WASHINGTON ― The Huffington Post raised the issue Wednesday of the Boston media’s failure to report on the questionable record of Carmen Ortiz, the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts.
As if working to prove the point, Boston media promptly turned its guns on the mayor and HuffPost in response.
The Boston Herald, a conservative tabloid rival of The Boston Globe, made the story the subject of the front page of its print edition on Thursday. “HUFF AND PUFF: Marty and his union pals delight in Huffington Post article slamming Carmen Ortiz,” the broadsheet blared, on the backdrop of a blown-up photo of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D) alongside a smaller photo of Ortiz. NPR offered a thoughtful segment on the issue, which you can listen to here.
NPR aside, the question for the Boston media was not whether the local federal prosecutor was regularly overreaching, but whether the idea to write the story originated with HuffPost or the office of the mayor, and the mayor’s chief of staff in particular. Dan Koh previously worked as chief of staff to HuffPost editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington. While the Herald, in good tabloid fashion, was front and center with its questioning, Boston Globe reporters mostly stuck to Twitter.
Having written the story, we can say with certainty it was our idea, but the question is a strange one, because the story relies entirely on publicly available information and interviews with subjects who are named and speaking on the record.
The reaction is symptomatic of the problem HuffPost laid out. Matt Connolly, a criminal defense attorney in Boston, said HuffPost “did a great service making [Ortiz’s record] public.”
Connolly said it took a media outlet not based in Boston to challenge Ortiz and to point out the close relationship she has with the town’s flagship paper, the Globe.
“The Globe/Ortiz connection does a disservice to all the people,” he said. “Never has the newspaper issued a critical word about her office. The rest of our local media is also silent. Our local PBS station has the Globe on at the end of its show telling what will be in tomorrow’s paper.”
Local observers long tired of the milquetoast treatment they believe the federal prosecutor has received in the press rejoiced after the story’s publication late Tuesday night and Wednesday.
That celebration became the focus of much of the coverage of our article.
The “story was important because it highlighted the enormous power possessed by U.S. Attorneys, as well as the tendency of this particular U.S. Attorney to wield that power in puzzling ways,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union.
Ortiz recently indicted two Walsh administration officials on charges of “union-related extortion” for encouraging the company running a music festival to use union stagehands. As the HuffPost article explains, it is unclear that their alleged behavior was even illegal. One way or another, it is the kind of typical union advocacy that does not merit a federal case.
But as the Herald indicated, many believe Walsh himself, a former union leader, is the real target of Ortiz’s crusade.
The Herald, which is skeptical of unions, asked whether HuffPost’s story showed that Walsh is “waging a PR counter-offensive against the feds after they indicted two top City Hall aides on extortion charges.”
America Rising, a conservative political action committee founded by veterans of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) presidential campaign, announced it filed a public records request to determine conclusively whether Walsh or any of his staff coordinated with HuffPost. The inquiry turned up only two emails, according to the Herald ― one each from the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, both asking the mayor’s office if it conspired with HuffPost.
The Herald, after running its cover story Thursday, followed up with a new article Friday, this time reporting the lack of results from the FOIA attempt. On Friday afternoon, with the records request yielding nothing, a Herald reporter called HuffPost and asked how it was we communicated with the mayor’s office ― phone? Text? Email? ― to let them know the story was coming. That was the only question he had. That’s seriously where the story is heading. Then the Herald ran another story on Saturday, with the headline, “Marty Walsh mum on Huffington Post’s Carmen Ortiz article.”
The Boston press has lost its mind. “Your story has shaken things up here in Boston, just as Ortiz is beginning her jihad against organized labor sympathizers in the administration of Mayor Walsh (with the intent, some say, of climbing the ladder to the mayor herself) and her odd investigation into alleged racism at Boston Latin School,” said Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense attorney and Ortiz critic HuffPost quoted in the Ortiz story. “Whether this results in more objective news coverage, or an intensified level of sycophancy, nobody can predict.”
It’s been interesting to watch the Herald ride to the defense of Ortiz, when the HuffPost article’s criticism of the media focused on its rival, the Globe. Joan Venocchi, an opinion columnist for the Globe, had a more balanced take. She characterized HuffPost’s story and the high-profile critics quoted in it as the kind of “push back” elicited by noble efforts to root out political corruption.
But she acknowledged that the article raised legitimate questions that Ortiz should be able to answer if she is to succeed in her role as a federal prosecutor.
Mayor Walsh perhaps said it best, in a Saturday follow-up article in the Herald:
“I don’t understand the obsession about this article,” he said.