massinc is a small nonprofit that does research, hosts civic events, and publishes CommonWealth four times a year. Most people outside of our fairly wonky world have never heard of us. Yet you’d never know that from reading the Boston Herald in June.
Over the course of three days, the tabloid ran a series of stories and an editorial suggesting that MassINC is bankrolled by corporations, lobbyists, and state authorities who use the think tank and its magazine to gain access to politicians and to influence state policy. The stories also reported something displayed each issue on the back cover of the magazine and on our website: We have 12 donors who have asked to remain anonymous and a polling operation that respects the privacy of its clients.
Some have suggested the Herald’s coverage was payback for articles we have written about the tabloid and Secretary of State William Galvin, who criticized us in the Herald’s stories. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know the stories were the worst type of journalism: one-sided, full of distortions, and simplistic. MassINC President Greg Torres and I were both quoted, but only to say we disagreed with the Herald’s conclusions. Our reasons were not included.
For example, the Herald made much of the fact that David Begelfer, a MassINC board member and the CEO of the commercial real estate trade group NAIOP, was quoted in our story earlier this year about a major business development in Freetown that ran into a roadblock at the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Galvin, who oversees the commission, told the tabloid that Begelfer’s presence in the story represented pay-to-play journalism.
Nonsense. Begelfer was quoted not because he is a MassINC board member but because his organization represents developers frustrated with the commission. We probably should have identified him as a board member in the story (he is listed as such in the magazine), but we quoted lots of people, including Galvin, and also reviewed hundreds of pages of documents related to the project to provide a comprehensive look at what went wrong and why.
The Herald also zeroed in on a story last year about the politics behind the governor’s crackdown on salaries at the state’s quasi-public authorities. The tabloid hinted the story was done as a favor to the authorities that donate to MassINC, but actually it highlighted inconsistencies in the governor’s policies and how the low salaries were making it difficult to fill empty positions. As I told the Herald, the story turned out to be prophetic. The top positions at the MBTA and Massport are still empty after nearly a year.
The Herald also noted that the authority story included a reference to Richard Davey, who at the time was running the MBTA and formerly ran Mass Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which was a past donor to MassINC. All true, but totally irrelevant. And there was no mention of our last story on the T and Mass Bay Commuter Rail, which reported the premature breakdown of concrete railroad ties on the South Shore that led to a $100 million repair bill.
We do nonprofit journalism here at CommonWealth. Instead of raising money from advertisers, as most newspapers and magazines do, we raise money from donors. Our donors come from all walks of life. They include individuals, foundations, businesses, labor unions, and, yes, some public authorities. We seek their support and their ideas, but our research and our journalism are our own. That’s why people value it.
Even the Herald said in its editorial that it was a fan of our “well-researched reporting,” but warned that a magazine can’t be a watchdog over government agencies while accepting money from those agencies. Yet the Herald runs the ads of state authorities all the time and has received more than $630,000 in state funds over the last three years.
We don’t intend to alter our commitment to substantive, policy-oriented journalism. In this issue, you’ll see a story about Galvin’s slow-motion public records office, which was prepared long before the Herald’s story on us hit the front page. You’ll also see an opinion piece from David Begelfer. But this time he isn’t criticizing Galvin; he’s criticizing MassINC for its recent report on climate change.