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