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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Blame the Media

Now that I have your attention...

Charlie Pierce has a nice Globe Magazine cover story today on the trials and tribulations of Deval Patrick's first year in office. It rehashes much of what has been bandied about in this space and elsewhere -- the difficulty in going from outsider to insider to get something accomplished.

Pierce has the luxury daily beat reporters do not -- time. He used a year-end interview with Patrick to buttress other reporting and note that the governor has had a tough first year in learning the right balance of working inside The Building while staying loyal to the people and ideas that got him there in the first place.

But I'm here to argue the this sort of perspective is not a luxury. It is a necessity and one that the Boston media in general -- and the Globe in particular -- has failed to provide.

Let me state right off that I am also a refugee of The Building -- six years as a reporter and a few more working in the Legislature. I'm a recovering political reporter who committed many of the sins I am now railing against.

So, to the heart of the matter: where do you go to find out what our elected officials are doing? If they are running for office, you have loads of coverage in the Globe and Herald and some of the TV stations.

If it's about the nuts and bolts of paying for the essentials like education or public safety -- or looking to future economic growth -- well, um, uh, er, gee, you are stuck by a decided lack of interest in the mainstream media.

The are a number of blogs out there which try to cover state and local issues in thoughtful manner -- The Eisenthal Report is an example of a one-man effort to provide thoughtful commentary while holding down a day job. A number of sites, including Ryan's Take to Media Nation opine broadly or narrowly on topics in the public domain. Blue Mass. Group is a clearinghouse of opinion. There are similiar options on the right side of the dial, but I'm obviously not a devotee.

But where do you go for the day-to-day give and take of the sausage factory that is government. Unless you fork out cash for the venerable Statehouse News Service, the answer is nowhere.

The Herald will parachute in with an occasionally thoughtful enterprise story on some narrow aspect of government and its database of salaries is a decent research tool. But the staff-deprived Herald fails to provide a broader context beyond "all these crooks are stealing your hard-earned dough."

So the spotlight inevitably turns back to the Globe, "the paper of record" as it likes to be viewed. And how has the Globe covered Patrick's first term? In a word -- poorly.

Frank Phillips, the Globe's Statehouse Bureau Chief, is one of The Building lifers that Pierce refers to. He has broken his fair share of deliciously scandalous tales of hypocrisy or sloth. But the Globe's Statehouse Bureau has been pretty much AWOL in doing the hard day-to-day work.

And that daily story is the battle of wills between the Executive and Legislature, personalized in the struggle for dominance between Patrick and House Speaker Sal DiMasi. As Pierce rightly notes, Patrick hasn't been shy about tossing out major proposals in life sciences, education, transportation and finances. Oh yeah, and casinos.

Nor has DiMasi been shy about rightfully exerting the prerogative known as the executive branch proposes but the legislative branches disposes.

The coverage, such as it's been, has focused solely on Patrick, starting with his missteps and moving to his failure to move his lengthy laundry list. Less attention has been paid as to why there has been so little movement. Again, it's easier to focus on one high-profile individuals than on an amorphous body of 200 souls.

And to this less-than casual observer, there's a lot going on (or not going on) behind the scenes that requires attention. The House's pace of business has been, to be charitable, glacial. And because the state Constitution declares revenue questions must originate in the House, when that chamber moves at a snail's pace, the Senate moves not at all.

This amounts to a cry in the dark because, truth be told, there's no great appetite out there for details of how government works. After all, there's the Tears of Hillary, the Britney soap opera and concern that the already meager television offerings are going to get worse because of the writers' strike.

And besides, we have talk radio to distort what's going on -- the blogosphere can only wish to have the clout of Right Wing Radio.

There's no question Patrick's first year has been a disappointment, especially when matched at the soaring rhetoric and promise. But there are other players in this drama and so far the Legislature's "disposal" rate has been less than stellar.

And we all lose as a result.

CLARIFICATION: Thanks to the Blue Mass Group's Charley on the MTA for linking. He's right about political coverage. What I really meant to say was that you get blanket coverage of presidential campaigns -- look at all the local reporters enjoying the fine Michigan winter :-) The coverage of local races is pretty anemic beyond the same sort of show horse, event-based stuff you get nationally. The Globe's coverage of legislative races in 2006 was pathetic.

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