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