The Boston Phoenix
December 4 - 11, 1997

[Don't Quote Me]

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.

by Dan Kennedy

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 Vatican.

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 the current 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 the Globe.

"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 will be?

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 press."

Yet Wallace seems unnervingly certain that he's not part of what's wrong.

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 assessment.

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 a miscommunication.)

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 sea level.

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 under way.

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 15).

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 Drudge Report, 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 House.

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here

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