The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Thursday, December 17, 2009

McDermott's Legacy

A Mixed One

The Springfield Newspapers have announced that their publisher Larry McDermott is retiring, ending an interesting and often controversial journalistic tenure in Valley history.

McDermott first arrived in the Valley in the early 90's, when the Springfield Newspapers were being denounced by an array of critics for its alleged distorting of local news to protect a small insider's cartel of politicians and businesses who were exploiting the city for their personal gain. The difficulty in getting useful and accurate news about local affairs from the paper prompted the Valley Advocate's Al Giordano to call their Springfield headquarters "Pravda on the Connecticut." McDermott had little to do with that reputation, but still walked into that firestorm of criticism and immediately made a bad impression.

The way most people were introduced to Larry McDermott was through a memo that was leaked to the Valley Advocate by someone who worked at the newspapers. In that memo McDermott gave a very unflattering appraisal of the Pioneer Valley and its citizens, saying that based on his first impressions, the area lacked character and vision. The newspaper never commented on the leaked memo, but also never denied it was real.

At first McDermott was always in the shadow of the paper's controversial publisher David Starr. But when Starr retired to the gentleman's do-nothing position of newspaper President, McDermott came into his own and began making some long overdue reforms. He shocked everyone by reversing the paper's often strident support for casino gambling, doing so without apology or explanation but pleasing reformers who had seen casino interests as simply one more corrupt special interest trying to bleed the city dry. He also promoted the career of staffer Tom Shea, who had been under-utilized for years, until Shea blossomed into their star writer. McDermott also repealed the paper's longstanding ban on their reporters appearing in any other media but their own paper by granting Tom Shea permission to appear on the Dan Yorke Show.

Some critics were not impressed, complaining that the paper still coddled its pet people and institutions. As activist Sheila McElwaine once wrote on Heather Brandon's Urban Compass.

Larry McDermott and Heather Brandon

I got a letter from Larry McDermott in the mid 1990s saying the paper wasn’t about to look into how the Springfield Library and Museums Association used Springfield tax dollars because they didn’t want to drag this fine institution into politics–as if it wasn’t knee deep in politics already which was exactly the problem. There’s a real defender of public access for you.

Informing the public and encouraging civic participation aren’t even on their radar screens. As we see so often in the morning paper, Larry is passionate about the right of the PRESS to know anything that interests them, but indifferent to the right of the PUBLIC to know more than journalists, in their infinite wisdom, feel we are entitled to. He gave lip service to “feet on the street,” but it’s been a long time since any reporter’s feet have been down my street. Instead, they are tucked under desks down at the paper where their owners are banging out stories which conform to the AP style book and editing prom photos.

But probably the most damning incident of the McDermott era came to light in the deposition by Springfield Library Association head Joe Carvalho in a lawsuit in which the Advocate reported:

According to Carvalho's timeline, in February, Albano informed SLMA leaders that there would be cuts to its budget. The conversation took place via a conference call, Carvalho testified, with the mayor out of town, and Carvalho, Don D'Amour and Larry McDermott in McDermott's office at the Republican. Albano told the group that the cuts were prompted by major reductions in local aid; he also told them, Carvalho said, that Springfield was "going to be in receivership most probably" by that summer.

Think about that for a minute. The mayor personally informs McDermott that the city is "going to be in receivership" and what is McDermott's response? If ever there was a Perry White moment in which to scream, "Stop the presses!" that was it. Instead nothing was printed, in fact the paper continued to back the Albano Administration and through their silence protected the polticians responsible for the fiscal crisis. The Springfield Newspaper's stubborn support of Albano ultimately proved to be a major embarrassment, as the FBI raided City Hall within 24 hours of Albano's last re-election.

McDermott wrote an often interesting and entertaining weekly column in which, despite his allegedly negative first impressions, he seemed to develop a genuine fondness for our Valley and its people, and perhaps in retirement he will stick around. But nothing can change the fact that McDermott's legacy is definitely a mixed one. He inherited a newspaper whose credibility was basically shot and made an honest effort to rebuild it. Indeed the paper's reputation has risen somewhat in the last several years, as the staff seemed to learn some valuable lessons from Springfield's terrible fall.

Yet it was still a fall which they had done much too little to prevent when they had the chance, and Larry McDermott has to take some of the responsibility for that.


Someone sent me this great shot of downtown Springfield from high up in Monarch Place.

Mark Alamad caught this pic on the Mass Pike.

Congrats to TV40's Scott Coen on his daughter's bat mitzvah.

In downtown Amherst someone sits reading the memoirs of Amherst homeboy Augusten Burroughs.

In Amherst they drive funny vans.

Silver trees in front of Northampton's Cathy Cross Woman's Wear.

Best Jamband Concerts of the Decade

It seems like only yesterday that it was the Millenium Year 2000, when the doom fantasy of the moment was Y2K (soon to be replaced by the equally unreal global warming). Not surprisingly the media is awash with best of the decade lists, including this one of the best concerts to those who love their tunes spacey and jammy, according to the website Eat, Sleep and Drink Music. On the list is such stalwarts as Phish, the Dead spin-off band The Other Ones, String Cheese Incident and the Jefferson Starship. Also making the list is Pearl Jam, whose music never gets old.


Shane said...

Thanks Tom, that's an article only you could have written.

S.P. Sullivan said...

I agree - thanks for that.

I never met Mr. McDermott during my brief stint at The Repub this summer (I don't think anybody but Greg, Bill and Harold from Local Buzz knew I was there) but I read his weekly column.

Being a recent transplant to the Valley, I didn't know about any of those controversies. One of the problems with the Old Media model is that most local histories are recorded by newspapers, and they're not about to report on the controversies they cause.

Ron said...

A guy went into a thrift shop in Springfield. While there he found a bronze rat. "How much do you want for the rat" he asked. "$3 for the rat and $1000 for the story that goes with it" said the shopkeeper. The guy said "Just give me the rat," and then he left with it.

As he walked down Main Street he noticed a couple of rats following him. As he walked further, more and more rats started chasing him. By the time he got to the Connecticut River, there were thousands of rats chasing him. So he climbed up a pole and threw the bronze rat into the water. To his amazement, all the rats jumped into the water.

The man then returned to the thrift store. "Ahh" the owner said. "Now you would like to hear the story?" "No" said the guy, "I just came back to see if you had a bronze statue of any Springfield politicians.

SM said...

Thanks for using my quote, Tom. I'd forgotten I'd ever written it.

It's still true, though.

The Springfield paper and MassLive are almost not worth reading. The fact that we still do is beginning to seem like an old habit that's hard to break, something like jiggling your foot or eating too many Peanut Butter cups.

Happy New Year, Tommy. We miss you down here.