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Getting the Metro lowdown
Internet proves a driving force in coverage of media executives’ bad behavior

The biggest local media story of last week began with a man who moved to New York many years ago, but who is still well-known to Bostonians with long memories. The sleazy tale, which featured international business executives’ invoking the N-word and yukking it up about penises, stoked the ongoing war between Boston’s two largest daily newspapers; was fodder for the New York Post and Newsday; and by the end of the week had jumped the Atlantic into the pages of the UK’s Financial Times.

The story got its first airing on Monday, January 10. That’s when Rory O’Connor — a veteran of the Boston news scene and the long-time business partner of "News Dissector" Danny Schechter — reported that top officials of the Swedish-based Metro International had told crude racist jokes at company gatherings in 2003 near Rome and, later, in Stockholm. O’Connor posted his piece on Mediachannel.org, a progressive media-watch site that he and Schechter help run, and on his own weblog, roryoconnor.org.

His timing was exquisite. The previous week the New York Times Company, whose holdings include the Boston Globe, had announced it would spend $16.5 million to acquire a 49 percent share of Boston’s Metro — a free weekday tabloid aimed at young people and commuters that Metro International had launched in 2001. Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell had already made it clear that he would fight the deal on antitrust grounds. So when O’Connor’s story broke, the Herald freaked out. METRO EXECS’ RACIST SMEARS, the paper screamed on Tuesday, beneath a line that said, WHAT THE BOSTON GLOBE BOUGHT INTO. On Wednesday: SLURS FLY AT HUB METRO. And so it went all week, with the Herald dredging bottom on Saturday with GLOBE PARTNER PEDDLES PORN — a story reporting that an investor in Metro International produces nude flicks for European television. Imagine that.

The funny thing is, O’Connor says he had been working on the story off and on since last summer, long before the Times Company got involved. If the gist had remained "Swedish company cracks racist jokes," he adds, it probably would have been "a one-day story that doesn’t go very far." As for the suddenly sensitive Herald’s wall-to-wall coverage, O’Connor quips, "Talk about doing the right thing for the wrong reasons."

O’Connor believes the real story behind the Metro revelations is how the Internet was able to drive coverage. In his first piece, O’Connor reported that neither the Times Company nor Metro would respond to his requests for comment. Within hours after he posted it, the article had migrated to Jim Romenesko’s media-news Web site at Poynter.org, to AlterNet.org, and to Media Log, at BostonPhoenix.com. By Monday evening, both the Globe and Metro had responded; the complete text of their statements were posted on Media Log.

By Thursday, O’Connor was reporting that the two Metro officials deemed most responsible for the racist remarks — Steve Nylund, president of Metro USA, and Hans-Holger Albrecht, a member of Metro International’s board — had resigned, although Nylund remains as executive vice-president of Metro International. ("First we had a non-denial denial, then we got a non-resignation resignation," says O’Connor.) He also reported that Globe columnist Alex Beam had been tipped off to the Metro story about the same time that he was, prompting a mea culpa from Beam in Friday’s Globe.

The "real hero" of the Metro story, O’Connor says, is John Wilpers, a former editor of Boston’s Metro who was initially the only eyewitness willing to go on the record; others have since come forth, accusing Metro of a pervasive atmosphere of racism and sexism. Wilpers — now editor-in-chief of the Washington Examiner, a free, home-delivered daily scheduled to launch on February 1 — says he was contacted by O’Connor many months ago, long before the Times Company’s deal was announced. "It was a story that needed to be told, and as a journalist I don’t like to do anything other than be on the record," says Wilpers.

O’Connor is a former managing editor of the Real Paper, a now-defunct weekly that competed with the Phoenix for most of the 1970s. He’s also worked for two Boston television stations, WCVB-TV (Channel 5) and WGBH-TV (Channel 2). He later worked at CBS News for Andrew Heyward, who’s now the president, and who somehow managed to survive last week’s purge of producer Mary Mapes and three of her supervisors following the investigation of a flawed story about whether George W. Bush had completed his service in the Texas Air National Guard (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, January 7).

O’Connor is now the president and CEO of Globalvision, a left-leaning documentary-film company whose latest release is Schechter’s WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception.

So what does O’Connor believe should happen now? "I think the Times Company should do the right thing, that’s my analysis of this," O’Connor says. "And I don’t think the right thing is to do business with the type of people who have the corporate culture that Metro has admitted to." But if Purcell is looking for support on his antitrust complaint, he can forget it: O’Connor professes not to care whether the Times Company walks away from the deal — or buys the other 51 percent of the local Metro in order to grab full control of the paper. "I would be untroubled by the Times buying either zero percent or 100 percent of the Metro," he says. "Let the Justice Department react to Patrick Purcell’s complaint and see where that goes."

As for what the Times Company’s next step will be, that remains unclear. On Tuesday, Al Larkin, a senior vice-president at the Globe, told the Phoenix, "We’re continuing our due diligence on the investment, and we’re not going to have any further comment on the status of the investment until that’s completed."

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

Issue Date: January 21 - 27, 2005
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