The Boston Phoenix
October 1 - 8, 1998

[Don't Quote Me]

Dirty work

The Herald smears Mike Capuano in an overhyped front-page piece. Plus, Eileen McNamara and the Moonies, and Danny Schechter's missing lines.

Don't Quote Me by Dan Kennedy

For an Italian-American politician, being accused of consorting with organized-crime figures is something that goes with the territory. So pervasive is this ugly stereotype that even such reasonably fastidious public officials as Frank Bellotti and Mario Cuomo have seen their career ambitions damaged by persistent whispering campaigns. Thus it's no surprise that Somerville mayor Mike Capuano, a virtual lock to succeed Joe Kennedy in Congress this November, was blindsided by a smear last week on the front page of the Boston Herald.

The September 21 story was headlined CAPUANO ACCUSED OF FAVORITISM IN MOBSTER'S LAND DEAL. But the article itself, by Thomas Grillo, was little more than an excuse to juxtapose the words Capuano and mobster.

Grillo breathlessly reported that Capuano was allowing the family of mobster Howie Winter to sell some properties they own to the Wendy's fast-food chain, even though the city had seized the land a year earlier for failure to pay back taxes. What Grillo did not make clear -- but what was crystal clear in a follow-up by his Herald colleague Jack Sullivan, as well as in the Boston Globe and the Somerville Journal -- was that Capuano was merely following state law and long-standing city policy in giving the Winters one year from the time of seizure to pay the delinquent tax bill. (Oddly, the three papers couldn't agree on how much the Winters owe. The Herald said $175,000; the Globe, "more than $250,000"; the Journal, $115,000.)

As it turns out, this rancid story had been making the rounds for several weeks before the September 15 primary, when Capuano defeated nine Democratic rivals in the Eighth District race to succeed Kennedy. Among those who checked it out was Globe State House bureau chief Frank Phillips. "There just wasn't a story there," Phillips says, adding that several outside lawyers he interviewed confirmed the Capuano administration's interpretation of the law. Indeed, after Grillo's story ran, the Globe followed up with a piece by Steve Kurkjian, one of the paper's top investigative reporters -- and he didn't find anything either.

It's not that there's no basis for a story. After all, the proposed Wendy's has been controversial among neighbors. And alderman Joe Curtatone, a Capuano foe who hopes to succeed him as mayor, did tell Grillo, "I don't like the perception that the Winter family is getting special treatment." (Curtatone told the Phoenix that he thought Grillo's story was "accurate.")

But Grillo's overwrought spin, and his failure to obtain comment from Capuano or from other members of his administration, creates an impression of mayoral favoritism toward the mob that just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. What might have been an interesting inside-the-paper story instead became a front-page screamer, filled with hype and hot air. "The story was accurate, but it could have used a different tone," concedes managing editor for news Andrew Gully. The explanation for why it didn't may lie in Grillo's own background, and in the way he is alleged to have pursued this particular story.

First, Grillo is a Somerville native who for many years was politically active in his hometown. (He now lives in MetroWest.) A former teacher and failed school-committee candidate in the 1970s, he is widely known to be friendly with officials who aren't exactly friends of Capuano's, such as state representative Patricia Jehlen. Alderman John Buonomo, who ran against Capuano in 1989 and who is considering another mayoral run, says Grillo called him seeking comment on the Winter property and seemed unwilling to listen to explanations that favored Capuano's position. "He wanted me to confirm things that were not confirmable," Buonomo says. "I got the impression that he wanted to run with the story."

Second, although Grillo wrote that Somerville officials failed to return "repeated calls over one week" and that Capuano himself claimed he didn't have time to comment, Capuano and his press secretary, Alison Mills, tell a different story. Mills says Grillo made several calls to City Hall before the primary, and in a few instances hung up on city officials. Capuano says he did not personally hear from Grillo until the evening of Friday, September 18, just as he and his family were leaving for a weekend in New Jersey and Connecticut. He says he told Grillo he could not talk until he returned home, on Sunday. "I walked away with the clear impression that he'd call again and we'd talk," Capuano says. "There was no implication of urgency whatsoever -- all the more reason to think he'd give me a clean shot." Instead, Grillo rushed the piece to completion over the weekend.

Third, the Herald's own editing system broke down. Because of the haste, the story was handled by the city desk. Deputy managing editor for news Jim McLaughlin says Grillo did not tell the desk about his previous political ties and seemed not to understand that they could create "the appearance of a conflict of interest." Worse, Joe Sciacca, the Herald's deputy managing editor for politics and investigations, was never even told the piece was coming, an oversight that he admits had him steaming. "I was completely surprised by the story," Sciacca says.

Grillo's side of things will have to go unrecorded: his boss, McLaughlin, refuses to let him comment. But executive city editor Dan Rosenfeld, who actually handled the story, offers a vote of confidence for Grillo, a temporary staff member who's hoping to land a permanent position. "I've worked with Tom since he came over here in April, and I have complete confidence in him to be fair with everybody," says Rosenfeld.

As for Capuano himself, the damage is done. As one Capuano aide notes, every computer search on Capuano's background from now until the end of his career will turn up a story suggesting that he once played footsie with Howie Winter. "I'm very unhappy about it," says McLaughlin. "It was factually correct, but I don't think it was necessarily fair."

Capuano, asked about the impact of the story, sounded unhappy but basically unfazed, saying he saw it less as a slur on him than on his city -- a community about which, as he puts it, people joke: "Oh, you're from Somerville. How many dead bodies do you have in your trunk?"

The twist, as Capuano sees it, is that Grillo, an Italian-American and a Somerville native, has now managed to contribute to those stereotypes. "I thought I knew what to expect out of Tommy Grillo," Capuano says. "And that was a mistake."

The Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church has so far been distinctly unsuccessful in its efforts to lump Globe metro columnist Eileen McNamara -- the ghostwriter of a new autobiography that's highly critical of Moon -- with her disgraced former colleagues Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle. A Lexis-Nexis search this week revealed that only one paper, the Raleigh (North Carolina) News & Observer, has run anything on the church's unsubstantiated allegations that McNamara plagiarized. In addition, the Boston Herald's "Inside Track" ran a brief item on those allegations last Wednesday, the same day the Globe reported on them extensively. The Tracksters' verdict: "not clear cut and . . . not thought to be job-threatening."

Actually, to call the charges "not clear cut" is too fair to McNamara's accusers, who in fact have no case at all. But Steven Hassan, a former top Unification Church official who's now a nationally respected expert on religious cults, doubts that the Moon organization is really trying to mold public opinion. It's Moon's devotees, Hassan suspects, who are the intended audience.

"It sounded to me like an internal damage-control technique," says Hassan, who's based in the Boston area. "What they want to do is give something to the members so that they'll distrust the media. I don't think they believe that they're going to convince the general public."

McNamara is an unnamed collaborator on In the Shadow of the Moons (Little, Brown), an autobiography by former Moon daughter-in-law Nansook Hong, who says she suffered physical abuse and other indignities at the hands of Moon and his family.

Last Wednesday, the Globe reported that Hong and McNamara have been accused of plagiarizing from a largely favorable 1991 book about the Unification Church by George Chryssides, a British religious scholar. Yet the story -- by Globe staffer Joseph Kahn -- proves nothing except that Hong and McNamara repeated a few well-known stories about the church. And McNamara, in a follow-up column, suggests that the Globe made a significant omission: the fact that both books relied on the church's official texts.

The wispiness of the charges has led some of McNamara's colleagues to criticize the Globe for reporting on them in the first place. Unfortunately, it's unrealistic to think that the paper could do otherwise. Living-section editor Nick King says the Globe was working on the story even before it knew that McNamara was the coauthor. "If we had a story before we knew Eileen was involved, then we felt we had a story after we learned Eileen was involved," King says. (If nothing else, the dispute lends credence to McNamara's contention that Little, Brown should have gone along with her request to include a bibliography and chapter notes -- something she has now been told will be done in subsequent editions.)

Trouble is, in bending over backward to be fair to the Moon organization, the Globe story ended up being unfair to McNamara, both in tone (A SMEAR CAMPAIGN, OR DID GLOBE WRITER PLAGIARIZE? reads the subhead) and substance (Kahn should have made it clear that both McNamara and Chryssides apparently relied on the same primary-source materials, although King says McNamara's words follow Chryssides's more closely than they do the primary sources).

McNamara herself declines to speak about the affair in any detail, but she seems peeved at the Globe's coverage. "What's the story?" she asked in a brief interview. "It's not even remotely plagiarism, so where's the story there?"

Back in the 1970s, when Danny Schechter was WBCN's "News Dissector," you could always count on him to weigh in with news and commentary that just wasn't available in the mainstream.

It appears that's still true.

On September 22, the Globe editorial page published a letter by Schechter, who now heads the progressive TV production company Globalvision. Schechter criticized the Globe's coverage of, and editorial on, Nelson Mandela's recent visit to Harvard.

What's more interesting, though, is what didn't make it into print. Of course, most letters to the editor are cut for reasons of space. But the Globe excised a rather stinging rebuke of the media.

"[I]n your editorial, you say `it does seem that the world is at present bereft of heroes,' " Schechter wrote. "Not true. For years, our company, Globalvision, has been producing TV shows about gutsy human-rights heroes worldwide, very much like (and including) President Mandela. . . . The problem is not the lack of heroes -- but a media refusal to report on and celebrate them with any regularity. Often, they have to be 80 years old or dead to be considered newsworthy. No wonder our kids have so few authentic role models. Why do the media prefer `all Monica, all the time' to `all the Mandelas all the time'? Ask yourselves that one."

Contacted at Globalvision's headquarters, in New York, Schechter -- a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard -- sounded more bemused than angry. "I just thought it was an interesting editing decision," he says of his truncated letter. "I'm glad they printed some of it. And the Globe's coverage is better than that of most papers. But the irony struck me."

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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