Globe’s day to dump news

Friday release limited coverage of discredited columnist’s suspension

IT IS KNOWN by reporters as the “Friday news dump,” that time, often in the warm weather months, that officials release bad news late in the afternoon on the verge of a weekend to minimize attention. It has been the target of derision by many in the media.

“Releasing bad, unflattering, or embarrassing news on a Friday, and more particularly on a Friday afternoon, has long been a way of minimizing political fallout,” the Boston Globe wrote in a 2009 editorial denouncing the Patrick administration’s habit of rolling out announcements at the end of the week in hopes that it will lay fallow come Monday. “Bad tidings land with a diminished thud in weekend papers, news broadcasts, and websites.”

The Globe revisited the subject in 2014 in a “Lexicon” feature where editors define a word or phrase in the news that may be unfamiliar to readers. “If you’re a politician who has bad news to share, what better time to do it than a Friday in August?” the short piece said. “Voters are at the beach, eating ice cream, and doing pretty much anything but paying attention. So it should come as no surprise that Friday afternoons in summer have become a favorite for the news-making set to share big revelations. To the ink-stained wretches grudgingly covering it all, it became known as the Friday news dump.”

But the Globe has apparently learned the value of dumping news on Fridays. Last Friday, late in the afternoon, the Globe posted a story on its website that also ran on the bottom of the Saturday newspaper on Page 1 about the three-month suspension of columnist Kevin Cullen. The story was accompanied by a lengthy statement and links to two reports looking into allegations that Cullen was untruthful about anecdotes he told, including his presence at events, surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing.

And it worked. A couple of outlets did stories similar to the Globe’s but with no fresh insight or comment. On Monday, WEEI morning hosts Kirk & Callahan, who started the frenzy over Cullen by pointing out the contradictions in his statements and his columns, were all over it but mostly to crow about their success. All in all, there was little coverage during the region’s first summer-like weekend, which included Father’s Day.

“The classic Friday night news dump, where bad news goes to die,” said Boston University journalism professor John Carroll. “The Globe is quick enough to point it out in others but clearly it was something they engineered to their advantage.”

No outside reporters were given a heads-up about the reports and punishment, despite inquiries and promises from editor Brian McGrory that the paper would be transparent about the probe and the results. When reporters inquired after seeing the Globe’s story, a spokeswoman sent links to the reports and statements on the Globe site.

The Globe story, written by staff reporter Michael Levenson, was lengthy but left some questions unanswered about how the punishment was determined, why the delay in releasing the information, and how independent the reviews were. McGrory declined comment to CommonWealth and did not answer questions he invited a reporter to send. Cullen, when reached by CommonWealth, also declined comment, citing a grievance filed on his behalf by the paper’s union.

Kathleen Carroll, the former executive editor for Associated Press who wrote one of the reports along with BU School of Communications dean Tom Fiedler, said she’d let the report “stand for what we have to say.” Kathleen Carroll is no relation to John Carroll.

The report from Fiedler and Carroll – which they undertook pro bono, according to a Globe spokeswoman – was  dated May 29 while the review of Cullen’s columns, performed by the paper’s investigations editor Scott Allen and a past and present reporter, was dated May 31.

Both reports came to the Globe in the middle of its highly publicized lawsuit against former Boston.com editor and reporter Hilary Sargent who charged McGrory with sending sexually suggestive and inappropriate messages to her during and after her time at the paper, dating back to when she was an intern.

Globe spokeswoman Jane Bowman said there was no intentional delay with releasing the reports’ findings more than two weeks after they were finished. She said Globe officials needed to review the reports and they also sent them to former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent as well as the nonprofit Poynter Institute, which acts as a watchdog on the media, for their input.

The reports concluded that Cullen, in interviews with outside media, relayed stories about talking with firefighters and being at the scene that were untrue.  While neither report identified intentional fabrications in Cullen’s columns, Globe policy requires staffers, both in print and as a representative of the paper in interviews, to adhere to the same journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness, and honesty.

“Kevin Cullen failed to live up to those standards a number of times when he was writing and talking about the 2013 Marathon bombing,” Carroll and Fiedler said in their report. They also said Cullen’s explanation for the lapses “strains credulity.”

McGrory and Globe owner and publisher John Henry cited that failure as the basis for the punishment of a three-month unpaid suspension. After that, Cullen will return to work as a general assignment reporter for two months before being allowed to resume column writing.

“Our review leads us to a conclusion that Mr. Cullen damaged his credibility,” McGrory and Henry said in a statement. “These were serious violations for any journalist and for the Globe, which relies on its journalists to adhere to the same high standards of ethics and accuracy when appearing on other platforms. Our review also leads us to believe that Mr. Cullen did not commit irrevocable damage.”

The outside report also chastised Globe editors for allowing one of Cullen’s falsehoods – that 8-year-old bombing victim Martin Richard hugged his father Bill after the elder Richard, who did not run run the race, crossed the finish line – to remain uncorrected for more than five years until the report pointed it out. The report indicated the Globe editors were aware of the enormity of the problem but chose to do nothing. No one besides Cullen was disciplined.

“Managing Editor [Jennifer] Peter said she cannot explain why the error has never been corrected,” the report stated. “She was aware that the error still stood many months after the bombing, citing it as the reason Mr. Cullen’s column was not included in Globe entries for journalism awards.”

The internal review held little criticism for Cullen, saying a scrub of 100 of his non-Marathon columns only found “five small errors of fact” but went to great lengths to highlight people’s positive views of Cullen.

“We did find five small errors of fact — a name misspelled here, a detail wrong there — but far more commonly people praised Kevin’s accuracy and, in many cases, his willingness to call back to confirm details,” says the internal report.

John Carroll said while he can’t judge the work of the Globe editor and reporters doing the review, asking them to perform an investigation of a colleague is “awkward,” at the least.

“I think that’s certainly an awkward situation for colleagues to be put in and I think you can make the case the Globe should not have done that,” he said. “If they wanted to review Cullen’s work, they should have brought someone in from the outside like they did in the other report.”

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College and a former longtime reporter and editor for a number of newspapers in the state, said the punishment for Cullen was “too soft.” Leccese, who went to college with Cullen at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and worked on the Daily Collegian with him, said the wording in the report was “a nice way to say he lied.” Leccese said while Cullen shouldn’t be fired for the transgressions, he should also not be rewarded with a highly visible place in the paper.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

“What’s in [the outside report] is enough for the Globe to say he shouldn’t be a columnist anymore,” said Leccese. “A metro columnist in any city is really a high visibility reporter and writer. They’re some of the stars of local journalism but they need to be held to high standards. They certainly need to be held to the news organization’s standards.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled bombing victim Martin Richard’s last name.