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Readers well-served by Senate coverage

Michael JonasMichael JonasThe best way to describe my stint as the Reporter’s ombudsman during the recent special election for state Senate is to say I felt a bit like the Maytag repairman. The appliance company’s long-running ad campaign sought to promote the reliability of its washing machines by spotlighting the idle life of those on call to service them. In my case, I wound up making a couple of minor service calls, but there were no broken gaskets or flooded laundry rooms.

I was asked in February by Reporter publisher and editor Bill Forry to assume the role of ombudsman during the Senate campaign in which his wife, Linda Dorcena Forry, was a candidate. An ombudsman serves as an independent voice for readers. It’s a position a number of major newspapers once filled, but many – including the Boston Globe – have done away with the job in recent years, with newspapers struggling to stay afloat. The Reporter employed an ombudsman in late 2004 and early 2005, when Dorcena Forry ran for state representative, and the paper committed itself to similar outside oversight of the Senate campaign in which now-state Rep. Dorcena Forry was a candidate.

Starting with the Feb. 6 announcement of my role in a column by Bill Forry, the paper publicized throughout the race the e-mail address and phone number at which I could be reached with any concerns about the Reporter’s campaign coverage. I was contacted only one time, by a campaign consultant for Democrat Maureen Dahill.

The strategist took issue with how Dahill’s remarks in a television interview about the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast were characterized in the paper and also thought his candidate wasn’t fully credited with being the first one in the race to call for the inclusion of gay and lesbian organizations in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. I weighed in with an April 4 column, saying I thought Dahill’s campaign had a point on the latter issue, but not so much with the former.  

Apart from that call from the Dahill camp, my phone never rang with a concern about the paper’s campaign coverage; my e-mail inbox remained empty.

That fact surely must figure in any assessment of the Reporter’s handling of the race. Overall, I think the paper delivered good and fair coverage of the campaign, with no sign of a thumb on scale to favor Dorcena Forry. Indeed, as I wrote in the May 15 issue, I thought on one occasion that the paper might have played it too safe by not probing an issue out of concern that it could have been seen as indirectly aiding Dorcena Forry.

That issue involved an endorsement by a group of black residents of her main Democratic primary rival, South Boston state Rep. Nick Collins. The backing from a group calling itself the Communities United Committee of a white Southie pol over a woman hoping to be the first black to represent the First Suffolk Senate district was an irresistible “man-bites-dog” story. Both Boston dailies jumped on the story. The Reporter also covered the endorsement. News editor Gin Dumcius included in his write-up the fact that a former Dorchester state rep candidate listed on the Collins endorsement by the group said she had, in fact, not endorsed any candidate in the race. But the Reporter did not explore the more complicated questions about what was driving the endorsement or whether the newly formed group carried any real political clout in minority precincts in Dorchester and Mattapan.

Associate editor Tom Mulvoy, who oversaw all Senate race coverage, told me that was partly due to limited reporting capacity during the short sprint of a special election campaign. But he also acknowledged that it seemed more prudent during the campaign to stick to a narrower focus on the facts than veer too far into the realm of news analysis pieces, given the paper’s unusual connection to one of the candidates.

That underscores the inherently awkward position the Reporter is in. My role as the paper’s temporary ombudsman for the state Senate election is now over. I think it is a credit to the Reporter that the paper was willing to bring me on -- and give me absolutely free rein to comment on its coverage of the special election. A political campaign presents a special test of any media outlet’s commitment to fair play.

 However, just as she did for nearly a decade as state representative, Dorcena Forry will now merit ongoing coverage as Dorchester’s state senator. Reporter readers will have to judge for themselves whether the paper does so responsibly and fairly.

Michael Jonas, who served as temporary ombudsman for The Reporter during the special election for state Senate, is executive editor of CommonWealth magazine, published by the nonpartisan Boston think tank MassINC.