Kerry’s Globe Problem

Some of it may not be his fault.

“The advertising, the speeches in Iowa refashioned John Kerry in a—as a much more authentic person. And now the question is, as he goes back to New Hampshire, a neighboring state of Massachusetts, do the people of New Hampshire, who have been often affected by the coverage from across the border, are they going to see John Kerry less as a patrician kind of elitist liberal and more as the Vietnam war hero who’s a working-class tribune?”

CNN commentator Jeff Greenfield on John Kerry’s Iowa caucus victory, Jan. 19.

It’s counterintuitive that John Kerry should expect more hostile press in Massachusetts, where repeatedly he has won re-election, than in the corn fields of Iowa. The Boston Globe, which sets the tone for political coverage in Massachusetts and much of New England, should logically cheer on its hometown boy as he reaches for the big brass ring. Ideologically, the Globe and Kerry occupy roughly the same left-of-center niche, and through three Senate elections the Globe has never failed to endorse him. And as decades of adoring Kennedy coverage have demonstrated, the Globe doesn’t blush at playing the “homer” (journalese for a reporter who roots openly for local sports teams, institutions, and civic leaders).

But screwy as it may sound, Greenfield’s analysis is correct. Kerry really does get unfavorable coverage in the Globe. The paper has exposed relentlessly, and mocked frequently, Kerry’s least attractive character traits. Granting that the news pages almost always follow scrupulously the profession’s strict guidelines for objective reporting—and that opinions and attitudes inside a newsroom are never entirely uniform—it is nonetheless the case that, broadly speaking, the Boston Globe has it in for John Kerry.

Chatterbox cannot provide scientific proof that the Globe dislikes the junior senator of Massachusetts. He freely admits that his is an impression based on occasional perusal of the newspaper, rather than a counting of favorable versus unfavorable stories. But the impression is widely shared by others. The Kerry campaign, of course, thinks so; its former campaign manager called the Globe coverage “distorted, insignificant, irrelevant and vindictive.” But most of the Globe-ies and ex-Globe-ies Chatterbox interviewed for this story (mostly on background) think so, too. This group doesn’t think the Globe’s coverage is “distorted, insignificant, irrelevant and vindictive,” but it does recognize that the Globe gives Kerry a much rougher time than, say, the Des Moines Register.

The instances of Kerry-bashing at the Globe are too numerous to cite here, but let’s review some highlights:

  • In March 1989, reporter John Robinson mocked the newly divorced Kerry as “the Senate’s Romeo,” and wrote that Kerry “reportedly courted” the actress Morgan Fairchild “on the QT while dating another woman.”

  • In October 1996, in the midst of a heated Senate re-election campaign, Globe columnist David Warsh suggested that Kerry won a Silver Star in Vietnam for “finishing off” an enemy soldier who was wounded and therefore posed no threat. This was untrue; the enemy soldier, though wounded, quickly got back on his feet.

  • In March 2003, reporters Michael Kranish, Frank Phillips, and Brian C. Mooney reported that Kerry had tried to pass himself off as Irish to boost his popularity in Massachusetts, which has a large Irish population.

  • In November 2003, columnist Joan Vennochi wrote, “John Kerry’s presidential campaign needs more than a new campaign manager. It needs a new candidate.”

  • On Jan. 18, reporter Patrick Healy nailed Kerry for falsely claiming that he’d been endorsed by John C. Land III, the Democratic leader in South Carolina’s State Senate. In fact, Land endorsed John Edwards.

As these examples demonstrate, the Globe’s swipes at Kerry are sometimes cheap shots or outright wrong, and sometimes dead-on. By Chatterbox’s rough estimate, at least three-quarters of Kerry’s Globe problem is attributable to his own behavior. “He’s a stiff and a phony,” Globe columnist Alex Beam told Chatterbox. “Stuff sticks to him because it’s true.” Beam isn’t wrong. The rap against Kerry—that he’s a snob, that he’s an opportunist, that he approaches facts with a Clintonesque slipperiness—is grounded in persuasive evidence. Even Martin F. Nolan, a former editorial page editor at the Globe who contends the rap against Kerry is not true, concedes that it was true before Kerry remarried and endured a tough 1996 re-election race against Bill Weld. “He would shake your hand and look over your shoulder to see who’s more interesting,” Nolan told Chatterbox.

TheGlobe is hardly the only Boston media outlet to harp on these themes; the Boston Herald, a conservative tabloid, is less influential but much meaner. But it was the Globe * that introduced Boston readers to what Chatterbox considers the most damning anecdote about Kerry. As a sitting senator, Kerry once tried to recruit Jacob Weisberg—then a teenage Yalie intern for the New Republic, now editor of Slate—for Skull & Bones. (Weisberg declined the offer and razzed Kerry about Bones’ refusal at the time to admit women.) Not even Dubya, Chatterbox will wager, maintained this much loyalty to Bones’ elitist and infantile mumbo-jumbo after assuming elective office.

Still, some of Kerry’s Globe problem may be a function less of his own foibles than of the Globe’s particular culture and circumstances.

Several Globe-ies and ex-Globe-ies told Chatterbox that more negative stuff about Kerry appears in the Globe than in the New York Times or the Washington Post for the simple reason that Kerry gets more coverage locally, period. The Globe doesn’t want to get scooped on big Kerry stories, and the biggest political stories are almost always unflattering.

There’s also a Dukakis Factor. In 1988, the Globe covered the Massachusetts governor’s presidential bid very favorably; the tone was set by the title of Globe columnist David Nyhan’s election-year biography, The Duke: The Inside Story of a Political Phenomenon. “They’ve been trying to live it down ever since,” says Dan Kennedy, media critic for the Boston Phoenix. Bashing presidential candidate John Kerry accomplishes that.

Another contributor to Kerry’s Globe woes may be the paper’s longstanding oversupply of columnists. The Washington Post’s Web site lists 21 columnists, which is a lot. The Globe’s Web site lists—are you sitting down?—44 columnists. More columnists very likely means more snarky comments about local politicians. An aggravating factor is that many of the Globe’s columnists have a blue-collar background (or affect one). They are therefore particularly riled by Kerry’s Louisburg Square hauteur.

Finally, Kerry may be the victim of the Globe’s lapsed provincialism. An old joke used to have it that if New York were to suffer nuclear annihilation, the headline in the Globe would be “Hub Man Killed in Atom Blast.” Visitors to Boston, cosmopolitan city of fine universities and museums, would marvel at the hometown sentimentality of its pre-eminent newspaper. Even after most of the Kennedy family moved away, the Globe remained a shameless cheerleader for Camelot and its heirs.

That all began to change in the 1980s, when the newspaper finally established permanent bureaus abroad and in other United States cities beyond Washington, D.C. A few years earlier, the makeup of the newsroom had started to shift from get-me-rewrite working stiffs raised in Boston’s Irish Catholic neighborhoods to Ivy League-educated men and women from all over the country. As a result of all these changes, the Globe came to think of itself less as a local newspaper and more as a competitor with national newspapers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today (even though its distribution remained local). Consequently, the Globe evolved away from the idea that local elites commanded special deference. The change was especially dramatic in the paper’s coverage of the Kennedys. “Is Joe Kennedy really dumb?” asked reporter Brian McGrory in May 1993.

It’s a question the paper would never have dared raise about a Kennedy two decades earlier. In this new environment, the Globe feels freer to ask (in effect), “Is John Kerry really an asshole?”

[Update, Jan. 22: The Globe endorsed Kerry  for the New Hampshire primary this morning. Characteristically, the editorial notes that while the Globe supports Kerry, he gets on its nerves: “Kerry has inspired, impressed, and sometimes infuriated us since he first became the top assistant in the Middlesex district attorney’s office in 1977,” the Globe writes. Meanwhile, Joan Vennochi has a column headlined “New Kerry: Same As the Old One.”]

[Update, Jan. 22: Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix has a thoughtful rebuttal to Chatterbox here. The gist is that the Globe’s coverage of Kerry isn’t nearly as mean as that of columnist Howie Carr in the Herald and on WRKO radio; political analyst Jon Keller on WLVI TV; or Mickey Kaus in Slate. But none of these outlets has anywhere near the influence on New Hampshire voters as the Globe. Kennedy also notes that–like the Globe–the Herald and the Phoenix just delivered post-Iowa endorsements for Kerry in New Hampshire. Oddly, the Herald’s is the most complimentary of the three endorsements, even though its coverage of Kerry is the most savage.]

Correction, Jan. 22, 2004: An earlier version of this column erroneously stated that the Boston Herald had the Skull & Bones story before the Boston Globe did. (The first person to put the story in print anywhere was Michael Specter, who wrote it up for the Washington Post more than a decade before Globe columnist Alex Beam picked it up from Alexandra Robbins’$2 2002 book Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power. But that’s probably more than you wanted to know. Return to the corrected sentence.)