Suspension of Boston reporter raises the specter of censorship

Herald writer says his banking coverage was quashed by editors

May 04, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON -- Long regarded as a feisty tabloid, the Boston Herald this week shocked the journalism world and surprised its own staff by suspending a reporter after he wrote a hard-hitting series on a major Boston bank.

The reporter, Robin Washington, who is president of the Boston Association of Black Journalists, was indefinitely released without pay days after publicly suggesting that Herald editors censored his coverage of FleetBoston. The financial institution routinely advertises in the paper and, according to public documents, holds the $20 million mortgage on the Herald building.

Sunday's decision by management to discipline Washington punctuated a week of internal strife in which a majority of Herald news reporters signed a petition protesting the "apparent unethical influence of advertisers and business interests." The petition, bearing signatures of 75 reporters, circulated after Washington claimed in other Boston newspapers that he was asked to stop writing stories about the bank. Washington had written several accounts of planned fee increases that could affect as many as 700,000 customers.

Washington, a transportation and consumer reporter who also wrote several regular columns for the paper, is the only African-American news writer on staff. The National Association of Black Journalists -- for which Washington serves as an executive board member -- has demanded Washington's reinstatement and vowed this week to closely monitor the paper's handling of the case.

"In a market that has a large population of African-Americans in the community, to take the one voice out of the paper is not a good thing," said NABJ President Will Sutton.

Media experts have expressed concern, saying a major newspaper such as the Herald, if indeed it kowtowed to an advertiser, could suffer a blow to its credibility.

"It's unfortunate when people who run newspapers or TV stations feel they'll be hurt more by the truth than suppressing the truth," said Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. "This is not how Pulitzers are won, and not how readers are gained."

On Tuesday, 50 protesters took part in a rally, sponsored by the Boston Association of Black Journalists to support Washington, outside the Herald headquarters.

Washington, who is being represented by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree in a union-sponsored appeal of the suspension, would not comment yesterday when reached at home.

Herald publisher Patrick J. Purcell did not return phone calls yesterday, but has previously noted that his paper ran three of Washington's stories over three weeks and said stories can run out of steam. Editor Andrew F. Costello Jr. and Managing Editor Andrew P. Gully refused to comment but referred to an earlier statement calling Washington's removal an "internal disciplinary matter."

The 43-year-old reporter began his series on FleetBoston with a front-page article April 3, explaining how customers at BankBoston, once their bank merged with Fleet, would face new charges for every check they wrote and every ATM withdrawal they made. A follow-up story the next day chronicled how scores of customers were switching to other banks upon learning of the fees.

According to sources at the Herald, rumors began spreading through the newsroom late last month that editors had told Washington to halt coverage of the bank. Washington told the Boston Globe , in a story published Friday, that he was asked to stop writing about Fleet on April 23 and was demoted two days later.

Tom Mashberg, a reporter who serves as the shop steward for the Newspaper Guild local, said many staff members were "curious and perplexed" by Washington's treatment -- in part because the Herald has won a reputation for being scrappy and going after local companies when stories are there. When the union circulated the petition, he said, it intended only to seek a hearing with the publisher and editors, not to make the case a public spectacle.

"Nobody wants to burn the place down," said Mashberg. "You kind of like this place. It's dirty. It's visceral. It's brash. There's a lot of bonhomie. It's a strangely jovial place. There are a lot of good things happening here that we don't want to throw away."

In an age when many cities are dominated by one paper, the Herald, known for hard-hitting local coverage and gritty sports writing, is in perennial competition with the Boston Globe, which reports far more extensively on national and international issues.

James Mahoney, FleetBoston's director of corporate affairs, said nobody from the bank ever discussed advertising with anyone at the Herald throughout Washington's coverage. Mahoney did complain to editors, on two occasions, about Washington's reporting tactics.

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