none other than US Representative Thomas P. O’Neill, the future Mister Speaker himself.
According to Farrell (a 48-year-old Long Island native who is not related to retired Globe columnist David Farrell), O’Neill was worried about the political implications of a media landscape dominated by the Republican Herald and surreptitiously pulled the strings in an investigation of the FCC’s suspiciously partisan handling of television-station licenses. He also gave the Globe’s Washington correspondent, Robert Healy, full access to the details of that investigation.
Thus it was O’Neill’s people who fed Healy the information he needed to show that the Herald had obtained the license to Channel 5 (then WHDH-TV) through corrupt means. It was an extraordinary story, almost too weird to be believed, involving favor-trading over a Pulitzer Prize for John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage and the fall of Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, who resigned after it was revealed that he had accepted an expensive coat for his wife from a New England textile manufacturer named Bernard Goldfine. When it was over, O’Neill had saved the Globe — and had placed the paper firmly in his back pocket.
“O’Neill’s intercession on behalf of the Globe, and its subsequent rise to become the state’s leading newspaper, altered the course of Massachusetts politics and journalism — and gave O’Neill a powerful ally, and protective friends, in the news business back home,” Farrell writes. Or as Healy said of O’Neill in an interview with Farrell: “He did right for the Globe and all right in the Globe through the years.”
Although the extent of Tip O’Neill’s involvement had not been previously known, the other elements of the story have been told in books such as Louis Lyons’s Newspaper Story: One Hundred Years of the Boston Globe (1971) and J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer-winning book on Boston’s school-desegregation crisis, Common Ground (1985).
It began in January 1956, at a lunch at the Somerset Club on Beacon Hill attended by, among others, Herald publisher Robert “Beanie” Choate and Globe publisher Davis Taylor. The once-dominant Boston Post was about to fold, and Choate proposed that the Herald and the Globe — the largest and most influential of the city’s remaining papers — combine their forces and thus avoid an expensive newspaper war. When Taylor refused, Choate reportedly told him: “You fellows are stubborn. Worse than that, you’re arrogant. You better listen to us or we’ll teach you a lesson. I’m going to get Channel 5, and with my television revenues I’ll put you out of business.”
Two commercial TV channels were already on the air in Boston. Under FCC guidelines, the third license — that is, Channel 5 — should not have been awarded to the Herald, which already owned two radio stations, because of rules against the concentration of media ownership. Yet it was, after a furious round of lobbying by Choate. When Davis Taylor and his cousin John Taylor made the rounds in Washington to find out what had gone wrong, they were told by House Minority Leader Joe Martin, “I’m afraid you fellas have just been outpoliticked.”
Indeed they had been. It seems that Joe Kennedy was determined to win his son Jack a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, which the future president may or may not have actually written. The judges in the biography category were so unimpressed with Profiles that it did not even appear among the eight books they nominated, so Kennedy and his friend Arthur Krock — a veteran New York Times columnist who had stepped down as chairman of the Pulitzer board just several years earlier — worked to persuade board members to overrule the judges and award the prize to Jack Kennedy. Joe Kennedy and Krock succeeded.
Alex Jones, who, with his wife, Susan Tifft, documented the Kennedy-Krock relationship in The Trust (1999) — a biography of the Sulzberger family, owners of the New York Times — has little doubt that Krock would have made the difference. “He would have known every member of the board personally, and he would have had an opportunity to lobby them. His lobbying would not have been taken lightly, I would imagine,” says Jones, who is the director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Among the Pulitzer board members who concluded that Profiles in Courage really did kick ass was Beanie Choate. No surprise there. Joe Kennedy had dispatched one of his coat-holders, Francis Xavier Morrissey, a municipal-court judge, to assure Choate that he would get the license to Channel 5 if he voted to give JFK a Pulitzer. And Joe Kennedy was as good as his word. By a four-to-two vote, the FCC granted the license to Choate; siding with the majority were two commissioners with close ties to Kennedy. (Ironically, Bob Healy helped win the Globe its first Pulitzer several years later when his reporting forced Lyndon Johnson to withdraw his nomination of Morrissey for a federal judgeship.)
Healy, the son of a Globe mailroom employee who had himself joined the paper as a copy boy right out of high school in 1942, was dispatched to Washington in 1957, replacing future editor Tom Winship, who had been called back home to Boston. Lyons describes Healy as “[b]ig, hearty, with a durable physique and an appetite for work, a native intelligence and engaging personality.” He was also a man with two missions: to cover Washington, and to break news that would strip the Herald of its ill-gotten TV license and thus save the Globe. And he came through, reporting that telephone records obtained by government investigators showed there had been improper contact between Choate and FCC chairman George McConnaughey. There were other stories, but Healy’s was the clincher, and it kicked off the chain of events that led to the Herald’s losing Channel 5 in the early ’70s.
All of this is established history. What wasn’t known until Jack Farrell’s book came out was how Tip O’Neill had urged it along. This was smart politics on O’Neill’s part. O’Neill at that time hoped to run for governor someday, and a media landscape dominated by the Herald would not have been hospitable to an Irish-American Democrat. Beanie Choate’s Herald wasn’t just Republican; it exuded a certain type of Yankee Republicanism that defined itself mainly by its opposition to the Irish ascendancy. The Taylors were just as Yankee as Choate, but the Globe had a well-established reputation for being friendly both to Irish-Americans and to Democrats.
With congressional Democrats pushing for a probe of federal regulatory agencies, O’Neill managed to appoint a young lawyer and Boston College graduate, Francis McLaughlin, as an investigator. The subcommittee conducting the investigation, in turn, hired a New York University professor, Bernard Schwartz, to run the investigation. Schwartz had been chosen out of a belief that he could be manipulated; instead, he turned out to be a pit bull. And O’Neill made sure Bob Healy was right in the middle of it. In an interview with Farrell, Healy recounted a conversation he had with O’Neill. “Jesus, if I help you, the Globe will write a nice profile for me,” O’Neill told Healy, “but if Choate finds out, the Herald will kill me.” But O’Neill agreed to help anyway, and Healy told Farrell approvingly, “I married Bernie Schwartz. I mean I married the sucker. And Francis Xavier McLaughlin was Tip’s patronage. And he was my angel — and everybody’s angel at the Globe.”
How close was Healy to the investigation? Farrell reports that when Schwartz was fired, he took files out of the subcommittee’s office. Healy, with $5000 in Globe money, hired a photographer to make copies before the files were returned. And when McLaughlin walked into the offices of New England Telephone Company, subpoena in hand, Healy was with him. Healy told Farrell about the thrill of finding the records that revealed the calls between Beanie Choate and George McConnaughey. “Holy shit! By the time we got through with it, you know, McConnaughey was in their vest pocket,” Healy said. The evidence — combined with the photographed records — was enough to persuade a federal court to reopen the case.
The same subcommittee investigation — relying on a dime-drop from O’Neill — revealed the improper ties between Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine. The evidence: a $700 vicuña coat and other gifts from Goldfine, and numerous favors for Goldfine performed by Adams. Another one of Adams’s frequent suitors, it turned out, was Beanie Choate.
Just to show how convoluted it all got, Farrell also reports that the young Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, the scion of an old New England family who was then covering the Adams story for Newsweek, was enjoying every moment of Choate’s misfortune. Choate and Bradlee were distant cousins, and Bradlee was nursing a grudge over Choate’s failure to give him a job after World War II.
“This little angelic-faced Healy. He looked like a choirboy,” Bradlee told Farrell. “Nobody would think what he was up to. He and I shared stuff. I loved the fact Choate was in trouble.” And Bradlee, who’d become a legend himself as executive editor of the Washington Post, is the father of Ben Bradlee Jr., a deputy managing editor of the Globe.
In retrospect, perhaps what’s most surprising about the O’Neill-Healy partnership is that, for a time, the Kennedys and the Globe were on opposite sides. That would not last for long. Healy became exceptionally close to the Kennedys. New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, in Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography (1999), reports that in December 1960 Healy broke the news that Ted Kennedy might run for JFK’s Senate seat in 1962. Healy’s source: the president-elect himself, who dropped the bombshell when he and Healy were lounging together in Palm Beach, Florida.
Two years later, Healy acted as the intermediary between JFK and the Globe over the story that Teddy had been thrown out of Harvard after he’d been caught cheating. Healy has always insisted there was no agreement to play down the story in exchange for the documents, and that in fact he had rejected a proposal by JFK that the cheating scandal be buried in a long profile. But the Globe’s treatment — below the fold on page one, with a rather respectful tone — suggested at least a tacit understanding, if not an outright deal.
The Globe’s close relationship with the Kennedys played itself out in a faint echo of the Channel 5 story in 1988, when Rupert Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, purchased Channel 25. Kennedy quietly slipped a provision into a bill that made it almost impossible for the FCC to grant a waiver to its rule prohibiting someone from owning both a daily newspaper and a TV station in the same market. Murdoch chose to sell off Channel 25, thus saving the Herald. But Herald columnist Howie Carr remains bitter, saying that Kennedy’s actions were worse than O’Neill’s a generation earlier, since O’Neill was just trying to help one of many papers rather than destroy the Globe’s only daily competitor. “I think Tip was just trying to get an ally, whereas Ted was trying to kill the paper in order to deliver the monopoly to his friends,” Carr says.
In a sense the common denominator to all of these stories is Bob Healy, who befriended both O’Neill and the Kennedys. Healy was the Zelig of the Globe, at the center of all kinds of stories involving the paper. Eventually he rose to the post of executive editor, number two to his old friend Tom Winship. It was Healy who brought a young political operative named Mike Barnicle to the paper in 1973, to replace the terminally ill columnist George Frazier. Healy had met Barnicle at Robert Redford’s estate, Sundance; Barnicle knew Redford from working on the script for Redford’s movie The Candidate. (As is characteristic of Barnicle’s ethically checkered career, the question of how much work he did has been the subject of loud debate.)
[Editor's note: Shortly after this article was published (February 9, 2001), the Phoenix was told by screenwriter Jeremy Larner that Barnicle did no work on the script for The Candidate. "I wrote every word of it," said Larner, whose script won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.]
Farrell, in his O’Neill book, reveals another previously unreported fact about Healy: that in 1968 he briefly worked on Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. “It struck me dumb when he told me,” Farrell says now. Although the book does not make the circumstances clear, Farrell says it’s his understanding that Healy asked Winship for a leave so that he could talk to McCarthy about taking a position with his campaign. Ultimately, Healy chose not to take it. Although Farrell’s book at one point describes Healy as “wearing the two hats of activist and reporter,” Farrell told me, “Was he ever doing it [working for the Globe and for McCarthy] at the same time? I don’t think so.”
Winship himself has no memory of Healy’s dalliance with McCarthy, saying, “It’s total news to me. I rather doubt it.” Former editorial-page editor Martin Nolan, who’s now retired in San Francisco but who still writes for the op-ed page, says he has no memory of it either, even though he covered the McCarthy campaign. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put the question to Healy himself. He’s away on vacation this week, and a member of his family told me that he’s staying at a place without a phone. Perhaps the truth is that Healy occasionally supplied some informal advice to the McCarthy campaign — unethical by today’s standards, but hardly unusual back then.
In fact, what lies at the heart of many of Farrell’s stories about Tip O’Neill and the Globe is the changing standards of the news business. It’s true that by helping Healy with the Channel 5 matter, O’Neill won himself a powerful media friend. But it wasn’t that simple, either. For instance, Farrell writes that when O’Neill was under fire in the late 1970s over two long-forgotten scandals — Koreagate and, closer to home, a sweetheart deal involving nursing homes — it was the New York Times and the Boston Herald American that took the lead, while the Globe hung back. Yet Farrell’s reporting shows that there was never much of anything to those stories, and that, on one occasion, the Herald was forced to run an embarrassing page-one retraction. Farrell also notes that O’Neill helped create a liberal giant that later pushed him in directions in which he was reluctant to go; O’Neill turned against the Vietnam War and in favor of busing, for instance, in large measure because of the Globe.
Yet there’s no question that O’Neill’s relationship with the paper was sometimes too close for comfort. In his autobiography, Man of the House (1987), O’Neill tells with obvious relish of the time he informed a nettlesome Globe reporter that he’d be happy to turn over a list of his campaign contributors — which just so happened to include Davis Taylor. “Not surprisingly,” O’Neill wrote, “that was one story the Globe never followed up.”
In 1978, the New Republic published a negative piece on O’Neill by the late William Henry, then a reporter and critic with the Globe (now deceased, he would later win a Pulitzer and leave for Time magazine). Illustrated with a nasty caricature of O’Neill by the Globe’s Paul Szep, it was not the sort of piece you would expect to see in the Globe itself. Portraying O’Neill as a man of wavering liberalism and suspect ethics, Henry wrote, “Tip O’Neill’s 40-year public career has been a boon to his family, his friends, his constituents and liberal causes — in roughly that order.” The piece caused such a stir in the Globe newsroom that one ex-staffer still remembers being told not to let Healy catch him reading it.
Tom Winship, asked about any special treatment O’Neill may have received, puts it this way: “Tip O’Neill received pretty damned good coverage in the Globe before and after Channel 5. So did Leverett Saltonstall. [In fact, Winship worked as an aide to Senator Saltonstall for two years in the 1950s before taking a job at the Globe, where his father, Laurence, was the editor.] We covered the whole New England delegation a hell of a lot better than it’s being covered today. But in my mind there wasn’t any quid pro quo.”
Marty Nolan offers an interesting observation. Today’s reporters may keep politicians at a distance, he says, but they form exceptionally close relationships with political consultants — a “mutual non-aggression pact,” he calls it, “because they both want to trash the candidate.” In Nolan’s view, that’s hardly an improvement. The Globe may have been close to O’Neill, Nolan says, but “he could get mad at you, too. It wasn’t all sweetness and light.”
Like some of the reporters who covered him, O’Neill was a throwback. Nolan recalls a day when O’Neill was scheduled to meet with the Globe’s editorial board. He was the Speaker, and it was right after he’d lost his first big confrontation with Ronald Reagan. O’Neill drove to the Globe himself and parked out front — no aides, no entourage. The very next day, a district candidate for the Boston City Council dropped by with an issues director, a campaign consultant, and a press secretary — “none of whom,” Nolan says, “allowed the candidate to speak.”
Tip O’neill died in January 1994. Among the honorary pallbearers were four old friends from the Globe: Bob Healy, Marty Nolan, David Nyhan, and Mike Barnicle. Healy, in a column lionizing O’Neill, hinted strongly at the Channel 5 deal that Jack Farrell has now described in detail, writing of O’Neill’s “help in saving the Boston Globe in the great television war in Boston in the ’50s.” Using almost exactly the same words that he later spoke to Farrell, Healy added, “He did right by the Globe and all right in the Globe through the years.”
The Globe’s current editor, Matt Storin, worked at the Globe’s Washington bureau in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Storin’s eight-year tenure at the top of the masthead has hardly been trouble-free; but he has changed the relationship between the paper and the politicians it covers, giving a rough ride to Ted Kennedy in his re-election battle with Mitt Romney in 1994, for instance, and playing it down the middle in the John Kerry–Bill Weld Senate race of 1996. The paradigmatic political voice of the Winship years was Healy, a sharp-elbowed partisan. Under Storin, the top political columnist is David Shribman, a nonpartisan observer with a writerly style. About the only thing Healy and Shribman have in common is the Pulitzers on their mantels.
“Maybe it’s the difference between when the Globe was one of two or three major papers and not by any means the dominant paper,” Storin says. “When there’s a plethora of media, you have the various factions lining up, paper to party. When there are fewer, that’s when the element of fairness becomes transcendent.” But Storin declines to criticize Winship and Healy, saying, “Everyone here owes them a debt of gratitude. If that’s what worked then, great. But I don’t think it would work today.”
Jack Farrell himself thinks today’s Globe reporters will see the tale of Tip O’Neill and the Globe for what it is — “part of the whole ‘Hello, Sweetheart, get me rewrite’ era. It would never happen today — and if it did, it would get exposed. And people would be fired.”
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.