November 20, 2014

Hardcore #mapoli followers in withdrawal can put down their comfort blankies and anti-depressants for a bit. WGBH’s The Scrum has a terrific audio of The Boston Globe’s Frank Phillips and Jim O’Sullivan discussing politics and the media, The Scrum Podcast Goes to Spin City. Adam Reilly’s interview with the two reporters has it all: insights to learn from, points I can quarrel with, and colorful Yankee (Phillips) versus Irish (O’Sullivan) disputes. Oh how I miss the organized system of hatreds!

There are great insights from the journalists about the disadvantages reporters face — there are many more PR people than journalists, and they are paid more to boot. Phillips and O’Sullivan both praise the professionalism of key political operatives active in this year’s gubernatorial election. Phillips counsels meeting their emotional outbursts calmly, O’Sullivan says no, yell right back at them. Phillips gets tired of the constant spin, the effort to use the Globe to run something as a trigger for everyone else to cover it. And Phillips points out while the entire media focus has been on the campaign the State House has gone unwatched, for special interests and insiders to work their deals with little fear of discovery. Whatever could he mean?

Phillips and O’Sullivan agreed that the campaign had no great game changers. Coakley and Baker were the frontrunners a year ago and that’s how they wound up. As I’ve written a number of times, the gaffes that get the media and #mapoli nation in a frenzied state usually don’t amount to anything when the dust clears. (Here’s lookin’ at you, sweetheart).

Phillips thought the coverage of Charlie Baker crying over the fisherman was overblown including by the Globe. O’Sullivan thought the coverage was justified because at that point it appeared Baker had the race won and the crying was an element of risk that was unforeseen. Phillips responded that he’s known Baker for a long time and “Charlie Baker is not a liar.”

There’s a problem. The media went on full alert to try to find the fisherman and probe the veracity of the story. When the Baker team had to walk back some of the details, Democrats salivated that more details would come up wrong and Republicans prepped for PR defense. But Baker as a liar would be the exact wrong and misleading way to cover that story. Instead of calling political scientists to comment on a candidate lying, the media would have been better off to call psychology professors to discuss the malleability of memory, how we put details into our memories even if they didn’t happen. Daniel Kahneman for example has found that our memories of an event can be quite different than what actually happened. That wouldn’t make Baker, or any one of us, a liar, it would make us human. But that is a much more complex story to tell than liar/not liar.

While the journalists were swarming the New Bedford docks, the Patrick administration was apparently preparing to pare $329 million in spending to meet a midyear budget deficit. It’s perfectly clear why the administration wouldn’t announce a budget deficit in the closing days of a campaign, but why couldn’t a journalist be spared to uncover that piece of information? In fact the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation says the gap is not $329 million, but more likely between $500-$600 million. I’d heard about the budget gap weeks before the election at a Suburban Coalition forum on what issues face the next governor, featuring Michael Widmer and Tom Conroy. Perhaps the budget gap appeared in the media too, but it got nowhere near the attention of the blubbering Baker.

The truly delightful part of Reilly’s interview, though, was the Yankee vs. Irish and intergenerational bantering between the reporters that was witty and even pointed. It also allowed both journalists to comment upon how coverage of ethnic politics has endured and transformed over the years. Priceless stuff.

Phillips is revealed as Yankee and O’Sullivan as South Shore two toilet Irish. Since I grew up working class Irish, a pox on both their houses! (Not really. No one has Phillips’ historical knowledge and no one writes quite like O’Sullivan. Reilly’s interview is a gem, catch it on The Scrum.

Boston Globe, Jim O'Sullivan, Frank Phillips, Adam Reilly

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