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Touchy Tom

Sometimes he yells. Sometimes he stamps. Sometimes Mayor Menino's relationship with the press leaves something to be desired.

by Dan Kennedy

To hear Mayor Tom Menino tell it, things couldn't be better between him and the reporters who cover his administration. "I have a great relationship with the media," he insists. As good as Ray Flynn, who built his career by assiduously tending to the needs and egos of the press? "The difference is that I don't court them every day," Menino replies. "I just do my everyday job, and when they call, I'm helpful to them the best I can."

But as Menino approaches the fourth anniversary of his accidental rise to the mayoralty, there are warning signs that all is not well between him and the local journalistic community.

Both on and off the record, reporters and editors agree that Menino is generally accessible, and rarely freezes out reporters who've angered him. Observers say that's a significant departure from Flynn, whose appointment as US ambassador to the Vatican paved the way for Menino's ascension, and from Kevin White, mayor from 1968 to '83, who came from the don't-get-mad-get-even school of politics.

Yet Menino's temper and notoriously thin skin, traits that are at odds with his easygoing, regular-guy persona, often come to the fore when the mayor sees a story he doesn't like. In contrast to his predecessors, Menino is just as likely to pick up the phone and yell at a reporter himself as he is to assign the task to his press secretary, Jacque Goddard.

"I don't think he takes everything as personally as everybody thinks he does. I think he just tends to vocalize more than other politicians do," says Joe Sciacca, the Boston Herald's deputy managing editor for politics and special projects.

To his credit, the mayor is universally regarded as someone who gets over his piques of anger quickly. Sciacca, for instance, recalls being confronted by Menino on City Hall Plaza after he had written an unflattering column. "He sees me, points, and screams, `I'm not talking to you,' " Sciacca says. "Two weeks later we were having lunch. I don't think he holds grudges."

Says Menino: "That is my style. I might say, `You're a knucklehead.' But then an hour or two later it's forgotten. Some in the media probably don't like it, but that's the way I am. I believe in being honest with people. Once you get cute, you get in trouble."

But as Menino moves toward his second term, tensions between him and the media are likely to increase.

For one thing, despite the press's generally respectful treatment of Menino's governance, there's been a cruel streak that occasionally surfaces because of his tongue-tied speaking style. Examples range from a Boston Globe feature by Joseph Kahn this past November 18, in which Menino was characterized as "The Mayor Who Mistook His Tongue for a Torque Wrench," to a tally of Menino's malapropisms in a recent issue of Boston magazine, in which it was recalled that Menino once referred to the city's shortage of parking spaces as "an Alcatraz around my neck."

Both Kahn and Boston editor Craig Unger say they didn't hear from the mayor afterward, though Kahn adds archly that he and Jacque Goddard had "a frank and thoughtful exchange of views." (Says Goddard: "Joe wrote a superficial piece, which is not what I expected out of him.") And both men received invitations to the mayor's Christmas party, where Unger says Menino promised his cooperation for a future Boston profile. But despite the superficial civility, the unspoken subtext of such journalism -- that Menino is stupid, a stereotype that few thoughtful observers believe is true -- can only poison the relationship between the press and City Hall.

WRKO Radio talk-show host (and Herald columnist) Howie Carr, who tagged Menino with the nickname "Mumbles," and who occasionally broadcasts Menino soundbites for laughs, has been unable to get Menino on his show for three years, with the exception of a recent joint appearance with Providence mayor Buddy Cianci.

"I'm not complaining," Carr says. "I understand there's a price to be paid for poking fun at a guy. But some people take it better than others." Menino denies any animus between him and Carr, and says he would consider appearing on the show again if invited. But Goddard probably represents Menino's true feelings when she bristles at Carr's "cheap shots" and says the mayor has no intention of doing the Carr show.

Though the japes over Menino's syntactically unorthodox speaking style help set a tone, a far more important issue is the media's role in Boston's current political climate. With a strong-mayor system of government, an undistinguished city council, and the likelihood of an uncontested re-election campaign, the only real opposition Menino faces at the moment is the press. In a climate in which no one else is asking hard questions, it must fall to reporters to push Menino on his troubled efforts to put forth a development plan, on his oft-cited lack of an overarching vision, and on the progress of his work to reform the city's disastrous school system (see "Class Struggles," page 10).

Yet if one recent example is any indication, the way Menino responds to tough reporting is not particularly encouraging.

It was around 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 11. Marisa Lago, the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, had resigned earlier that day amid criticism that Menino consistently turned for development advice to a small group of Hyde Park cronies rather than to her. And Patriots owner Bob Kraft was under fire from South Boston officials for his plan to build a football stadium on the waterfront.

In the Herald newsroom, editor Andy Costello, news editor Andy Tomolonis, and Joe Sciacca were planning the next day's front page. The main head -- HUB OF CHAOS -- had already been stripped in. On the left-hand side of the page was a Peter Gelzinis column on Southie's opposition to Kraft's plan, and on the right, Andrea Estes and Joe Battenfeld's story of Lago's resignation, beneath a blank space where the subhead would go.

Sciacca had a suggestion: REDEVELOPMENT BOSS QUITS, LEAVING MENINO MUMBLING. In it went. "We were just throwing around different possibilities," Sciacca recalls. "It was no big deal."

That's not how it was seen on Thursday morning at City Hall. Indeed, the Herald's "Inside Track" reported on Friday that Menino "threw a major hissy fit, . . . uttered more than a few four-letter words and even kicked a door! Guess the tongue-tied Tom didn't like the headline about him mumbling." (Menino and Goddard both insist that it was HUB OF CHAOS that angered them, not the reference to "mumbling.")

On Friday, Herald publisher Pat Purcell summoned editorial-page editor Shelly Cohen and asked her to set up an air-clearing meeting with Menino. The meeting, which took place in the mayor's office the following Monday, included Purcell, Costello, Menino, Goddard, and Andrew Gully, the paper's managing editor for news. (Cohen had just departed on a vacation.) But rather than removing toxic particulates from the atmosphere, the meeting, if anything, resulted in a rise of the smog index. The reason: the two sides disagree on what they were meeting about in the first place.

"The Herald called me and asked to come in to see me to apologize for that headline," says Menino. Wrong, says Cohen: "That wouldn't have been appropriate. I don't have anything to do with the news side of the operation."

At the meeting, Menino adds, the paper again proffered an apology. Wrong again, says Costello, asserting that as far as he was concerned, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss what, if anything, the city might be willing to do for the Patriots.

"Was there an apology for the headline? No," Costello says. "I was certainly aware that the mayor wasn't happy with it. As editor of the paper, I told him I'd take responsibility for the headline, but I did not apologize for it." Indeed, sources say that Gully told Menino point-blank that the head accurately depicted the day's news.

That's debatable. After all, since Lago had widely been described as being out of the loop, it's hard to see how her departure could have contributed to any chaos regarding the future of development in Boston. As for Gelzinis's column, it seems clear that, as far as South Boston was concerned, Bob Kraft was creating chaos entirely on his own.

But even though the headline was unfair, Menino, by claiming that Herald managers came crawling to him to apologize, botched an attempt to improve what could become a troubled relationship.

Menino's inability to stifle the urge to gloat may stem from his alleged insecurities. A number of observers have noted that unlike Kevin White, who was born into two prominent political families, and unlike Ray Flynn, who was a college basketball star who nearly played for the Boston Celtics, Tom Menino harbors the resentments of a self-made man, quickly taking umbrage at any sign of disrespect. Before being elected to the city council, in 1983, Menino had labored mainly as an aide to former state senator Joe Timilty. And though his mastery of the inside game led to his eventual election as council president, few in the city had ever heard of him before Flynn's 1993 departure made him acting mayor. He became a household name only by defeating then-state representative Jim Brett in a special mayoral election that fall.

"I think he actually likes to feel like he has the power to humiliate people," a former department head told the Globe's Scot Lehigh in a Focus piece on Menino's temper last March.

That's almost surely too harsh. But Menino, in his dealings with the media, often reflects the narrow, inward-looking Boston of which he is a part, rarely evoking the expansiveness of his predecessors.

"More troublesome to me than his temper is his reflexive parochialism," says WLVI-TV (Channel 56) political reporter and Globe columnist Jon Keller, who's had his ups and downs with Menino. He cites as an example an occasion several years ago when he confronted Menino with FBI statistics showing that Boston's crime problem was worse than the mayor was willing to admit. Menino's response, according to Keller: "What do you know about this city anyway? You don't even live in this city. You live in Brookline." (For the record, Keller lives in Belmont.)

Keller sees Menino's reaction as an extension of the resentment that many Boston natives harbor toward outsiders -- out-of-town liberals dictating to city residents, a federal judge foisting a well-intentioned but destructive school-desegregation plan on the city two decades ago, city employees who moved to the suburbs, prompting the city to adopt an inflexible residency requirement.

"You're going to write this piece," Keller says, "and Boston voters, that ever-dwindling breed, are going to read it and say, `Look at that. Media people are upset about Tommy Menino getting upset with them. Way to go, Tommy.' "

Maybe so. But Menino's going to have to live with the media for some time to come. And though he claims to be unaffected by the rough-and-tumble of the relationship, the hurt shows through nevertheless.

"I understand the media better than most people," he says. "They have to make these statements every once in a while. I'm the mayor of the city. I'm fair game. Do I like it? No, of course not. I don't like any of that stuff. But if they said good things about me all the time, nobody would read it."

A tolerant view, perhaps, but a reactive one as well. If Menino is to create a legacy as someone who was more than a pothole mayor, an urban mechanic who paved the way for the next visionary leader, he'll have to reach out, explain, persuade. And he'll need the media in order to do that. Ultimately it's not so much about returning or not returning phone calls, or yelling or not yelling at reporters. It's about articulating a sense of where the city is and where it should be going.

The Don't Quote Me archive

Dan Kennedy's work can also be accessed from his Web site: http://www1.shore.net/~dkennedy/

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com

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