Hope of Ray
Mike Wallace speaks up for Flynn, and whacks the Globe and yours truly.
Plus, that sinking feeling, and a Dukakoid for Drudge.
Former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, inching toward a 1998 campaign for governor,
will soon receive a boost any politician would kill for: a 60
Minutes piece in which Mike Wallace will whack Flynn's detractors.
CBS's legendary 79-year-old muckraker was in town several weeks ago to
research a postmortem on the Globe's controversial October 5
exposé that painted Flynn as a drunk and a bust as ambassador to the
Globe editors no doubt are hoping for the kind of clinical,
on-the-one-hand-but-then-again-on-the-other-hand approach that's on display in
American Journalism Review.
(Appropriately, the title of the
piece is a question: "Did the Globe Stumble Across the Line?" Answer:
well, maybe. Or perhaps not.)
"I think 60 Minutes sees it as an interesting story about subjective
journalistic judgments," says Globe deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee,
who -- along with assistant managing editor Walter Robinson and reporter Kate
Zernike -- spent about two hours being grilled by Wallace. Editor Matt Storin
was interviewed separately.
But in an interview with the Phoenix this week, the feisty Wallace made
it clear he's got something else in mind -- namely, a thoroughgoing thrashing
of the Globe.
"I can't tell you what the take is," Wallace said when I called him on Monday
morning. A short time later, though, he called back and proceeded to lambaste
"As far as I'm concerned, the Globe never showed the connection between
his public performance and his drinking," Wallace said. "How were the vital
interests of the United States of America damaged? Was it worth two-and-a-half
pages above the fold in the Boston Globe?"
Wallace then turned his attention to me, and specifically to a piece I wrote
that was largely supportive of the Globe story and critical of the
paper's decade-plus silence on the issue of Flynn's drinking
("The Globe vs. Ray Flynn," News, October 10).
"Jesus Christ, did they really have to do this to poor old Ray Flynn?" Wallace
asked. "And you, you bastard . . . " He proceeded to read an excerpt
in which I wrote that Flynn was preparing to run for governor because "he can't
think of anything better to do."
"Is that a fact?" Wallace demanded.
I mumbled something about its being an opinion piece. If I'd been a little
quicker on my feet, I might have added that my opinion of Flynn's motive is
shared by a broad cross section of media and political insiders. Still, Wallace
had a point.
And he was equally unimpressed with my contention that Flynn ran afoul of
cultural changes surrounding alcohol and public drunkenness -- that behavior
once viewed as acceptable is now condemned, and that journalists, as a result,
are less inclined to look the other way.
"You yuppies aren't telling me that things have changed," Wallace sneered.
"Things haven't changed at all." He recalled the case of Wilbur Mills, an
Arkansas Democrat who, in the early 1970s, was chairman of the powerful House
Ways and Means Committee. Mills, an alcoholic, became publicly involved with a
stripper; among other misadventures, he was photographed groping her drunkenly
at a Boston club. Mills lost his chairmanship and ultimately left Congress.
"When Wilbur Mills got drunk on duty, so to speak, they ran him out of office.
And that was a long, long time ago," Wallace said.
At one point, he interrupted the interview to interject: "You're writing
this all down so you can make me out to be a horse's ass."
Wallace needn't worry. (And I'm sure he hasn't been.) Although I disagree
with his critique, the Globe story did raise uncomfortable questions
that continue to linger. Ultimately, I think the Globe did the right
thing. But its extensive reporting on Flynn's alleged drunkenness -- capped by
Robinson's account of seeing Flynn staggering in the North End on a Wednesday
afternoon in August -- left me with a queasy feeling.
In Flynn's case, the particulars were clear-cut. There was substantial
evidence that he had virtually ceased working during his final year as
ambassador, and that this coincided with heavy drinking in Rome's Irish pubs.
Moreover, there was immediate relevance: with Joe Kennedy out of the governor's
race, Flynn suddenly looked like a viable candidate. And he may yet be.
But with the Flynn story, the Globe took another step toward dulling
the once-bright line between public and private behavior. How will it respond
when it's presented with a more ambiguous set of circumstances -- as it surely
Such questions have emerged as a preoccupation of Wallace's in recent years.
Among other things, he's become an outspoken advocate of voluntary news
councils. Last year he and 60 Minutes did a positive piece on the
Minnesota News Council, which brings together community representatives and
media organizations to hash out charges of media unfairness. "You think about
these things, perhaps, as you get a little older," Wallace told the
Phoenix. "Everybody in the world is worried about what is wrong with the
Yet Wallace seems unnervingly certain that he's not part of what's
At a recent National Press Club luncheon, U.S. News & World Report
editor James Fallows received an award for his book Breaking the News
(Pantheon, 1996), whose first chapter is highly critical of Wallace. Fallows
cites a media-ethics conference at which Wallace and ABC's Peter Jennings said
that, if they were accompanying enemy forces about to attack US troops, they
would cover the story rather than attempt to warn the Americans. Fallows writes
that such "arrogance" is an example of why people despise the media.
Coincidentally (or maybe not), the keynote speaker at the award presentation
was Wallace, who publicly accused Fallows of "want[ing] to cut my heart out"
and then attempted to refute Fallows point by point. It was a distressingly
unreflective performance by someone who demands thoughtful reflection from
others in the media.
Flynn couldn't be reached for comment, but former Boston Housing Authority
head Paul Barrett, a friend of the ex-mayor and his unofficial spokesman, made
it clear that the Flynn camp hopes the 60 Minutes piece jump-starts the
gubernatorial campaign. He recalls a CBS producer telling him, "Mike Wallace
was outraged by the Globe piece." That would appear to be an accurate
But the piece may not help Flynn quite as much as he hopes. For one thing,
Flynn allowed 60 Minutes to shoot footage of him at J. J. Foley's, one
of his favorite watering holes, a move that would hardly seem to be in his best
interests. For another, Wallace and company are reportedly weighing whether to
run excerpts from an angry confrontation between Flynn and Robinson that aired
on WBUR Radio's The Connection on October 20, in which neither combatant
covered himself with glory. (Robinson, who accused the show's producer of
reneging on a promise that he wouldn't have to confront Flynn directly, now
declines to talk about it. Host Christopher Lydon recently blamed the fiasco on
The big question, of course, is when the 60 Minutes piece will air. CBS
officials say they don't know.
Perhaps by Christmas?
"I would love to give Ray Flynn a Christmas present," responds Wallace.
Global warming may be the paramount environmental problem of our time. The
dangers, though, are generally discussed in the future tense. A front-page
piece in Sunday's Globe brought it back to the present.
Stan Grossfeld, the paper's Pulitzer-winning photographer, wrote a piece to
accompany his photo essay on the fate of Smith Island, a crabbing outpost
slowly being reclaimed by the ocean gods, Atlantis-like, as the melting of the
polar ice caps causes sea levels to rise. The subhead -- IN THE CHESAPEAKE BAY,
A TOWN WADES THROUGH THE EFFECTS OF GLOBAL WARMING -- left no doubt what the
reader was supposed to think.
But wait. Global warming is, after all, a global phenomenon. How could
Smith Island be drowning while such delicate coastal areas as Nantucket,
Martha's Vineyard, and Cape Cod appear to be pretty much unaffected?
It turns out that Grossfeld's argument depends on an intellectual
sleight-of-hand. Early on, he writes that Smith Island "suffers from a double
whammy: rising seas and sinking land." Near the end of the piece, he finally
explains that the island is sinking by a fifth of an inch every year, either
because of excessive groundwater pumping or unexplained geological factors.
Still, the clear implication is that though local conditions may play a role,
the principal villain is human-caused climate change.
Yet that extraordinary claim simply doesn't hold up to scrutiny. According to
the Environmental Defense Fund, the oceans have risen about 1.4 inches during
the past 20 years. About 1.1 inches can be attributed to greenhouse gases
generated by human activity; the rest of the rise is due to a natural warming
trend that has been under way for centuries.
By contrast, Smith Island has sunk four inches over the past 20 years
-- one-third of the way to oblivion, since the island is only 12 inches above
Grossfeld says he's convinced that rising sea levels are a bigger
threat to the island than its sinking land base is. Among other things, he
notes that at least 13 other islands in Chesapeake Bay have slipped under water
during this century. "I'm not trying to mislead anybody at all," he says. Yet
even a Globe editorial acknowledged on Wednesday that Smith Island is
not exactly a textbook case.
No one is questioning Grossfeld's good faith -- just his math.
Nice pictures, though.
The backlash against the backlash against cybergossip Matt Drudge is now well
Drudge grievously erred last August when he passed along false rumors that
journalist-turned-White-House-aide Sidney Blumenthal (a Phoenix alumnus,
among other things) is a wife-beater. Drudge quickly retracted the item, and
was roundly -- and deservedly -- criticized
("Don't Quote Me," News, August
But Blumenthal's subsequent $30 million libel suit against Drudge -- egged on,
reportedly, by frequent Drudge targets Bill Clinton and Al Gore -- is such a
blatantly obvious attempt to silence Drudge that tongues are wagging, as the
Walter Winchell-worshiping columnist himself might put it.
Vanity Fair weighed in with a more-sympathetic-than-not profile last
month. And now Susan Estrich, manager of Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential
campaign, is calling on the White House to call off the dogs. She defended
Drudge in a column for USA Today last week (reprinted in the Boston
Herald on Saturday). Incredibly, she now reports that her editor heard from
a White House flack complaining that, because Estrich and Drudge both do some
work for America Online (which Blumenthal is also suing), she should have
disclosed her alleged conflict of interest.
In a follow-up published in Tuesday's
Estrich asks, "If this is a private lawsuit
pursued in a private capacity, why is the White House calling to complain, much
less taking a position about anyone's contractual relationship (or lack
thereof) with America Online?"
She closes with the ethically unassailable suggestion that if Blumenthal
wishes to pursue his suit, he should do so only after he leaves the White
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here