Friday, October 2, 2009

Sean P. Murphy on Corruption in Mass.

Thursday evening, Sean P. Murphy (son of late Globe columnist Jeremiah Murphy) of the Boston Globe gave a great slideshow and lecture about corruption in Massachusetts politics at Pollard.

He was introduced first by Beth Brassel, and then by Joe Quinlan, who had worked with Murphy as a cub reporter two decades ago "back when journalism used to be fun."

I wound up leaving the roughly 90-minute presentation with three pages of hand-scribbled notes, which I had originally planned to type out here in summary fashion. However, since most of the stories are already public record (he went all the way back to John Thompson and William Callahan up to James Marzilli and Sal DeMasi), I decided against a big exercise in note transcription.

Instead, there are two major takeaways I got from Mr. Murphy's speech:

(1) While the death of shoe-leather journalism may not be worth wailing dirges about, it will leave an important void, at least at first.

First, I want to mention that this recent post on addresses the issue of media survival in the post-paper and ink era, and I know there's going to be more good back-and-forth on the topic on that site and others. Dick has linked to excellent local sites like chelmsfordmassnews and others that may be harbingers of where our *local paper* is headed.

Without question, there are plenty of modern instances whereby public corruption or malfeasance was uncovered via blogs or for-profit Internet news sites. For-profit Internet news sites may someday become everything that print newspapers ever were, and much more, because they can be interactive, ubiquitous, and lightning-quick.

However, we're not there yet. As the business model of on-line news is figured out over time, there will be a loss felt in the absence of long-standing organizations like the Globe, that can bring resources to bear in order to expose things like the Library Trustee pension scandal that affected Lynn and Malden, or the awarding of do-nothing six-figure jobs by the State that has been uncovered thanks to the efforts of journalists.

Blogs are great when they provide incisive commentary and serve as virtual community bulletin boards; at their worst, they're a lot of yelling and screaming without grounding in facts or willingness to listen to another side, which I have no more patience for in cyberspace than I do in *real* space. Either way, though, even most of the best blogs are written by amateur hobbyists, and they're not accountable for what they publish in the same sense that deep-pocketed, for-profit newspapers are. Besides, bloggers with 9-to-5 jobs can't sit outside a Stop & Shop at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday to take photos of a Romney appointee running errands on company time.

Again, though, I'm totally willing to stay open-minded, and to admit that entirely online media may soon step up and fill this gap. I asked Mr. Murphy about this issue during the Q & A session and thought his answer was pretty balanced for someone who has earned a living in the old-school of journalism...his response was essentially that yes, the handwriting is on the wall; no, we don't know exactly what it'll mean; yes, there are advantages and disadvantages to the different formats; and no, online media isn't replacing the in-the-flesh, shoe-leather style of journalism that has helped expose state corruption for so many years.

(2) Single-party dominance does a huge disservice to the state.

Mr. Murphy did not state this outright in his speech (and yes, he called out corruption on both the 'D' and the 'R' sides of the aisle), but I asked him about his afterwards and he concurred that the lack of genuine partisan opposition lends itself to a lot of the cronyism, favoritism, and outright graft that has gone on for so many years. I know that sounds so obvious as to hardly merit mention, but it still made an impression on me when he talked about the extreme power that the House Speaker and Senate President have -- when there's no real party turnover in the legislature, that power seems to be multiplied infinitely, with no one there to put the brakes on.

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