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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cracks in the armor?

Well, we now know why there has been little attention paid to the House debate over a $28 billion spending plan.

Casey Ross has the tale today of House Ways and Means Chairman Bobby DeLeo emerging as a candidate to replace Speaker Sal DiMasi should the heat building around the Speaker rise to a full boil.

What makes this story significant to me is that DeLeo would be the second challenger to the throne, joining Majority Leader John Rogers. And this after DeLeo apparently backed off once.

The Winthrop Democrat tells Ross he is toeing the loyalist line:
“I support Speaker DiMasi, and he has made it clear to everyone that he is not leaving,” DeLeo said. “I have complied with that request and have not authorized anyone to lobby on my behalf.”
Tell that to your friends, Mr. Chairman.

What is clear is that DiMasi has been struggling for control over his own House even as he wins his public relations battles with Deval Patrick. And the steady drip of problems DiMasi is encountering could make for a very interesting three months as the Legislature lurches to the end of a two-year session that right now seems more notable for what it has killed (the gay marriage ban and casinos) than what it has created.

That could all change as the life sciences and energy bills, to name two, work their way through the meat grinder. But ultimate success depends on lawmakers tending to the people's business -- and not internecine warfare.

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Bosley on tax bill amendment

I'm a little slow in catching up on my reading, so I only came across this post on Dan Bosley's blog this morning. It expands a bit on his response in the comments section to my post about the corporate tax reporting bill that passed the House last week.

I'm putting it up top so you don't have to root around for it.

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The Wrong Stuff

No, not Barack Obama. But as for Jeremiah Wright's bizarre national tour to destroy the first serious African-American candidate for president, well...

I have tried to be understanding of Wright after reading a little about black liberation theology, but the events of the past week have me scratching my head here over what the man is trying to teach. The federal government infecting black men with syphilis raises legitimate questions. But the answers do not involve trying to destroy a candidate who represents the first real change in the role of African-Americans on this society.

Nor does not explain why he has has crudely turned against what seemed like his only prominent national defender -- and explains why Obama has finally returned the favor.

Wright's tour seems timed to cause maximum damage -- after the controversy had died down in the MSM (even as his inflammatory remarks continue to bounce around the cable yak shows and the web). His National Press Club performance was shocking, even raising suggestions that his appearance was arranged by a Clinton supporter to torpedo his candidacy.

It may work. As the Washington Post notes:
"I was, like, what is this guy doing?" Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams, an Obama supporter, said as he watched Wright bob and weave on television like a welterweight as he answered questions at the press club. Georgetown University professor Christopher Chambers, another Obama supporter, thought, "This is a disaster." Commenting on the blog Jack and Jill Politics, which says it offers "the black bourgeois perspective on American politics," Chambers assessed Obama's chances of beating Clinton in two words: "Game over."
What does it say about a pastor who turns on a member of his flock after that member went out of his way to avoid piling on initially? What is it in Wright's psyche that compelled him to launch this destructive mission?

And why is it that religion continues to dominate our political discourse -- whether the agent of hate wrapped in "love" is named Wright, or Hagee or Robertson or Falwell?

There is a reason the Founding Fathers sought a separation of church and state. We're seeing it play out yet again.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Day Late, $28 billion Short

The Massachusetts Republican Party is Johnny on the Spot once again, filing a third complaint with the state Ethics Commission over the latest allegations to surface about the Friends of Sal DiMasi.

But while the understaffed GOP takes aim at an easy target, they avoided the Elephant in the Room (sorry, I couldn't resist): the secretive budget process that led to initial approval of a $28 billion spending plan with virtually no debate or public notice (yep, the subscription only Statehouse News Service is my source, although kudos to Gatehouse.)

One of the problems of course is the fact that the Massachusetts GOP is a moribund group that hasn't been able to elect members to the Legislature in decades -- and seems to have stopped trying. Part of the problem is the label of course -- who wants to be associated with George Bush?

But this goes back at least as far as the 1980s and is part and parcel of a system that enables Speakers -- whether named McGee, Flaherty, Finneran or DiMasi -- to operate in murky corners.

The Massachusetts Republican Party is as broken as the legislative system. Railing about Sal, drapes, Cadillacs and book contracts can't hide the fact they have failed at their most basic job -- convincing voters they have people and a plan.

In the meantime, I'm all for the Ethics Commission and Secretary of State Billy Galvin looking into things. And I suppose I should be happy the Republican Party woke up long enough to read the newspaper.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Missing link

As if anyone needed proof that the Republican fall campaign will be the usual dose of fear and smear, St. John McCain has personally taken up the issue of Barack Obama and Pastor Wright.

The halo McCain tried to seize by chastising the North Carolina Republican Party for a slime attack on Obama fell off yesterday -- and McCain is trying to blame Obama. He says the Illinois senator's comments that Wright is a "legitimate political issue" gives him the right to speak about Wright's sermons.

As I noted the other day, only piece of the Wright story is being pursued by the mainstream media. Leave it to The New Yorker and Jon Stewart to take a closer look at issue and the coverage respectively.

And leave it to the MSM to fail to link McCain to his own controversial pastor. I guess they don't get John Hagee's program on board The Straight Talk Express.

Hagee, you may recall, said Hurricane Katrina was God's wrath on New Orleans for holding a Gay Pride parade. Hagee also believes the End Times are near and he likes to link Adolf Hitler to the Catholic Church.

Allow me to provide those links that the Times must have inadvertently forgotten in covering the story of religious men with controversial views. And you be the judge of who is a bigger danger.

Maybe a bobby pin will help keep that halo up, Senator. It usually works with yarmulkes.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Friends of Sal Dimasi

I wouldn't sweat the Ropes & Gray solicitation letter.

The Massachusetts blogosphere was in high dudgeon earlier this week over a Herald story that Diane Patrick's name was on a client "alert" about a new Massachusetts law regarding damages in wage cases. "Did Deval step in it again?" was the operative question.

Today's Globe headlines a much bigger ethical question, focusing on how a pro-consumer ticket bill aimed at ending scalping emerged from the House as a pro-industry measure. And all the industry needed to do was hire a friend of Sal DiMasi, his financial adviser who also brokered a below-market rate third mortgage for Mr. Speaker.

And who, by the way, is not a registered lobbyist.

We're all aware of "DrapeGate" and "CaddyGate" and now "BookGate." The governor has been lambasted from the left and right (not helping himself with stupid tactical moves). His poll numbers are sagging and his ethics and competence are being questioned.

Meanwhile, DiMasi bumps along from one questionable encounter and deal to another without so much as an eyebrow raised on the public scene.

Part of the difference of course is that Patrick was elected statewide with a promise of changing business as usual. DiMasi represents one district in the North End, runs the Massachusetts House and is business as usual.

And he's been winning -- casinos, corporate tax reporting. You get the picture.

Patrick's latest "blunder" was allowing a bill to become law without his signature. It's credible to suggest he did that to avoid any appearance of conflict with the law firm for whom his wife works in the labor practice.

It was a classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't situation" and he was indeed damned on both scores.

The latest DiMasi matter is far more complex and troubling. Here are the Globe's nut grafs:
But because [Richard] Vitale, a Charlestown accountant with the firm of Vitale, Caturano & Co., was not registered as a lobbyist when he helped the brokers with their bill - and because of his financial ties to the speaker - the episode raises questions on how DiMasi and his political allies conduct business on Beacon Hill.

If Vitale was paid more than $5,000 to influence lawmakers - and several brokers briefed on his fee arrangements said he most certainly was - he would have had to register as a lobbyist. And if he was working as a lobbyist, his ongoing financial relationship with DiMasi - namely, the loan - would have run afoul of state conflict of interest laws that prohibit lobbyists from granting anything of value to a public official.

Admittedly a lot of ifs there. And DiMasi, surrounded by his spokesman, House legal counsel and chief of staff, denied he was aware that his accountant/friend Vitale was involved in working for legislation to lift regulations on the ticket resale business.
"I had no idea that he was working for them or what his relationship was," said DiMasi. "He's never talked to me about any legislation at all."
Good thing he didn't make that statement under oath. It was that sort of broad denial that got Tom Finneran an obstruction of justice conviction.

I suspect this will capture the attention of the state Ethics Commission and Secretary of State Bill Galvin's Public Records Division. Not to mention the Republican United States Attorney for Massachusetts.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Mr. Grumpy's reflections

A few random thoughts here and there...
  • See what happens when you take a good reporter like Charlie Savage out of Washington and away from the all-knowing crowd? For all the angst over Clinton v. Obama there's still a deep, deep reservoir of antipathy to the GOP out in the heartland, away from the cynicism of the Beltway boys and girls -- who, if you recall, have been wrong virtually all the time during this campaign.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Let the sunshine in

The Globe's Matt Viser takes a look at the closed door nature of the way the Legislature conducts the people's business. It's not new, but it's a timely look at the practice.

Timely because one of the items Viser focuses on is the proposed corporate tax reporting law amendments offered during the House debate (for a fuller discussion of the nuts and bolts, check here, including a comment from House Emerging Technologies and Economic Development Chair Dan Bosley and a report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.)

The 2,300-word amendment at the center of contention had no prior public discussion -- and failed to hit the radar screen of at least one conscientious House member. Bosley says the amendment was in the clerk's hands all day and no one raised questions.

But it's the broader issue -- members-only caucuses, bundling amendments behind closed doors to have them voted up or down as a package -- as well as the lack of debate, phantom voting and similar issues that is troubling.

As I said, it's not new. In my reporting days, Senate Democrats AND Republicans would occasionally meet as a "caucus of the whole," a fancy term for all of them sitting in then President William Bulger's spacious office, chatting in private and emerging with a decision.

The House would hold party caucuses (Democrats using Gardner Auditorium, Republicans in a broom closet) and then have the President or the Speaker emerge to speak to the media.

Budget amendment bundling is a long-time practice in the Senate, where reporter could see the stacks of paper in clear view in the Senate Reading Room, but could not get close to them because the room was off-limits to them.

Viser mentions the Patrick administration's denial of several requests for records, including a request from the Associated Press in February for copies of his e-mails and other electronic communications. But document requests fall into a different transparency pile than holding "debate" behind closed doors.

It's somehow appropriate that neither Speaker Sal DiMasi or Senate President Terry Murray would speak to Viser directly, preferring statements through spokesmen.

Legislatures are deliberative bodies -- and there seems to be far less deliberation. Not that all debates are good. I covered some budget debates that were longer than interminable and yielded no news. The famed House "toga" debate earlier this decade was a profile in shame.

There are people elected who simply love to hear the sounds of their own voices. But I can recall a few who actually tried to hold people accountable. Wellesley Republican Royall Switzler (leaving aside his military service record) was an amiable and persistent if loquacious gadlfy. Former Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees performed a valuable service by asking "what is this amendment about and what will it cost" as each proposal was taken up.

The public has just about had its fill of politics and government, particularly as it is practiced in Washington. We haven't descended into that sewer, thank to the civility (and meager ranks) of Massachusetts Republicans.

But the public does have a right to know about the people's business -- and that business should be conducted in the full view of those who elect (and reject) our officials.

The Globe found one citizen chastened by the experience:

During the highly contentious casino debate, for example, lawmakers spent 13 hours in committee hearings, sustaining themselves on Gatorade and crackers as they listened to anyone who wanted to testify. But when it came time for deliberations among committee members, there were none. To cast votes, most e-mailed and phoned them in, some not even bothering to show up at the State House.

For John Leschen, a 41-year-old historic preservation contractor from Plympton, this was the first time he had confronted State House procedures, and he expressed disappointment. Leschen traveled several times to Beacon Hill, meeting with legislators and sitting through hours of hearings, to oppose the governor's plan to license three resort casinos. He was impressed with the amount of time legislators spent on the issue and the knowledge they had amassed, but said it was all for naught.

"It was primarily for show," said Leschen. "These things happened the next day through e-mail, a quick debate, and a couple of votes."

And this is someone who was happy with the outcome of that vote.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Who killed the Boston Globe?

Word that 23 more experienced Boston Globe staffers will be walking out the door and on to better things is distressing beyond belief.

While the names are anonymous for now, the devastation from this round of belt-tightening is already broadly known -- and includes names such as Helen Donovan, Michael Larkin, Steve Bailey, Peter May, Jackie MacMullan and Gordon Edes.

When I learned of two more buyout takers (a confidence I will keep) I audibly gasped. The level of talent -- and the devastation this will cause in just one area -- is hard to describe.

While it's a popular past time to trash the Globe (something I have not been above myself) it is impossible to overstate what has happened to this once great metropolitan newspaper since it was sold to The New York Times Co.

Wave upon wave of buyouts (and high profile departures like Bailey) have led to a shrinking news hole and things I once thought were impossible -- for example an Associated Press story on the front page of today's business section.

Not all of the blame rests on the Times -- CraigsList, Monster.com and a variety of automobile websites -- not to mention the demise of the department store, all play a role. That an industry attitude that considered operating margins of under 20 percent a disaster.

And truth be told, the Globe has squandered the potential resources of Boston.com.

But the Grey Lady is to blame for taking it out on the newspaper it bought with great promises and high hopes. It is only in this round of cuts that New York is suffering, for the first time, the morale destruction that comes from talented, dedicated people walking out the door.

And yet the problems have escalated because of bad business decisions made by the corporate suite in Times Square (or in the state-of-the-art tower on Eighth Avenue across from the Port Authority bus terminal.)

The newspaper's presence on the web is strong. The corporate presence, not so much. It has been continually outfoxed by Rupert Murdoch (who is ready to move in for the kill with a double dose of The Wall Street Journal and Newsday).

To those leaving I say good times do await. It was wrenching to give up reporting when the I left a once-great news operation that had fallen apart after decades of wretched leadership. But things have turned out well for me, as they will for you.

For the once-great Globe, it's clear a change is desperately needed. The Times should turn it over to local control. The Jack Welch solution discussed about 18 months ago would not have been a good fit.

Instead I see one prominent Boston leader with a solid track record of turning around a moribund operation as the leader of a group that could buy the paper and try to right it.

What do you say Bob Kraft?

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So what are the real numbers?

The Globe offers a different side to the corporate tax loophole closing bill passed by the House a couple of weeks ago -- and it ain't pretty.

The story tells of a 2,300-word amendment that could allow certain corporations to shift a large portion of their income to overseas subsidiaries and avoid paying corporate income taxes in Massachusetts.

Says Department of Revenue Commissioner Navjeet K. Bal:
"These changes primarily benefit a limited group of very large, sophisticated, multinational businesses," reads the letter, which was obtained by the Globe. "If left unchanged, these changes will materially reduce the additional revenue anticipated from the governor's combined reporting bill by at least $100 million to $200 million annually."
Lexington Democrat Jay Kaufman, one of the chamber's good guys, admits he goofed.
"It's somewhat embarrassing. "Since it was introduced at the last minute - and there was a desire to get this voted on that day - there was an understanding we would be working with incomplete information."
House Emerging Technologies and Economic Development Chairman Dan Bosley, the amendment's sponsor, is having none of it, saying he thinks DOR's numbers here are as good as Deval Patrick's estimates on casino gambling revenue.
"I just don't trust their figures," Bosley said of the department. "It's a ridiculous estimate. They're just bad at numbers."
But Bosley doesn't offer his own numbers -- or at least the Globe didn't print them. Nor is there any discussion of how to resolve what would obviously be a larger problem of a tax collector that doesn't know how to count.

As a public service, I'm happy to provide Bosley, who I'm pleased to know is a pretty regular reader, with a forum to respond. I know I'm not the front page of the Globe (but at the rate it's going you never know when I'll catch up!)...

In the meantime, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center is planning to release a report later today with its view of the amendment and its cost.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Killer sushi -- and more alleged news

Boston "big shot" threatens state troopers. We'll have more on 7News after this. Or not.

Bad sushi. Stayed tuned to WBZ-TV for more. On Thursday.

While we love to complain about the Globe and the Herald, Boston television news is always there for us as a foundation on which to base things. Such as when the overblown meets the overrated.

Randi Goldklank, Channel 7's general manager, is on administrative leave this morning after a rather messy scene at Logan Airport involving state troopers, allegations of drugs, alcohol and sexual misconduct.

Just the kind of story Channel 7 loves -- with its overhyped headlines and dramatic musical chords.

Except it seems the folks at 7News ain't talking.

The Globe and the Herald have the details on the expletive-laden encounter that started on an airplane and carried over into the terminal, where Goldklank allegedly broke a pair of prescription glasses in a trooper's pocket. (I don't know about you, but when it comes to this kind of story, the Herald can't be beat -- or their sources doubted.)

While the "tiny lady" spoke briefly to the Herald's Jessica Heslam, the suits at 7 clammed up and didn't return phone calls.

Just imagine if the person on the court end of this type of allegation worked at another Boston television station or a newspaper. Or better yet, was a politician. Hank Phillippi Ryan or Victoria Block would have been camped out outside their door night and day, ready to shove a microphone in their face as they and their cameraperson chased the perp down the street.

Goldklank's attorney told the Globe he didn't want to comment, saying he didn't want to try the case in the press. Wish we could say that for the other folks who have been treated to the full court press from Channel 7 -- and its sister stations in town.

Meanwhile over at Channel 4, an alert colleague pointed me in the direction of a promo that has been running all week about a report looking at the quality of sushi served in Boston. (I can't find anything on their web site).

He rightly asks the question -- if this stuff is so bad for you, don't you have a journalistic responsibility to put the word out now, before people get sick and/or die?

As the late Jack Cole said, in buying his ticket out of the old Channel 7, "we'll be back with more alleged news in a moment..."

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Knee deep in the Big Muddy

What in the world that's new can be said about the Democratic Death March?

Hillary Clinton scored a 10-point victory over Barack Obama in a state she was expected to win. The margin is big enough to quiet calls for her to get out, at least temporarily. But will it make a difference in the delegate margin, the popular vote totals across the states or in the minds of the superdelegates who will ultimately decide this thing?

Barack Obama lost a state he was supposed to lose. What does this say about his ability to seal the deal in November? But supporters can says that he showed better strength that could be expected after having the kitchen sink, let alone Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, bitterness and even Osama bin Laden thrown at him. Clinton ran a mini-version of the GOP campaign and won a state by a smaller margin than what polls showed she had prior to the onslaught.

So now the Democrats have two battered candidates slogging on to North Carolina and Indiana. One is like Obama territory, the other thought to be Clinton Country. Seven more primaries and caucuses after that. Millions more to be spent on the ground and in the air, doing John McCain's work for him.

Democracy isn't pretty. Democratic Party politics even less so. The voters will truly decide this one, as it should be. Either person to emerge from this battle will be bloodied.

The one thing that I remain puzzled by is the thought that the loser's backers will skip over to McCain in an election that will present as sharp a contrast as I can recall between the parties.

McCain carries the banner of the War Party, the Party of the Haves. Clinton or Obama will bear the flag of the Gang That Can't Get Anything Done. I see the loser's voters staying home at this point, unless the so-called Wise Men (and Nancy Pelosi) come up with some good ideas, and quick, about how to avoid losing the most winnable election of the last two generations.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Crossing the line

Thankfully today will bring some measure of clarity in the Democratic Death March. This thing is getting totally out of hand.

Not content with the 3 a.m. phone call (and all the appropriate jokes that went with it) Hillary Clinton ran a last-minute commercial invoking images of Pearl Harbor, Hurricane Katrina and Osama bin Laden.

Maybe as a way to show her kinder, gentler, Mark Penn-less side, the ad did not mention Obama by name in asking “Who do you think has what it takes?”

Yeah, and Lyndon Johnson's Daisy ad never mentioned Barry Goldwater by name either.

Yet somehow, Obama is taken to task for responding to negative campaigning. Funny, I thought the complaint against Michael Dukakis and John Kerry was that they showed their weakness when they didn't respond to attack.

The only way Barack Obama could be quite as incendiary is by running an ad with images of Monica Lewinsky and the blue dress.

Clinton makes me think about a mixed metaphor Vietnam-era phrase in this last-minute desperation. She's now intent on destroying the village it takes to educate a child in order to save it. She should be ashamed.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

What's good for the goose...

Where's the flag pin Senator?

John McCain spent some time with George Stephanopoulos yesterday, and to the best of my knowledge there were no questions about his failure to wear an American flag pin in his lapel. (The video player was hinky but it's worth noting the lack of pin in this image).

But the presumptive GOP presidential nominee did spend some time questioning Barack Obama's "association" with University of Chicago English professor and one-time Weather Underground member William Ayers, as the Swift Boat segment of the 2008 campaign gets into high gear.

So in the interest of equal time I have a question for the Arizona senator: what about your relationship with Charles Keating?

You remember Keating? He was the anti-pornography crusader and bank executive who was a key player in the savings and loan scandals that cost American taxpayers millions -- and who took the Fifth during congressional testimony. True-blue Republican hypocrite that Mr. Keating.

And surely you remember the Keating Five -- five US Senators accused of doing Keating's bidding on Capitol Hill? And that John McCain was the only Republican member of the Keating Five? You recall he took campaign contributions from Keating and his associates, took trips on Keating's corporate jet and failed to pay for them?

And surely you recall that McCain was rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for "poor judgment"?

There's far more substance in McCain's relationship with Keating than in Barack Obama's alleged ties to Ayers. So where's the concern on the part of the GOP?

It's clear why the attacks start now: John McCain has very little to run on aside from smears.

His support for the war in Iraq, including his inability to draw a clear distinction between Iraqi Sunnis and Iranian Shiites, is a clear losing issue. He has failed to really grasp the significance of the economic problems facing the United States (including a financial scandal that makes the savings and loan crisis look puny).

Or maybe he was just trying to change the subject from the question of his temper?

Careful Mr. Straight Talk. Smears work both ways.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

In the company of whores

What do Eliot Spitzer, Wolf Blitzer, George Stephanopoulos, Tim Russert and Brit Hume have in common?

Well actually not a lot. Spitzer knew what he was getting in his business dealings with Ashley Alexandra Dupre. Our clueless commentators were out to sea.

The biggest whores identified in the New York Times' massive look at the Bush administration's manipulation of public opinion are the former military men who traded their reputation for access and business contacts.

The network executives come across as clueless bozos, falling for yet another tactic selling a war that was premised on lies and misinformation.

And as usual, taxpayers are left holding the bag -- and the price tag for the propaganda machine that passes itself off as a government.

It was hard to read the Times' story. Many times I slammed the paper down and started yelling (another reason to favor dead trees over computers -- the damage is far less than putting your fist into a monitor).

No one -- from Pentagon brass to network employee comes out of this one looking good. But special contempt should be heaped on a few individuals (and funny, most of them drew paychecks from Fox).
  • Paul E. Vallely, a retired Army general who wrote a paper on "psy-ops" in the '80s, then practiced it advocating and implementing a "new approach to psychological operations in future wars — taking aim at not just foreign adversaries but domestic audiences, too. He called his approach “MindWar” — using network TV and radio to “strengthen our national will to victory.” He told supposedly liberal Fox yak show host Alan Colmes that "you can't believe the progress" even when he came away with a different opinion after an taxpayer-supported trip to Iraq in 2003;
  • Charles T. Nash, a Fox military analyst and retired Navy captain, and a consultant who helps small companies break into the military market. "Suddenly, he had entree to a host of senior military leaders, many of whom he had never met. It was, he said, like being embedded with the Pentagon leadership. 'You start to recognize what’s most important to them,' he said, adding, 'There’s nothing like seeing stuff firsthand.'”
  • John C. Garrett is a retired Army colonel and unpaid analyst for Fox News TV and radio. He is also a lobbyist at Patton Boggs who helps firms win Pentagon contracts, including in Iraq. In promotional materials, he states that as a military analyst he “is privy to weekly access and briefings with the secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high level policy makers in the administration.” One client told investors that Mr. Garrett’s special access and decades of experience helped him “to know in advance — and in detail — how best to meet the needs” of the Defense Department and other agencies.
At least Garrett only took cash from Patton Boggs and not Fox.

The Sgt. Schultz denials from network spokespeople is not much better. These alleged news operations were already under heavy Pentagon fire to deliver the story in the way the Bush administration wanted it. Some, like the Times' Judith Miller, obliged. Obviously so too did the brass at the television "news" operations.

Anyone purporting to be real journalists would have vetted their paid military experts. It's not as if it would have been tough -- they represented companies with web sites.

Last and certainly not least are the Pentagon's Goebbels Bridge -- Torie Clarke, Larry DiRita and their minions -- who subverted the the concept of a free press with imposters who succeeded all too well in infiltrating the "enemy" positions and spreading the lies that have cost us more than 4,000 lives and billions upon billions of dollars.

Your federal tax dollars at work. And one more stain upon the Constitution in the name of George W. Bush.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Green spring

At long last, sunshine, blue skies and pollen all around (Gesundheit!)

But the most remarkable part of spring finally arriving in New England is waking up to watch the start of the 2008 NBA Playoffs with the Celtics as a strong favorite to capture their (long overdue) 17th title. (Isiah Thomas getting fired is just icing on the cake.)

Now that's Green.

There are question marks to be sure as the Celtics take the floor tomorrow night against the Atlanta Hawks. The New Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce have spotty and unsuccessful playoff experiences. Rajon Rondo is a kid (an impressive one to be sure). Kendrick Perkins isn't going to make anyone forget Robert Parish (but he is far more mobile than Shaquille O'Neal).

I've been slow to fall completely in love with this team -- too many painful memories from Magic and Kareem celebrating on the Garden parquet in 1985 to the tragedy of Reggie Lewis. But this team certainly is special: at 42-win turnaround, best record in the NBA and third-best Celtic record of all time.

Kevin Garnett has been everything advertised and then some. He was indeed the missing piece after the Draft Night deal that brought Ray Allen East with my thoughts running to "that's nice, but it's not enough."

The ability of Garnett, Allen and the once-maligned Paul Pierce to subsume their own egos for the common good has been the key to this remarkable turnaround. The coaching of Doc Rivers plays a large part in that accomplishment.

And let's given ample credit to the most visible link to the last championship. Danny Ainge wasn't content to rest with the two blockbuster deals that brought Garnett and Allen. Bringing in tough veterans with playoff experience like James Posey -- and most importantly Sam Cassell and PJ Brown -- helped sustain the turnaround. (Admit it, how many of you hated Brown's toughness when he toiled for the Knicks, Bulls and Heat?)

The skeptics abound about the ability of this team to handle the higher level of the playoffs. But this is a team that swept Texas. It went 31-10 on the road and dominated the much-touted Western Conference.

This is a team put together with the intention of winning the title. The regular season has simply been a delightful warm-up.

I am mindful of the euphoria that surrounds Boston sports teams give the strength of the Red Sox and Patriots. But since I'm not a fan of either, I don't think I'm caught up in that.

So I'll leave it to a supposedly neutral source, ESPN:

Wake up, folks -- this is one of the best teams of all time, and you might be surprised how easily they roll through the playoffs. I realize this is raining on the parade a bit since everybody is so jacked up about the competition in store this postseason, but I have to warn you there's a chance the Celtics are just going to flat-out destroy everybody.

Boston went 66-16, one of the best marks in league history, but even that mark sells the Celtics short. At 10.3 points per game, they had the scoring margin of a 70-win team. That scoring margin is better than all but three teams since the ABA-NBA merger, and those teams all had Michael Jordan. By contrast, last season the Spurs had a scoring margin of 7.8 ppg, and that was easily the best mark in the league.

Celtics-Lakers in The Garden in June? Works me for. Beat LA!

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Are you now or have you ever been...

It was a question made famous by the Old Tail Gunner himself: "Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party." And it's modern posing -- by a political operative now working as a "journalist" -- takes me back to the beginning.

The Globe takes a look today at the origins of George Stephanopoulos' question to Barack Obama about his association with Bill Ayers, a one-time Weather Underground member who now teaches English at the University of Chicago.

It is guilt by association of the worst kind -- straight out of the McCarthy era. And it was posed by a man who learned his political journalism in "The War Room"-- in the service of Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary.

See how easy it is to smear?

Let's get the basics out of the way: Obama's answer that he was 8 years old at the time was on point. And let's look at his "relationship": being at a house party in 1995 and serving on the same community board.

Brings back another famous question: what did you know and when did know it? Do you vet the deep dark past of casual acquaintances?

The Globe today looks at the passage of information from blog to the mainstream media. But that only scratches the surface of a colossal smear.

Ayers addresses the controversy himself in a blog post himself on April 6 (and followed up on by the Washington Post here.)

That the Right is prone to hyperbole and smear is not news. That's the purpose of talk radio and cable yak shows like Bill O'Reilly and Hannity and Colmes on the "Fair and Balanced" Network.

And while the factoid about Ayers sprang up on a blog the Globe describes as being written by someone to the left of Obama, the distortion and the noise grew in the right wing blogosphere and on the Official Network of the Republican Party (ever hear of Roger Ailes?)

That an alleged journalist should make it front page news is, however, something a little different. It says something about the state of the profession I was once proud to earn a (meager) living in.

Today, political journalism is a germ factory. Rumor and innuendo co-exist with fact in a closed environment populated by operatives, pundits and reporters. The inbreeding is intense too. Stephanopoulos, as noted, cut his teeth as a Clinton political operative. Tim Russert toiled for Mario Cuomo. George Will fed Ronald Reagan questions from Jimmy Carter's debate book.

While ABC says the question emerged through reporting by Jake Tapper, conspiracy theorists on the left note that Stephanopoulos was a guest of Hannity the day before the debate, where the Ayers issue was raised as a possible question, prompted a flip Stephanopoulos retort as "I'm taking notes right now."

A good journalist would never have put himself into that position in the first place. Many respectable news organizations prohibit their reporters and anchors from appearing on the yak shows, because it is guaranteed to raise doubts about a person's objectivity when they appear on a program that traffics in opinion (and the snarky and more pointed the better).

But Stephanopoulos is not a journalist. His training is in political science and he worked as a sports broadcaster in college. He rose to prominence as a political operative, served as a spokesman for the president where his job was to present one side of the issue.

He then crossed the line into television news. And on Wednesday, he crossed the line again, by trafficking in half-baked information.

Why? A good journalist would have also taken a look at Ayers' blog posting, tried to talk to the man himself, checked out whether he had "no regrets." No evidence points to that being done.

Stephanopoulos himself professes no regrets. "Our job was to just ask questions," he says.

But Stephanopoulos is not a journalist. He posed an ill-formed, not thoroughly reported question and played "gotcha."- the trademark of all that is wrong with American political journalism -- stretching back to Donna Rice and Gennifer Flowers up through an through today.

And that's why I am a recovering political reporter.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The new American Dream

Oil has topped $113 a barrel and gasoline is pushing to $4 a gallon. Food prices are out of control because the cost of basic materials like flour is rising (in part to make ethanol to counter rising fuels prices.) People are losing their homes retirement nest eggs and Congress is bailing out Wall Street, not Main Street.

Internationally, the death toll has topped 4,000 and the price tag rises for a war that will bankrupt our children's children. Our troops are exhausted, forced to serve extended tours in sandy hells for a war without end because there has never been a strategy. America's leaders sit in the White House and choreograph torture. Our Constitution resembles so much toilet tissue in the hands of George Bush and his friends.

As Dick Cheney would say, so?

With all these serious problems facing the American people, wouldn't it be nice to have an honest national debate about how we got here and what we can do to get out of it?

Instead, we are "treated" to an endless litany of what will likely be the key issues on which the 2008 campaign will be fought: Is Barack Obama an elitist and is Hillary Clinton a mean shrew.

In one sense, you couldn't blames ABC Newsmen Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos for pursuing a lengthy line of questions designed to tell us about who these people are when the makeup comes off and the lights go out. For more than 40 years, presidential campaigns have been fought on this battleground.

And with the crises facing a nation after seven years of George Bush and a Congress still dominated by the Republicans ability to stifle action through Senate supermajority rules, it's likely this one will be fought the same way.

Acrimony is the best selling product in American politics. Divide and conquer. Pander to the base. John McCain's team is heavy into oppo research so he can change the subject when his record and that of his GOP colleagues gets put on the table. Or maybe he can keep it off the table altogether.

So we are treated to a dress rehearsal on who is the bigger elitist -- Barack Obama by his accurate but poorly phrased statement about how wedge issues have been used to divide and conquer -- or Hillary Clinton, whose ill-phrased retort about "sitting home and baking cookies" would be dragged out by McCain if Obama didn't.

Wouldn't it be nice if the candidates were put on the spot about how they would realistically end America's Iraqi horror show -- a solution that will come somewhere between immediately and 100 years?

Or asked to explain what safeguards are necessary to prevent predatory financial tactics aimed at earning billions in bonuses for Wall Street without regard to the damage they can do to average Americans? Or how we can fix the damage caused by those predatory practices, damage that now threatens people in the homes and in their retirement as Wall Street bleeds billions.

Or asked about how public officials should be held accountable to the Constitution they will be swearing to preserve, protect and defend and how they will restore the luster to America's reputation in the world as a moral leader?

But Gibson and Stephanopoulos instead chose to focus almost half of a two-hour "conversation" about who is tougher and who is the bigger elitist. Fiddling and diddling as Johnny Most might have said.

By electing president on standards like who we would rather have a beer with, we ignore the problems that we face. Our politicians adapt to this and throw up a smoke screen or glad-handing bonhomie. Once in two generations someone tries to rise about it and gets slapped around by the political-media complex for not playing by their rules.

We deserve better than this. But until it changes we will continue to elect candidates like George Bush and sink deeper into the mud.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Democratic steel cage match

Interesting numbers popping up this morning on the direction of the Democratic steel cage match. And the loser is: Hillary Clinton.

While Barack Obama continues to trail in Pennsylvania by varying margins, the slew of polls suggest that race has gotten a little more competitive. And of course, since this is a race where the pundits have suggested all Obama needs to be is make a respectable showing, competitive is a good sign for him.

And while the Washington Post-ABC News poll finds a majority of respondents don't want Clinton to get out now, there is a strong underlying message to the superdeledgates who will ultimately make the choice of the nominee: The tone isn't doing her any good.
In the new poll, 54 percent said they have an unfavorable view of Sen. Clinton, up from 40 percent a few days after she won the New Hampshire primary in early January. Her favorability rating has dropped among both Democrats and independents over the past three months, although her overall such rating among Democrats remains high. Nearly six in 10 independents now view her unfavorably.
Those are devastating numbers. It's hard to win an election when between half and three-fifths of the voters don't like you. To paraphrase Lee Atwater, you would have to skin a lot of bark off John McCain to win, leaving the prize worthless and the country more divided than ever.

Just a hunch here, but for all the recent misstatements and missteps by Obama, the desire for starring fresh. Why else would a majority of Pennsylvania voters says the Rev. Wright controversy makes no difference to them -- with a slightly larger plurality say it made them think better of Obama?

That's what seven-plus years of George Bush and Dick "So" Cheney will do. That and a reflection Americans know this race is about the debacle in Iraq, an economy in shambles and a government that has shattered America's reputation around the world.

The rest is mere window dressing.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I can't wait for this story

As we lament the brutal Icelandic economy that took a vibrant media outlet from our midst, it's time to cast a longing gaze on what will fill the void left by BostonNOW.

Not the Herald and its lovely scoop on Darth Cheney challenging Hillary to go on a hunting trip. Or even the Globe's scintillating look at the tourist trap that ate Boston. No, it's this gem sitting in the middle of the Reporters' Questions in the Globe's on-line front page.
Ever been solicited?
Have you been approached by a prostitute or call girl while attending any major conventions or sporting events, such as the Super Bowl, PGA, US Open, or World Series?...
Yo, Eliot, check this out. Maybe you should get in touch with the Globe?

I actually have no quarrel with the concept of the Reporters' Question that runs down the right hand side of the page. It's at least an effort to be interactive and reach out to readers for tips.

But let's suppose for a second that someone propositioned by a hooker actually wants to tell their story in a major metropolitan newspaper -- how are you going to verify it? Ask for receipts? Pictures?

And that's only after you get around the larger question -- what in the heck is the purpose of the story in the first place? To prove the World's Oldest Profession is alive and well? That major sporting events and debauchery go hand-in-hand?

What makes sporting event solicitation better or worse than the Combat Zone or Client Np. 9's escapades?

On the other hand, if the Globe actually gets this story, it will make those Page One stories about mausoleums and Vermont cheese heads seem quaint.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

...only outlaws will have pseudoephedrine

Ah spring. Time for trees budding, crocuses and daffodils trying to survive in New England's roller coaster weather. And allergies. And sinus headaches. And time for another visit to Club Pseudo-Phed.

You know the problem. Pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient in crystal meth. It takes about 1,000 60 mg pills -- the average dose for four-to six hours of relief -- to make an ounce of crystal meth. Someone going to a drug store to buy that kind of sinus medication would surely be noticed.

But, thanks to our friends in Congress, we don't have to worry. The can't stop the war in Iraq, balance the federal budget or send real relief to New Orleans, but by gosh they can crack down on crankheads. To quote the Walgreen's receipt:
Federal law limits the sale of pseudoephedrine products to no more than 3.6 grams per person per day and limits the an individual's purchase to 9 grams or less in a 30-day period. Some states are more restrictive.
So, I just scored 1.4 grams of the good stuff (and that's only because I couldn't find the really good stuff, laced with acetaminophen. You know, Tylenol). I got 48 pills, enough to combat 48 miserable sinus headaches. And heck, I've got room for a lot more headaches in the next 30 days!

Of course I had to present my driver's license, but thankfully I did not have to sign over the rights to my first born.

Of course, I could have gone the easy route and bought phenylephrine, the "new" pseudoephedrine. One problem though. It doesn't work!

I hope the darn thing kicks in soon.

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Circular firing squad

Sadly, it appears that if you give Democrats enough time they revert to form and create a circular firing squad.

Let's start with the fact that Barack Obama really messed up when he labeled small-town Americans as "bitter" people who cling to guns and religion and anti-immigrant sentiment because of the economic woes that are ruling their lives.

There's a lot of truth to the description of people that people are embittered by the fact that the American Dream is fading as their jobs and the ways of life head overseas. Using the term however, in a San Francisco fund-raiser no less, was incredibly dumb. Obama has been struggling to put a real issue into better words.

(And don't you think the Obama folks will do a better job vetting the guest lists at future fund-raisers?)

But Hillary to the rescue of the unfairly labeled? The daughter of middle-class parents who went to Wellesley and Yale Law School calling the son of divorced parents (who went to Columbia and Harvard Law School) elitist? Clinton calling Obama an elitist falls into the category of it takes one to know one.

And Clinton surely was happy for something to take the public's mind off her daring escape from the sniper fire at Tuzla airport.

Truth be told both Democrats come from backgrounds alien to working class people who have been left behind by the American economy and globalization. So does our Yale legacy, Harvard MBA president. John McCain comes closer, but a multi-generational naval family is different still from a multi-generational family that works with its hands.

Class warfare has really always been at the root of America's divide. Race and gender have been substituted for the fact that the haves are getting richer while the have-nots struggle. That divide has only gotten larger during the Bush years.

And it's clear that class warfare, while decried by Republicans as what the Democrats engage in with tax policy, is the ultimate GOP wedge issue. Sometimes it is as bold as pictures of John Kerry windsurfing. Other times it's as raw as Richard Nixon's "law and order" theme (a double-edged racial and class weapon).

Clinton is pushing the "bitter" issue mightily as the rubber meets the road in Pennsylvania, but here's where the firing squad is circling up.

Her attacks not only weaken Obama, they weaken her, reminding voters of all the things that were wrong with the Clinton era.

Ready. Aim.....

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Don't get 'round much any more

Regular readers know this space is not occupied by a Red Sox fan. What is not as clear though, is while I may root for the Indians, I adore the space where the Red Sox play.

That's why today's George Vescey column in the New York Times (which after all owns 18 percent or some such interest in the Red Sox) is just too tough to take.

Vescey's credibility takes a steep hit right off the bat: "increasingly upscale Kenmore Square"?

George, you need to look beyond the Hotel Commonwealth. Spend some time with the homeless folks who sit outside the 7-11, the Dunkie and the ATM lobbies. Navigate the poor excuse for sidewalks. Look across the street at the perpetually under construction bus terminal.

The rest of the piece degenerates into sour grapes. The Red Sox have gotten the Yankees number twice in the last four years. The once-feared Bombers couldn't even win their division last year and some predict they won't even make the playoffs (Go Tribe!)

The House the Steinbrenner Built is rising in the South Bronx, which I suppose makes Kenmore Square upscale in comparison.

But really -- doesn't the Times have any standards for accuracy, even when it comes to columnists?

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Traffic planning?

Massachusetts drivers and pedestrians are not the most patient lot, as we can all attest. Those facts are crucial factors in a disaster waiting to happen along Beacon Street in Brookline.

The latest saga in a multi-year "upgrade" is pedestrian crossing lights in Coolidge Corner that are timed just long enough to get a person to the middle of the wide road. You know, so you are standing on the MBTA right-of-way.

Town officials point the fingers at MassHighway, who, they say, are simply trying to improve traffic flow. Oh really? Have they ever tried to walk or drive down either Beacon or Harvard streets. These are supposed to be "smart lights"?

Traffic crossing Beacon Street always jams up outside the CVS, leaving pedestrians crossing Harvard with the walk light to play chicken with cars that have run the red signal. Traffic going up and down Beacon already has itchy accelerator feet because of all the new traffic lights added along the street -- none of which seem to be timed to do anything other than create stop and go, block-by-block traffic jams.

Bu the Beacon Street pedestrian timing is the ultimate in lethal foolishness.

A town traffic engineer says they know there is a problem but they have no control over the project as long as the state is involved. The Tab reporter would have done well to ask the engineer why this is only a recent change and why the crossing signs that counted down the time you had to cross were changed.

It would have also been good to understand why the audible signals don't tell you what street is safe to cross -- an admittedly annoying drone unless you happen to be blind.

And it would have been helpful to ask MassHighway officials why they seem to know the situation on the ground better than the locals.

As it stands now, the green light for both cars and pedestrians is too short to accomplish anything good. Traffic will bunch up when antsy drivers try to make it across the broad intersection -- and pedestrians are encouraged to jaywalk by a too-short signal.

And I won't even get into the issue of making Green Line trains stop for a traffic light every block. Hey Joe Pesaturo, will the T benefit if it doesn't get sued for hitting the pedestrians bunched up along the tracks waiting for the light to cross?

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Another one bites the dust

On it's own, the planned retirement of one Massachusetts House member is not newsworthy. Maybe not even an eight-person turnover. But The Associated Press' Glen Johnson may be on to something in suggesting it may be a similar to a canary in a coal mine.

The American political system is in a shambles. George Bush has presided over the steady erosion of comity and civility -- not to mention the Constitution. China is killing us with defective and dangerous products -- and its own citizens with political repression -- and Our President thinks it's OK to go to the Olympics opening ceremonies.

The General tells us that while we may not like it, we're not moving people out of Iraq. The Vice President, when confronted with a poll result suggesting 70 percent of America oppose a continued US presence, offers a response that will live with Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake."


Congress is ineffectual to do anything about it, riven by partisan anger and Senate rules that gives the minority unusual power to control things.

At home, it's the same thing. The power struggle between Governor Deval Patrick and House Speaker Sal DiMasi has obscured some real work that has taken place -- and real problems that lie ahead.

The level of cynicism is so high that a common sense issue like protecting children in cars has become the stuff of mindless talk radio and Internet chat boards.

There's a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The incredible upturn in voter registration -- and the amazing growth of online fund-raising suggests there is a real thirst for changing anything and everything associated with the Bush-Cheney War on the Constitution.

But what happens if, after is said and done, we are left with the status quo.

Comedy Central's John Oliver probably offered the best summation: "Go Fox Yourself."

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Friday, April 11, 2008

That's why they play the game

It hasn't been Deval Patrick's month -- or has it?

The last 30 days have been tough on the governor, losing the casino gambling bill and skipping town for the vote to finalize what we later learned was a million-dollar book deal. Loyalists and others are questioning his commitment and competence, Treasurer Tim Cahill looks more and more like a primary challenger and a WBZ poll (you'll find it eventually) suggests he's at his lowest ebb as chief executive.

But politics, like sports, can change in an instant.

The Massachusetts House approved a $392 million tax package last night that focuses on cigarette smokers and corporations. The bill comes in closer to what Patrick wanted than the wishes of House Speaker Sal DiMasi, who held up debate for two days (including one Opening Day) in a vain effort to work his will on his members.

And speaking of those members -- even though they wound up voting overwhelmingly for the bill -- they did not look like the sheep characterized by the Boston Phoenix's David Bernstein in a well-reported and a long-overdue look at DiMasi's House.

And as if the Speaker didn't have enough problems with wandering sheep, there's the matter of his golf partners and business associates, an antsy majority leader and now, a Speaker Pro Tempore who is getting campaign contributions from places he shouldn't.

The winners and losers in the House tax debate were easy to spot. Here's Patrick Chief of Staff Doug Rubin:
"We appreciate the House's willingness to move closer to the governor's proposal. When you look at where we started in this process, and the House and the Senate and the governor, for us to see that enacted is a good example of everybody working together."
Mister Speaker didn't stop for a chat and his written statement didn't share the love:
"The members of the House have rolled up their sleeves, tackled difficult issues head-on, and provided common sense, fiscally responsible solutions to our budget challenges."
It's one small step for Deval. He is still in, as Bush 41 once so eloquently phrased it, "deep doo-doo" with the voters. His announcement this week that he plans to stick around and run for a second term was more defensive -- designed to avoid lame duck status -- than a sign of strength.

There are a lot of problems on the road to 2010 -- starting with crumbling bridges and sagging finances -- but the mood in the Corner Office is no doubt a lot sunnier than it has been anytime in the last month.

But wait until next week. And does anyone have a good shepherding dog?

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Building a bridge to the 21st Century media

Deval Patrick gave a nuts-and-bolts speech about where Massachusetts and its economy have been and where it can go. A bit dry? Yep. Trying to right a ship that's been leaking? Absolutely.

But if you pickup today's "newspaper of record" the focus is the politics: 2010 Democratic challenger-in-waiting Tim Cahill taking a swipe at the bridge building proposal which, interestingly, has the support of both Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Terry Murray. Good luck Treasurer Tim.

Buried deep in the jump page is some discussion of what else Patrick said. But if you want to read what he actually said you must go elsewhere.

I'm not here to bury the Globe for not reporting on the rhetoric. Reporters make decisions in what's newsworthy, the bridge proposal was reported already. The size of the news hole in the Incredibly Shrinking Globe doesn't warrant that treatment.

But I am suggesting it is incredibly short-sighted of the Globe not to make use of a vast resource that is becoming an important part of its business base -- boston.com.

If you are a policy wonk/political junkie who wants to read all the details -- or even watch a video of the speech -- it's really easy. If you want the full court spin, try here.

The Globe has never made good use of the Web as a supplement for its coverage. Just look up the Expressway at the Herald and its database of public employee salaries and pensions as an example of what a newspaper can do with all this cyberspace territory.

So it's left to Blue Mass Group and other wonk sites on the left and right to fill in the gap -- with basic information and with discussions. Those are clicks that could be going to Morrissey Boulevard's bottom line but aren't. Hey Globe sales force, ever notice the ads on these sites?

I would certainly never suggest that anyone should rely on simply on the Globe or Blue Mass Group for their news (this site, well, maybe!) A wide range of options is a good thing.

For example, heading back of the Expressway again, note how Casey Ross focuses on Patrick's attempt to build bridges not only across the commonwealth but also with DiMasi.

The efforts to right the SS Globe will not be complete until it looks at all the territory it surveys. Ads on the web don't bring in as much cash, but they do bring in cash that could be applied to making the news product better and maybe even halt the consolidation of sections.

Until then, expect exciting promos like this: Coming this Sunday -- the puny job classifieds section combined with the meager business section for another disappointing clump of dead trees that can be easily discarded!

The Globe's here!

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Finneran's Finances

WRKO yak show host Tom Finneran is about to start moonlighting.

The former speaker and convicted felon who hosts an infotainment program that includes journalists as guests, is hanging out his shingle so he can make some real money. His first client is the Liquor Liability Joint Underwriting Association of Massachusetts. Sounds boring until you think they have an interest in every drunken driving case in the Commonwealth.

What most intriguing about this story -- beyond the contract interpretation that will be sorted out in another venue -- is this quote from Northeastern University journalism school director Stephen Burgard:
"For a serious news organization, it would be unthinkable. Finneran's plan could raise questions about his agenda on-air and might require him to recuse himself from talking about some topics."
Excuse me?

Then he catches himself and adds:
"Clearly, talk radio is partially entertainment and his job is to be interesting ... (but) even under those circumstances there are credibility issues."
Ya think?

But then again, if being a convicted felon by virtue of lying under oath about his official actions doesn't raise credibility issues, why should we worry about a little thing like lobbying?

To even put "serious news organization" and "talk radio host" in the same sentence suggests a problem with concepts that I would not expect of someone who runs a pretty good journalism school.

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Bridges to the future

Deval Patrick can take comfort in knowing that if Bill Buckner can be forgiven, he has hope.

Patrick is trying to rebuild his bridges to the public, literally. The question is not whether they will buy the concept, which is extraordinarily overdue, but the price tag.

The state's transportation system is a mess, indeed of $15 to $19 billion in repairs over the next 20 years. The MBTA, well, don't get me started.

The $3.8 billion in bond authority Patrick is seeking is really just a drop in the bucket.

There are 608 structurally deficient bridges right now, according to state officials, but that figure grows each year. Under the governor's proposal, and current spending plans, 808 bridges would be repaired over the next eight years, bringing the number of structurally deficient bridges down to 450. If no work were done over the next eight years, there would be 1,264 problem bridges.

This bill would target 411 deteriorating bridges over the next eight years. A separate transportation bond bill takes aim at 397 more.

The problem is the bond bucket is already overflowing with the Big Dig and other worthwhile but expensive capital projects across the state, a $1.3 billion gap in the fiscal 2009 budget and a structural budget problem to boot.

Critics will be quick to say that revenues are running well ahead of estimate this year and all this talk about new cigarette taxes and closing corporate tax loopholes is nonsense in a recession.

Aside from the fact that long-term capital needs don't (OK, shouldn't) come out of operating funds, the argument is specious because the need is overwhelming. There are a number of bridges I hate to cross -- the BU Bridge for example. I'm sure others have their not-so-favorites too.

And what, you may ask, is the connection between bridge repairs, Patrick and Buckner? Ever notice a similarity between the bridge's support columns and a certain first baseman's fielding stance on a fateful night in October 1986?

Lenny Zakim was a fine, in fact, perfect choice to honor. But after naming the tunnel after a baseball player, I couldn't think of a more appropriate baseball candidate for the bridge.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Profiles in Courage -- not

The Massachusetts House is poised to do the right thing in the wrong way. And when people notice, it won't be pretty.

The House has scheduled a formal session today to take up a bill that would boost state revenues by $500 million through higher cigarette taxes and closing some corporate tax loopholes.

That's right, today. Opening Day. World Champion Boston Red Sox back from a three-nation opener. Jets roaring overhead. Big, big rings. A day that's already an unofficial holiday throughout Red Sox Nation.

They might as well hold this debate at midnight in the bottom of a mine shaft. It would get the same attention. Actually, that would probably get more.

How do I know this? I have access to the indispensable Statehouse News Service, which is now thankfully carried by some newspaper chains that eliminated their own Statehouse bureaus.

Of course, if I read very carefully, down near the bottom of a Globe story about a proposal to cut corporate tax rates even more deeply, I might draw the conclusion that a vote is taking place today.

The News Service story suggests House members are understandably skittish about raising taxes in a recession no one wants to admit has started. From this vantage point though, it is a proper and courageous vote.

But when Red Sox fans -- the ones who sit in the luxury boxes and pay the corporate taxes and and the ones who face $1 a pack increases on the cigarettes -- find out what happened, they will be annoyed.

OK, maybe not the corporate types whose lobbyists might check their BlackBerrys during the game and know this is happening and are working to blunt its impact. But the other folks....

And when Joe and Jane Pack-a-Day get mad, they are going to have a way to voice their anger: a ballot question that would eliminate the state's income tax -- and approximately $11 billion.

As Mike Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association told the News Service with some understatement, a recession could worsen the collective mood of voters this fall.
“They tend to be even more surly than usual” during recessions, he said.
Raising taxes -- and cutting spending -- is never easy in a society that has been spoon-fed the notion that you can have anything you want from government and not have to pay for it. Therefore, you don't make the argument that belt-tightening and burden sharing is required during a debate no one will notice.

On the bright side for any reporter who may venture into the House chamber, it ought to be quick. The session begins at 11 a.m. First pitch is 2:05.

Play ball!

UPDATE: Whether it was Democrats who thought the bill too weak -- or Republicans who thought it too much -- the House delayed debate until Thursday. That made if easier to catch the last few innings too.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Mr. Grumpy ponders

Some random thoughts here, there and everywhere...

  • If credit card companies are so concerned about identity theft and privacy, why do they bombard you with those "instant death" checks where all someone needs to do is write a large number and forge a signature and make away with scads of cash? And you get stuck with lots of fees and charges?
  • You know a political campaign has gone on waaay to long when the (long overdue) resignation of a top campaign aide captures the top story spot. And what exactly was Mark Penn thinking when he conducted company business on Hillary's time when that business was diametrically opposed to her own?
  • The surge's math is simple. John McCain may not like the fact Barack Obama keeps bringing up his 100-year presence in Iraq remark, a la Korea, but it sure looks likely, especially when the other part of the "bargain," Iraqi reconciliation is clearly proving to be a joke.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Chickens roosting -- or Chicken Little?

The Globe offers some concrete examples of what's in store for cities and towns in Massachusetts as the economy shrinks, budgets tighten and hard-pressed residents say no to new taxes.

But to critics -- from Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation to Slate media critic Jack Shafer -- the cries ring hollow, Chicken Little scare tactics aided and abetted by a gullible media that are in the pockets of officials who can't or won't make hard choices.

So which is it?

There's no point in re-opening the debate about Proposition 2 1/2 (at least not here). The voters made their choice more than two decades ago and the Legislature has seen fit to live with the law -- which caps local property taxes at 2.5 percent of assessed valuation with increases limited to 2.5 percent annually unless voters override the cap.

The limits worked pretty well for much of that time -- thanks to soaring home values and new construction. But in recessions, the pinch is very tight and this one will be no exception.

Unlike the federal government, which can print money to pay for reckless spending like the war in Iraq, state and municipalities have to balance their budgets. At the community level, that means teachers, cops and firefighters, snow removal and other public safety services.

One of the few really innovative blogs at the Globe is Override Central, which chronicles these financial struggles.

At the state level, the problem is multiplied 351 times in terms of local aid, education, health and welfare costs. This represents the heart and soul of state spending, not, as Shafer suggests, quality of life costs -- campgrounds are closing in Michigan, a New Jersey city ended Independence Day fireworks or states ending weekend hours to renew drivers' licenses and registration.

Untold ... is how the state and local governments have increased their spending every quarter for the last four years, as the ... chart, drawn from the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Affairs data, shows. The combined state and local number gives a better picture of government spending than the state-government figure alone. The states and localities routinely expanded entitlements, invented new programs, and spread more cash on their mainstays as growing tax revenue flowed in.

Now, as the stumbling economy forces individuals and families to rein in their spending, it's only sensible that the state and local governments should have to tighten their belts. It's called living within your means. But news stories rarely reflect this sentiment.

Untold in Shafer's account, of course, is how cities and states expanded these services during good times if not at the requests of its citizens, certainly with their happy acquiescence.

Shafer and critics like Anderson also lament that governments aren't like businesses that tighten their belts in hard times. Precisely the point. Government is not supposed to be run like a business. And the federal government certainly isn't pulling in that belt, bailing out Bear Stearns and spending billions a day in Iraq while oblivious to the desires of its "shareholders.")

So we once again faces the reality -- either vote to raise your property taxes or watch things happen that will further depress your already falling property value (and let's note that communities are already living on a margin represented by the fact that assessments haven't shrunk in proportion to sale prices).

While Shafer believes we are living in a liberal-concocted, media-driven pseudo Chicken Little crisis, the opposite is true. These are the chickens coming home to roost after decades of no-tax and spend promises of "conservative" governments represented by Ronald Reagan and Bushes 41 and 43.

If Shafer, Anderson, et. al. don't believe there is real pain caused by cutting real services (long after the fluff disappears), perhaps they should take a look at the case of Robert L. Taylor, a man who died in December after his apartment building burst into flames just yards from Gloucester fire department headquarters. Why? The department was shorthanded because voters had turned down a Proposition 2 1/2 override.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

One more nit to pick

First Barack Obama steals Deval Patrick's words. Now Patrick steals Obama's crowd. Or did he?

Amid a host of real problems -- like more financial shenanigans involving the Big Dig, a state budget heading for trouble because it is overburdened by health care reform costs in a slowing economy -- the Globe chooses to try and milk one more story out of a subject that has pretty much been exhausted.

Matt Viser's original story on Patrick's book proposal was a solid scoop. It raised a lot of legitimate questions about Patrick and his style. But today's installment reads as if it is looking for the last remaining nit to pick.

Governor Deval Patrick said in his book proposal that he was able to "fill the Boston Common recently with ten thousand people," a boast intended to prove to publishers that his message of hope and optimism generates enthusiasm and will translate into sales.

But Patrick left out a key fact about the Oct. 23 Boston Common rally.

It was held to celebrate Patrick's endorsement of Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, who stood by Patrick's side at the event. Obama has filled sports stadiums around the country and caused onlookers to faint during his speeches, and he was almost certainly the bigger draw on the Common that day.

Except Viser contradicts himself a few paragraphs later with his own reporting:
"Several thousand people gathered on Boston Common to hear Obama speak, but it was Patrick who seemingly stole the show," wrote Aswini Anburajan, a reporter for NBC and National Journal, in the blog post distributed by Patrick's aides.
Is that worse than stealing words that weren't stolen in the first place?

The book proposal story was placed on Page B1. A story by Viser and Frank Phillips on the state budget is on Page B3. Which is more important to the long-term future of people who depend on the Commonwealth for their health care, education and public safety.

Not to mention that the Incredibly Shrinking Globe continues to contract, eliminating Saturday's Sidekick (observers will differ on whether that is a loss.) But with space at a premium, was Book Proposal II, The Sequel, really that important?

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Why people hate the T

Finally some signs of reality from MBTA boss Smilin' Dan Grabauskas.

Commenting on an upsurge in ridership on most lines because of soaring gasoline prices, Smilin' Dan offered an honest if sobering assessment for his new (and old) captives, er, sardines, er, passengers.

Grabauskas acknowledges the problem, but said it is not a bad one to have. He said the T's dire financial situation, including more than $5 billion in debt, means he will not add trains or buses as demand grows.

"I'm just struggling as hard as I can to maintain the service I've already got," he said.

Take today as a case in point. There were about 40 people waiting in a miserable rain at Packard's Corner for a B Line inbound train. Another 10 were hedging their bets, waiting for the 57 bus.

First two-card train finally arrives -- absolutely empty. The tell-tale sign "Not in Service." I cram into the bus and cross my fingers.

A second two-car train enters the picture as the solitary train inches its way to Kenmore. Train #2 was an "express" -- meaning it would not open its doors as it inched alone behind the empty train. I think it disgorged victims at BU Central. Nothing "express" about it at all.

I got lucky on the bus -- particularly since the usual twin was not right behind. I have serious doubts the rain-soaked gaggle at Packard's Corner found quick relief.

Of course my luck ran out when I had to stand under the imposing glass "shelter" in Kenmore that offers no relief from the elements.

So why do people hate the T? If the empty two-car train was disabled, why was it running inbound, where the first place it could get out of the way as Park Street? Couldn't it have switched its way back to Boston College and not annoy hundreds of soaked riders?

What is the point of a shelterless shelter in Kenmore? And for that matter, why are we about to start a third Red Sox season with Kenmore Square in construction chaos.

Mrs. O.L. had fun with the homebound side. A mile-plus walk down Harvard from Brookline to Allston in a soaking drizzle and not one 66 bus passed in the 30 minute or so walk.

The T's new riders will eventually discover high gasoline costs and traffic jams are less of an annoyance that the overcrowded snail trail called the MBTA.

Smilin' Dan has got to go.