A story about nothing

The television show Seinfeld famously referred to itself as a “show about nothing.” There’s a new genre of news reporting emerging in the same vein, something that essentially tells readers “here’s what we don’t have.” And readers are paying attention.

More and more, reporters who are stymied by public officials in getting records deemed to be public are writing pieces detailing what they asked for and why they don’t have it, a blow-by-blow that shames the refuseniks while giving the impression to readers there is something to hide without actually saying what it is.

The latest entry in record-shaming comes in the Boston Herald, where State House reporter Matt Stout chronicles his unsuccessful effort to get the MBTA Police Association Retirement Plan to release its records on pension payouts. The response from executive director Sidney Chase was, in essence, go pound sand.

Stout went one better: He pounded Chase and the pension fund, which gets more than $2 million in public funds annually from the MBTA. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack sided with the tabloid, issuing a statement that called for the records’ release. But that only added to the story, not to any headway in actually getting the records.

Chase said his decision was backed by a decades-old ruling from the Supreme Judicial Court, but Stout points out Chase couldn’t identify the ruling. Chase said the Herald’s request would be taken up next week at a meeting of the fund’s executive board, but told Stout not to hold his breath because previous requests have been met with laughter, or at least a “no” vote.

When Stout asked for names of the board members, Chase said those weren’t public, and then stopped responding altogether. By not releasing the records, Chase has made a bigger story out of his sleepy little fund, guaranteeing if and when the records are released they will be the subject of even more scrutiny.

Earlier this week, the Boston Globe’s Nicole Dungca had a piece about the difficulty in getting emails sent and received by public officials. While the story was written in the context of the kerfuffle over the private emails of Hillary Clinton, Dungca focused on her own request to get emails from former MBTA general manager Beverly Scott during the height of this past winter’s storms. Dungca said the T told the paper it would cost more than $3,000 to get the 629 emails, a cost that could be reduced if Dungca reduced or narrowed her request. But that wouldn’t have been as good a story.

Fox 25 investigative reporter Mike Beaudet earlier in the month reported a similar encounter with the MBTA to get the emails but his request rang up a cost estimate of more than $15,000.

All of this comes on the heels of an unprecedented coordinated editorial barrage by the Globe, Herald, and Patriot Ledger after the Globe’s Todd Wallack reported that Secretary of State William Galvin upheld some police chiefs’ refusals to release arrest records of some of their officers. For the cost of nothing, the papers have gained some pretty good stories to offer readers.

CommonWealth has long documented the actions of public officials to cloak documents but other media weighed in occasionally, usually on larger issues of wide appeal. Recently, more and more outlets are making it the story rather than just accepting the fact and moving on.

A refusal to release records was once treated as an aside in a story, rather than the story itself. Editors often told reporters to quit their whining because readers didn’t give a damn about what they didn’t have or how hard their job was dealing with recalcitrant public servants; they cared only what they could read about.

Now, it seems, that view is being turned on its head with front page real estate being occupied by stories about nothing.




Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants tells state lawmakers that budget cuts contained in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget would be worse than the “darkest days” of the Great Recession, when court hours had to be cut.

If state workers eligible to retire early take Baker up on his offer, the work of agencies like the Department of Revenue and MassDOT, where there are large numbers of potential retirees, could get mucked up.

Jay Ash, the state secretary of economic development, said the Baker administration may consolidate some of the agencies that do economic development work. Boston Business Journal’s take is here.

The Globe reports that advocates for the poor say an effort to root out fraud in the state food stamps program is causing great hardship by terminating benefits to lots of people who are actually still eligible for them.

About 1 million of the 1.7 million on MassHealth, the state’s health insurance for the poor and elderly, will have to reapply for coverage by the end of this year to determine if they remain eligible, the Telegram & Gazette reports.

The Pioneer Institute says there is a potential for collusion among those bidding to Massport to build a hotel in the Seaport district.


Scot Lehigh is very well versed in the artful ways of John Fish in eluding hard answers to good questions about the financing of a Boston 2024 Olympics.


Jurors in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev heard horrific details of the fatal injuries sustained by the Krystle Campbell, one of three people killed by bombs at the race finish line.

A Jamaica Plain woman is being charged with defrauding the One Fund of money intended for victims of the marathon bombing.


Saugus Town Manager Scott Crabtree, who was ousted by the selectmen who in turn were ousted by voters in a recall election, says it’s time to move forward, the Item reports.

Wareham selectmen approved a plan to create a “Cultural District” in town to increase tourism and economic development, though it’s undetermined what will be highlighted or where the district will be.


With the announcement of an opening date for the state’s first slots parlor, Gaming Commission chairman Stephen Crosby sits down with Greater Boston to talk about the future of gambling in Massachusetts.


The Senate passed its version of a GOP dream wish list for the federal budget which Minority Leader Harry Reid says hasn’t got a prayer of becoming law because there aren’t enough Republican votes to override a likely presidential veto. Reid, by the way, says he will not run for reelection.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signs a bill into law that allows business owners to deny service to same-sex couples on religious grounds, Time reports.

Believe it or not: A bipartisan Medicaid “fix” put together by Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi goes to the Senate.

A Washington state Republican lawmaker looking for ways to trash Obamacare on Facebook doesn’t get much help.

The co-pilot of a German airplane that crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 on board, intentionally downed the plane after locking the pilot out of the cockpit, say authorities. Evidence is emerging that the 27-year-old German had been treated for depression and made efforts to hide a history of psychological problems from the airline.

San Francisco jail inmates were forced to fight, gladiator-style, by their guards, according to the city’s public defender.

Washington, DC, plays hosts to the nation’s largest marijuana giveway, the Washington Post reports.


The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has proposed regulations to rein in the $46 billion payday loan industry, where interest rates can run as high as 400 percent.

A report from Federal Reserve Bank of Boston paints a picture of stark racial disparities in wealth in the region.

In a reality show spinoff, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute will hold a competition to come up with the best new ideas for fundraising.


The Stoughton teachers’ union, which has been in a tong war with Superintendent Marguerite Rizzi, says Rizzi extended the contract for six years for the assistant superintendent behind closed doors with no public input even though she had more than two years remaining on the current contract.

Interim Superintendent John McDonough has asked 13 top administrators in the Boston Public Schools to submit their resignations to give incoming superintendent Tommy Chang “maximum flexibility” in assembling a leadership staff.

Though Chang is still in Los Angeles, and her son is not quite yet 2 years-old, the Herald’s Jessica Heslam wants the incoming Boston schools chief to convince her why she should stay in Boston and roll the dice on the Boston Public Schools. He gives it a whirl.

The president of Endicott College in Beverly tells parents he is launching a crackdown on alcohol and drug abuse on campus, the Salem News reports.


Trying to get out ahead of the horrible toll exacted by Alzheimer’s disease, researchers are testing a drug among those without disease but at high risk of developing it to see whether it has any preventive effect.

A Westborough company has developed fitness tracking software that can share data directly into a user’s electronic medical records.


Commuter rail ridership numbers are all over the map and one thing is clear: they don’t add up.

At a public hearing in Hingham, state transportation officials said the only way to pay for the $800 million cost of adding two lanes to a 17-mile stretch of Route 3 on the South Shore was to use private funds and charge tolls for the new lanes.

Worcester-area students would stay after college if the city had better public transportation and cooler amenities like coffee houses and funky stores.


More than 1 in 5 native plant species in New England are extinct, rare, or in a state of decline, according to a new study reported by the Globe.


A bomb threat disrupted the murder trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.


Keller@Large is holding his ground against the word police.