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[Don't Quote Me]

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Muddled in the middle

CommonWealth's shortcomings show why ideology matters. Plus, the battle of the journalism reviews, and the squeeze is on at public radio's Living on Earth.

by Dan Kennedy

When then-Democratic state representative Mark Roosevelt ran for governor in 1994, he made a crucial strategic decision: to play down his liberalism and go after Republican incumbent Bill Weld on the issue of who would be a more vigorous, hands-on chief executive.

Roosevelt gave Weld fits, thrashing him in their first televised debate and raising tough questions about the governor's lackadaisical management style. But when the votes were counted, Weld had triumphed by the near-historic margin of 71 to 28 percent.

So you might think that Roosevelt's top campaign aides, Tripp Jones and Michael Gritton, would have learned something about the limits of non-ideology. Apparently not. In 1996, with funding from entrepreneur Mitchell Kertzman, they founded MassINC (http://www.massinc.org), the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, a nonpartisan think tank that studies issues affecting the middle class.

MassINC's most visible project is CommonWealth, a quarterly magazine "of politics, ideas, and civic life in Massachusetts" that has just completed its first year of publication. It is, like Roosevelt's campaign, easy to admire but difficult to love. Intelligent, well-reported, and beautifully designed, CommonWealth is ultimately undone by its lack of a coherent point of view.

A hefty magazine with a hefty newsstand price of $6.50, CommonWealth mainly circulates for free to about 5500 opinion leaders. Though expensive, it has brought in contributions MassINC otherwise wouldn't have received, Jones says; he expects the magazine one day to break even.

Jones calls MassINC an alternative to the Pioneer Institute, a conservative, free-market think tank that has provided much of the ideological framework for the Weld Administration's privatization initiatives and tax cuts. But MassINC's purpose is not to rescue traditional liberalism from its intellectual dead end; rather, Jones says, the difficulty of getting things done in the partisan political arena convinced him of the need for "a nonpartisan entity that can involve people from across the political spectrum." Indeed, Jones refers to his own liberal background, as well as those of Gritton and Kertzman, as "a lot of baggage."

Trouble is, partisan politics is the means by which issues are settled in a democracy. Conservatives generally understand this. Liberals, perpetually on the defensive and genetically predisposed to a love of process, are all too willing to negotiate, to reach out, to split the difference. There's nothing wrong with finding common ground. But sometimes winning is better -- not just for its cathartic quality, but for the clarity it brings to public policy.

CommonWealth editor Dave Denison, a Texas Observer alumnus and former Nieman Fellow, is intensely proud of this nonpartisan approach. "If you're going to do research, you have to have something of an open mind," he says. True enough, but CommonWealth's writers -- Denison foremost among them -- too often fail to draw conclusions even after their research is complete.

The current, Winter 1997 issue is a case in point. Denison's lengthy profile of Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran is smart and insightful. Yet Denison is far more interested in Finneran's minor ethical lapses and the prospects for legislative reform than he is in the Speaker's conservative ideology -- even though, as Ways and Means chairman, Finneran supported Weld's drastic cuts in human-services spending, and even though, as Speaker, he could pave the way for the return of the death penalty. Other articles, on subjects such as county government and Gardner's economic revival, are thorough and dutifully wonkish, but lack spark.

Of course, it's not really fair to whack MassINC or CommonWealth on any terms but their own, and by that measure, they've had some impact. MassINC has produced influential studies on middle-class income erosion and on how to reform the criminal-justice system, and CommonWealth makes a serious, sober contribution to the civic dialogue. Certainly it's been more successful than a recent effort to launch a genuinely liberal political magazine, Otherwise, which progressive activist Jim Braude hopes to revive next month.

Then again, CommonWealth is able to attract funding that Braude can't -- not just from the Boston District Council of Carpenters, which gave to both magazines, but from BankBoston, the Boston Company/Mellon Trust, and Trust Insurance Company.

Jones, Gritton, and Denison are adamant that such corporate beneficence won't influence their editorial product, and there's no reason not to believe them.

But surely these donors are more comfortable with nonpartisan chin-stroking than with Braude's populist rabblerousing.


Among the tiny cadre of media insiders who follow such things, it's clear that the energy and the buzz have shifted during the past few years from the venerable Columbia Journalism Review to the slightly less venerable American Journalism Review.

Typical were the two publications' January/February cover stories on Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who last summer wrote a series on the alleged involvement of the Nicaraguan contras and the CIA in the crack trade of the 1980s. The CJR offered a scholarly overview by national-security analyst Peter Kornbluh, whereas AJR contributor Alicia Shepard rocked the joint by exposing some troubling difficulties with Webb's past reporting.

The AJR (http://www.ajr.org), published by the University of Maryland, even has a better website than its rival (http://www.cjr.columbia.edu).

So when the CJR last December named retired Fortune editor Marshall Loeb as its new editor, expectations were that he would seek to make the CJR a magazine people talked about.

Loeb's first issue -- the current, March/April edition -- shows promise, with a vibrant, more contemporary design; a new column of short takes ("CJR Grapevine"); and interviews with CBS's Mike Wallace and New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld on the use of so-called news councils to resolve disputes between media organizations and disgruntled subjects (Wallace is for them, Lelyveld against). A short profile of Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith offers nothing new for local readers, but it does introduce her to a national audience.

The best piece is senior editor Mike Hoyt's lengthy profile of Michael Kelly, the newish editor of the The New Republic. Although Hoyt takes too long to achieve liftoff, he eventually gets around to some pointed observations about Kelly's notorious mean streak, and how that has sometimes led him to push controversial theses farther than the facts would allow. Hoyt also offers this gem of a statistic: 17 percent of TNR subscribers are worth at least $1 million. No wonder it's not as liberal as it used to be.

Meanwhile, another major journalism review -- the conservative-leaning Forbes MediaCritic, which ceased publication for lack of funds with its Fall 1996 issue -- is gearing up to return on the Web, most likely in May.

As a webzine, MediaCritic will come out weekly -- a far cry from its old quarterly schedule. That prospect has editor Terry Eastland, a former Reagan Justice Department official, sounding like he's been liberated. "I always felt we could do more if we could have more bites at the apple," he says.


Fidelity's Community Newspaper Company (CNC) has taken a tentative step toward consolidating its weeklies in Boston's western suburbs ("Don't Quote Me," January 31). Starting on May 1, the Watertown Sun and the Watertown Press will be merged into one paper, to be known as the Watertown Tab & Press. On that same day, the Needham Chronicle will be expanded and renamed the Needham Tab.

The move reflects the high regard in which CNC holds its Tab newspapers, one of the few groups to make money for a company that hemorrhages red ink. It also runs counter to rumors that CNC will eventually embark on a major downsizing effort. Indeed, the company continues to defy expectations, recently expanding its coverage of local news in North Shore Sunday. CNC publishes more than 100 papers, mostly weeklies, in Greater Boston and on Cape Cod.

No layoffs will result from the Watertown merger, according to a statement released by Kirk Davis, publisher of CNC's West group.


The public-radio series Living on Earth (http://www.loe.org) has run into tough fiscal times, underscoring the precariousness of high-quality radio journalism.

A five-year-old environmental program based in Cambridge, Living on Earth has won a number of honors, including a prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio and Television News Directors Association for a report on the patenting of human genes. Plaques, though, are no substitute for cash.

Executive producer and host Steve Curwood blames his financial woes on the timing of foundation grants, and says he anticipates major new funding to be in place by summer. But he also blames National Public Radio, which he accuses of generously supporting popular fare such as Fresh Air and Car Talk at the expense of important shows that draw smaller audiences. Curwood wants NPR to pay $100,000 of his $850,000 budget, and says he refused a financial offer last year because it contained no guarantees. Instead, Living on Earth is offered free to the 250 or so stations that carry it. ("We value the show," says NPR spokeswoman Kathy Scott. "It's in negotiations. We're not finished yet.")

A former reporter and editor for the Boston Globe and the Bay State Banner, Curwood also refuses to accept money from polluter companies that he accuses of trying to "greenwash" their images. Thus his reliance on foundations, many of which are themselves stretched to the limit.

Locally, Living on Earth is broadcast on Saturday from 6 to 7 a.m. on WBUR Radio (90.9 FM). Curwood credits the station and its general manager, Jane Christo, with helping Living on Earth get up and running, but admits he wishes the station would run it in a better time slot.

The 10-member staff is preparing for the possibility of broadcasting reruns and more in-house interviews, and perhaps accepting a delayed paycheck or two until the money flow resumes. "There's a lot of loyalty here, and people are sticking with it," says newscast producer Constantine von Hoffman.


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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