A WAR OF words between a major metropolitan newspaper and an all-sports radio station. A Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist silenced - at least temporarily. An ombudsman who seems more interested in winning the Management Toady of the Month Award than in offering any serious analysis or commentary.
Yes, the vibration you feel is yet another earthquake emanating from 135 Morrissey Boulevard, headquarters of the Boston Globe. On the Smith-Barnicle scale of one to 10, this barely registers a two. Nevertheless, the events of the past couple of weeks offer a fascinating lesson in how to turn a minor problem into a public-relations fiasco.
Because this controversy started when the Globe banned its sportswriters from two shows on WEEI Radio (AM 850), and because columnist Eileen McNamara was prevented from writing about the ban and then was called on the carpet for speaking out on 'EEI, this has been played in some circles as if it were a free-speech story. It's not. The Globe has every right to approve or veto its employees' outside work, and killing columns is well within editor Matt Storin's job description.
Nevertheless, as McNamara herself has pointed out, a newspaper should encourage speech, not squelch it. This isn't about the First Amendment, but it is about first principles. Storin showed insufficient sensitivity to those principles. And ombudsman Jack Thomas apparently doesn't even care.
You can't tell the players without a scorecard. Here it is:
• The combatants. The Globe's battles with WEEI began in the late summer of 1999, when staff writer Ron Borges, on Glenn Ordway's The Big Show, allegedly called New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu a " fat Jap. " I couldn't reach Borges, but Ordway says Borges was merely trying to recall Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's infamous description of Irabu as a " fat, pus-sy toad. " Says Ordway: " I corrected him right on the air after that. We thought nothing of it at the time. We didn't mean it to be an ethnic slur. " No matter. The Globe's executive sports editor, Don Skwar, soon announced that his sportswriters would be banned from The Big Show, citing its offensive content. An appeal Borges filed with the union is still pending.
There the matter stood until two weeks ago, when Skwar extended the ban to Dennis & Callahan, a morning-drive-time program that is far more offensive than The Big Show. (WEEI retaliated by banning Globe staffers from all its shows.) " It's been an ongoing joke at the radio station - why the hell did it take them so long to figure it out? " asks Ordway, laughing. On just one morning last week, for instance, the pair - former WHDH-TV (Channel 7) sports anchor John Dennis and Boston Herald columnist Gerry Callahan - referred to the women's NCAA as the " NC Double Ds, " called Channel 7 anchor Randy Price, who's gay, " a girl, " and made fun of the late Pam Laffin, who's featured in a new series of anti-smoking ads.
But though the ban may seem reasonable to the Globe, it takes place amid a radio universe that has grown notably more coarse over the last five to 10 years, thanks largely to Howard Stern, Don Imus, and a garbage can full of local imitators. If sports columnist Bob Ryan can no longer be a regular on Dennis & Callahan, then it makes no sense to allow political columnist Tom Oliphant to pop up on Imus in the Morning, where the racial and sexual humor is at least as crude - although it's offered up in a more tongue-in-cheek, ironic vein. " I think they go further than we do, " said Callahan when I asked him about the Imus show, though he conceded: " Certainly we are offensive to some people. My mother would make that case. "
Callahan and WEEI program director Jason Wolfe have also publicly questioned why the Globe allows sportswriters Will McDonough and Dan Shaughnessy to appear regularly on former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle's show on WTKK (96.9 FM), given the embarrassment Barnicle caused the Globe when he was forced out in 1998 amid charges of plagiarism and fabrication.
When I put that to Storin, he replied that offensiveness is peripheral to the Imus show but central to Dennis & Callahan. " There's a slightly different ethos to my ears, " he says, adding that Oliphant pops up only occasionally on Imus, whereas Ryan was a regular on Dennis & Callahan. As for Barnicle's program, Storin says he finds it completely inoffensive, and it's that, rather than Barnicle's past, that's at issue. " I think it's fine if people go on his show, " Storin says. " We're not looking to impose bans left and right. "
I agree with Storin on the relative offensiveness levels of the three shows. The problem is trying to play what John Dennis calls " content cop. " Why should a newspaper editor even try to divine the difference between one of Bernard McGuirk's racial jibes on the Imus show and Gerry Callahan's characterization of transsexuals as " freakazoids " ?
The reasonable solution would be to let Globe staffers moonlight on the radio as they see fit - and to hold them accountable for their behavior. Ryan never demeaned himself on Dennis & Callahan; nor does Oliphant on Imus in the Morning. Ron Borges may have made an innocent mistake, but it was his mistake. It would have made more sense to take him off the air for a few weeks than to pull the plug on everyone.
• The columnist. Eileen McNamara's greatest strength as a columnist is her moral certitude. It's what helped her win a Pulitzer for commentary in 1997. Unfortunately, it's also her most glaring weakness. During the past week McNamara has made some important points about free speech in an era of corporate media. But when she asserted that Storin had " censored " her, she displayed her sanctimonious side.
McNamara wouldn't show me her column, noting, correctly, that she had produced it on company time and that it was the property of the Globe. Others who have seen it, though, describe it as a thoughtful analysis of the perils a newspaper runs into when it starts silencing its writers.
" The column was not an attack on the Globe per se, " McNamara told me, saying her intent was to raise some serious questions: " What are the bounds of free expression in a community, especially in a community where more and more media outlets are owned by fewer and fewer corporations? " She notes, for example, that the New York Times Company, which owns the Globe, also owns the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Should T&G sportswriters be banned from 'EEI? And what about talk station WRKO (AM 680) - which, like WEEI, is owned by Entercom? " Those are the questions we ought to ask when we start suppressing speech, " McNamara says. " That's not attacking your newspaper. "
McNamara says she wrote her column on March 27 after being told by managing editor Greg Moore that Storin didn't want her to address the WEEI ban, but that Storin had not issued an order prohibiting her from doing so. Storin says that's technically true, but adds, " This is not the military. I thought my feelings were made clear. " Storin adds that he was troubled by McNamara's weighing in on the issue because her husband, Peter May, is a Globe basketball writer and is thus affected by the ban; McNamara replies she could have handled that with a simple disclosure in her column.