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About parade politics and stale jokes

Who led the parade in calling for gay and lesbian organizations to be able to march in South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade?  

Michael Jonas: Serves as Reporter Ombudsman during special election for State Senate.Michael Jonas: Serves as Reporter Ombudsman during special election for State Senate.Maureen Dahill, a South Boston native and one of three Democrats vying for the open state Senate seat vacated by Jack Hart, was the first candidate in the race to issue such a call, putting out a press release on March 1 calling on parade organizers to give up their policy of excluding gay organizations. Fellow Democratic candidate Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester state representative, quickly followed Dahill’s lead, issuing a similar statement of her own later the same day.

Jim Spencer, a campaign strategist for Dahill, says you wouldn’t have known who made the first call from reading the Dorchester Reporter’s initial account on its website, dotnews.com, which he says reported that the candidates both issued statements but didn’t make clear that Dahill’s came first. 

Gin Dumcius, the Reporter’s news editor and main political reporter, posted the piece on March 1, a Friday, the day the two campaigns issued their calls. Spencer says he called Dumcius early the next week to complain that his candidate got short shrift in the account. He says the opening paragraph of the online piece was subsequently revised to make clear that it was Dahill who set things in motion with her statement. “That’s great, but the only time anyone’s going to read this is when it first came out,” said Spencer.

I found it hard to piece together exactly what happened. The March 1 piece now on the Reporter’s website does, indeed, credit Dahill with making the initial call for inclusion of gay and lesbian groups in the parade. Dumcius says he usually adds “Updated” or some similar notation to online stories that have been changed. No such notice appears on the web story. “I don’t recall doing that, but I might have,” he says of the possibility that he tweaked the wording of the story following Spencer’s call. It seems to me that it’s likely he did adjust the wording, since it’s hard to see why Spencer would have called to complain about the current version of the story.

A story in the March 7 print edition of the paper also was less than clear about Dahill’s lead role on the issue.  A campaign round-up story in the March 14 issue, however, was very clear about the order of events, reporting that Dahill “was the first among the candidates” to call for gay and lesbian groups to be allowed to march in the parade.

There is a broader context that’s important here, too. As the March 7 story reports, since her election in 2005, Forry has never marched in the South Boston parade because of its exclusion of gay and lesbian groups. Thus, while she may have been prompted by Dahill’s press release to issue her March 1 statement, Forry has had an established stance on the matter.

That said, Dahill went out on a limb in criticizing the organizers of the biggest annual event in her home neighborhood. Since she was sure to take flak from some people for that, Dahill at least deserved to get full credit from those who admire her stance by being identified clearly as the first to issue such a call in this year’s Senate race.

“Point taken,” says Tom Mulvoy, the paper’s associate editor, who oversees Dumcius’s Senate campaign pieces in the print edition of the paper. “The record will show that later on it was made clear that [Dahill] came out first” in making the call to parade organizers.

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On the day of last month’s parade in South Boston, political types gathered beforehand, as they do each year, for the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, an annual rite that some Bostonians relish and others say has overstayed its welcome on the local landscape.

It is not within my charge to weigh in on that question.  What I do have to consider, however, is whether there is more to the annual breakfast than the jokes. Spencer, Dahill’s campaign strategist, thinks there is, and that’s why he’s miffed over a Reporter story in the March 21 edition of the paper.  

At issue is the lead item in the Reporter’s Notebook, a weekly column of political news written by Dumcius. “Dahill pans the breakfast, is mulling Patrick tax plan,” reads the headline. The piece provides an account of Dahill’s appearance earlier that week on Jim Braude’s television show on New England Cable News.

Braude asked Dahill to grade the jokes at the Southie breakfast, which took place the day before her NECN appearance. Dahill gave “the annual political roast a ‘low C,’” wrote Dumcius.

Spencer said the headline and the wording of the piece suggest that Dahill was panning the entire breakfast, not just grading the often cringe-inducing jokes (which many observers seemed to agree were even weaker than usual this year). Spencer said the story made Dahill’s comments come off as a broadside against the whole South Boston neighborhood. “That’s like an attack,” said Spencer.

Dumcius maintains that the breakfast essentially is the jokes. “The humor is kind of intrinsic to the breakfast,” said Dumcius, who regards his wording as an accurate summing up of Dahill’s comments.
Mulvoy, who wrote the headline, says he has no misgivings. “The centerpiece of the breakfast is the jokes. It’s not, ‘how is the ham or the corned beef?’ ” he said. “I’d stay with the headline we wrote.”

Overall, I think the paper’s handling of the story was fair. When the political chatter in Boston following the Sunday roast turns to the question, “How was the breakfast,” what’s being asked is whether the zingers offered by politicians had any zing, not whether the music was good or the corned beef salted just right. I don’t think it would have hurt for the piece to have made it clear that Braude asked Dahill specifically to grade the jokes, not the breakfast. But there was no big misstep here. As for the headline, these are supposed to capture the essence of a story, and I think in this case it did.

Michael Jonas, a veteran Boston journalist and the executive editor of CommonWealth magazine, is serving as the Reporter’s ombudsman during the special election campaign for state Senate. His job is to provide independent oversight of the paper’s coverage of the race, a temporary position the paper has created because one of the Senate candidates, state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, is the wife of Reporter publisher and editor Bill Forry. Readers with comments or concerns about the paper’s Senate race coverage are encouraged to contact him by email at dotnewsombudsman@gmail.com or by phone at 617-224-1624.