Sunday, July 12, 2009

Journalism Fiasco

How Springfield's Paper Failed the Community

Here's a reprint of a classic, long out of print Boston Globe article that provides a priceless journalistic snapshot of Springfield politics at the dawn of the 1990's.

Originally published in the Feb. 19, 1990 issue of The Boston Globe.


By Stephen J. Simurda

SPRINGFIELD--When veteran reporter Don Ebbeling returned home from a vacation in Florida two weeks ago, he found a fat envelope stuffed in his door. Inside were articles that had appeared in The Boston Globe while Ebbeling was away. The articles published on Jan. 21, 22 raised questions about the relationship between Hampden County District Attorney Matthew J. Ryan Jr. and reputed organized crime leaders.

As he read the articles, "It kind of extended my vacation a couple of hours," says Ebbeling, who has written about organized crime, politics and the courts for more than 20 years at the Springfield Newspapers. "I was pleased that finally something was published in a widespread newspaper" about Ryan's behavior, says Ebbeling.

But if the reporter was happy to see the articles, he and others at his newspaper were not so happy to see them in a paper based more than 75 miles from the Springfield office where Ryan has served since 1959. Federal court reporter Kevin Claffey expressed the reaction of many. "It was both embarrassing and gratifying," he said, "Embarrassing because of where it appeared and gratifying because it confirmed what I and others had been saying over the years."

His editors were less gratified. "I felt a certain amount of anguish," admits Wayne Phaneuf, managing editor of the Springfield Union-News. Adds executive editor Carroll F. Robbins, "I felt we'd been scooped. I was embarrassed and hurt."

In the days following the Globe stories, the Union-News struggled to catch up. But even as they worked to pursue what had become the biggest story in years in western Massachusetts, a variety of sources (including current and former reporters, editors and community leaders) questioned why many of the allegations concerning Ryan had not already appeared in the Springfield Newspapers.

At the root of the issue for most people is a perception that the Newhouse-owned daily paper has favored Ryan and other powerful officials or specific issues for years, despite evidence of serious wrongdoing in some cases.

"The record is quite clear that there has been no aggressive reporting on (certain) people over the years, and we've done lots of tough stories on other subjects," says one reporter. "We're all very frustrated here," says another. A former editor adds that in pursuing certain stories, "You were constantly aware that there were obstacles" within the newspaper.

As one high-ranking law enforcement official says, "If I knew something that was going on and had to be covered, I wouldn't go to the Springfield Newspapers."

Coverage of Matty Ryan, the crusty district attorney who has yet to respond to charges about his links to the mob, appear to support this feeling. A few examples:

--Editor Phaneuf admits he was aware in 1985 of rumors that Ryan played a weekly racquetball game at the YMCA with reputed mob boss Al Bruno, but could not substantiate it. Reporter Claffey says he had the story and submitted it. Phaneuf denies this and doesn't respond when asked why he didn't simply send a reporter to the YMCA to get the story. It eventually broke in the Boston Herald in 1986.

--The Globe's Jan. 21 story on Ryan began with an incident involving a Milton Bradley Co. executive who implicated himself through a wiretap in a fencing operation and later saw the case dropped by Ryan. Francis Bloom, the former top assistant DA who figured prominently in the Globe stories, says he tried twice to give this story to Springfield Union-News reporter Cynthia Simison.

Simison says she went to her paper and the decision was made not to run the story because the paper did not have a copy of the indictment. "Editors of the paper were definitely involved" in making the decision not to pursue the story, Simison said. A decision was also made not to seek the indictment as a public document. "Why (the decision) was made, I don't know," says Simison, "And people here don't seem to remember me going to them."

--Last September, Union-News political reporter John Appleton had written an article about a possible investigation of Matty Ryan by the state Board of Bar Overseers. Although Appleton thought the story was solid, his editors say they wanted corroboration from the judge that they believed brought the complaint (something that would have been highly unusual). As the story sat in the Union-News computer, the Boston Herald broke it.

--Reporter Ebbeling says he has written a number of stories critical of Matty Ryan over the years that were not published, going back as far as the late 1960s, when he connected Ryan to a private client who was a known gambler. In 1984, Ebbeling was taken off the political beat and given what he viewed as a demotion to covering district courts. Although he won't link the action to stories about Ryan, he admits that was the perception in the paper's newsroom.

Reporters and others says it's not just Ryan who seems to get favored treatment from the newspaper. They point out that first-term congressman Richard E. Neal, a former Springfield mayor, has long received good press. This continued even after Neal was connected to a lucrative health insurance contract he gave to a campaign supporter in the final days of his mayoral administration.

An investigation was initiated by the city council and an interim report concluded "further investigation would be fruitful," and did not rule out impropriety. The city council, under severe financial constraints, decided against paying more money for the probe.

Less than two months later, on Jan. 4 of this year, the paper editorialized that, "The only reason anyone would want it (the investigation) to continue would be an attempt to embarrass Neal."

Carroll Robbins says the paper is continuing to investigate the story, however. "We consider that a current story," he said. Reporters argue that "it was dead," however, until the Globe series on Ryan appeared. One reporter says his editors became concerned and revived the story after learning that the Globe might also be investigating this story.

There's no question that evidence points to what one newsroom source called a "narrow but deep blind spot" at the Springfield Newspapers. Reactions to that blind spot and explanations of the reason for it vary widely.

Publisher David Starr denies it exists. "It simply isn't so. We cover Matty Ryan the way we cover anything in our town." To some, there is a great irony in these words.

"This paper dedicates itself to mediocrity," says George Nasser, a Springfield attorney who ran against Ryan in 1978 and was endorsed by one of the two Springfield Newspapers that existed at the time. (The Morning Union and afternoon Daily News merged to become one all-day paper--the Union-News--in June 1987.)

"What this paper needs is a Gorbachev," says Al Giordano, a reporter who covers Springfield for the Valley Advocate, a weekly tabloid, "They need to bring in somebody to restore order and journalistic excellence." Until the Globe stories, Giordano had been something of a lone voice in Springfield, writing several stories lambasting Ryan for questionable behavior.

Reporters looking for symptoms of the problem at the Union-News often point to a practice of killing stories that deal with issues that are viewed as sensitive. Current and former reporters say the "deep-sixing" of stories that seem to touch a raw political nerve is commonplace. Both Robbins and Union-News editor Arnold S. Friedman deny they have ever killed stories that were written and ready to go in the paper, for political or other reasons. But several reporters disagree.

The most recent example, according to reporter Brad Smith, occurred last month when a story he wrote about a controversy dealing with the decision to fill a vacant seat on the city's school committee "went into Robbins' desk and ... just died." He and others claim the paper have a clear preference for who they would like to see in the school committee position.

When asking people in Springfield for reasons why the newspaper may appear to protect certain people, one unusual connection comes up regularly. Paul Robbins, son of executive editor Carroll Robbins, is a political consultant in Springfield whose clients have included Matty Ryan, Richie Neal and Mayor Mary Hurley. As one reporter said, "There's a natal connection there."

Both father and son strongly deny that their jobs influence each other. "I'm afraid to call my dad at the newspaper to ask him what time dinner is at his house on Sunday," says Paul Robbins. "I can't tell my son how to direct his career," adds his father.

But many people in the city echoed the sentiments of Vincent Dimonaco, former president of the city council and unsuccessful candidate for mayor, who feels that in hiring Paul Robbins, one gets the newspaper in the bargain. "My feeling was that if I had hired Paul Robbins, I would have walked away with the election" last fall, he said.

It's this close connection to the city's power structure that many point to as the reason for many apparent journalistic lapses at the Springfield Newspapers. Publisher Starr has served for years as head of a private downtown development group, for example. There's a feeling that he and others at the paper sometimes work to set the city's agenda, rather than cover it.

Former city councilor Mitchell J. Ogulewicz Jr. recalls his first meeting with Starr in which he claims the publisher told him the newspaper was "going to manipulate and cajole the voters" into electing the paper's chosen candidate for the city council. Starr denies this. Ogulewicz and other speak of attempts by Friedman to influence councilors votes on a variety of issues. Freidman denies this. Reporters are generally unsurprised by the allegations. Even if they are untrue, the perception that they are true is strong.

Carroll Robbins and Wayne Phaneuf say they have been trying to change these perceptions since the newspapers have been merged. Robbins acknowledges the papers "have had a conservative tradition. We weren't crusading newspapers." But, he notes,

"I would like to be."

Phaneuf and others in the newsroom point out that one of the most chilling effects of the perception of the paper's shortcomings has been a self-censorship by reporters who have long ago learned to read certain signals from their editors. These signals may be changing. The editors admit that the embarrassment felt after the Globe stories on Matty Ryan has spurred them toward more aggressive coverage of some issues.

"The problem," notes Robbins, "is to pursuade our staff that we have some integrity in the way we go after stories. That we're not afraid of any story. That we don't protect anybody."

Staff members applaud the sentiment, but many feel they need to see more before they'll believe it.

Absolutely Awful

I'm speechless with sadness about the tragic death of Army veteran Mark Ecker, of East Longmeadow, who lost his legs while on duty in Iraq, and was killed this weekend in an Interstate 93 rollover accident. I met Ecker once in 2007 at a Jefferson Starship concert in Northampton, a portion of the proceeds of which went to local veteran groups. Here's a picture of Ecker addressing the audience that day.


Vet said...

I am heartbroken over Ecker's death.

Anonymous said...

I remember that story and the exposure of both Ryan and the complicity of Springfield Newspapers. Unfortunately, the paper continues to be steeped in the same mediocrity today. I was infuriated to read how years later they completely whitewashed the issue in Ryan's obit.