Saturday, March 17, 2007

Patrick's two front battle

Boston and Beyond - The South End News -
Kevin John Sowyrda

Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of piling on, the drip-drip-drip-drip of incessant and shallow investigative stories. Stories penned mostly by the city’s broad sheet paper. With the Commonwealth’s First Lady now ailing from depression — does anyone at Morrissey Boulevard dare feign ignorance or surprise? — questions abound on how fairly or not the media giant in Boston has covered the governor they endorsed and heaped praise upon when he was the 200-pound gorilla candidate of 2006.

Since assuming office, we’ve been treated to stories about the millions Gov. Deval Patrick has spent on tapestries, the billions he’s spent on personal transportation (helicopters and Cadillacs) and other “scandals” we are supposed to care about. There was the scheduler hired for Mrs. Patrick and the trumped up “story” about a fattened state pension for the husband of a state senator. The only story worth the trees that were killed to print it would be Patrick’s ill-considered call to former treasury secretary Robert Rubin on behalf of Ameriquest Mortgage, a predatory lending company that Patrick was, until this summer, affiliated with. God — I mean the Globe — only knows what else the state’s most influential newspaper will inflect on us (and Patrick). I’m sure any day now the New York Times subsidiary will discover that Patrick once double-parked in front of an orphanage back in 1972 or that Mrs. Patrick failed to get her inspection sticker on time in 1973 because her driver’s side blinker was burned out in her lime-colored Ford Pinto.

So why is the press having Deval Patrick for breakfast day after day as if he were the morning omelet at Garden of Eden? There are at least four theories being floated by longtime observers of the press and politics in this town. First, the Globe is infamous for building careers one day and nuking them the next. I call it their “love ‘em and leave ‘em” policy. It’s one of the many eccentricities of a Byzantine newspaper organization that is as much a political entity in this town as it is a news outlet. Second, the Globe is facing a tidal wave of red ink, sort of like that scene from The Day After Tomorrow, where New York City gets wiped out by an uncontrollable wall of water. What better way to generate interest and (maybe, hopefully, pretty please with a cherry on top?) some ad dollars than with some good, old-fashioned muckraking? Third, the Globe is just a pathetic, not worth the two quarters — or is it three? — it costs on the newsstands and, well, what’s to be expected from such a rag?

The fourth theory is only tangentially related to the Globe. And this is the one I believe is the closest to the truth. Patrick and his team have handled the media in general, and the Globe in particular, like a bunch of amateurs. Here’s something any press officer knows before his or her first day on the job: if you don’t give the press something to write about, they will find something to write about. Patrick’s problem? He hasn’t done — or proposed — anything big enough to fill the void that daily deadline oriented reporters need to fill.

This dynamic is illustrated perfectly in my favorite line from the film The Paper starring Robert Duvall in the role of a crusty tabloid editor. “Everyday we start from scratch,” Duvall tells his troops. It’s a truth that sums up the daily news business better than any other. And it’s one that Patrick and his team seem unaware of: The reporters who float around the fourth floor of the State House looking for stories start each day from scratch. They need to write something if they’re going to get their bylines in the paper, which is what they need to do to keep their jobs in their increasingly unstable business. So guess what they did when Patrick didn’t give them anything? They went on the prowl, dug up some minor indiscretions and filled the void that Patrick wasn’t smart enough to fill himself. It’s that simple.

Patrick needs do the following. First, keep the lieutenant governor busy and go home on time. It will be the first time in state history that a lieutenant governor has actually earned their salary. Mrs. Patrick’s health is far more important than the evening cocktail circuit. Second, the governor needs to present a Contract with Massachusetts. Pardon the Newt Gingrich-like sound of the thing, but ideas garner ink just as much as political trivialities. This means making the big, out of the box proposals he promised (or at least seemed to promise) on the campaign trail. How about increasing the school year from 180 to 240 days, phased in over a six fiscal year period? If that doesn’t keep the Globe’s political reporters scribbling substantive news copy, I don’t know what would.

The next few weeks could be the most significant we’ve seen in Massachusetts politics in many decades. Patrick is simultaneously facing a personal crisis and a political one. It’s a two-front war that would test the mettle of any man. The days ahead will show if he’s up to the task.

Kevin John Sowyrda is a political writer and commentator.

No comments: