GUILD CLAIMS CENSORSHIP AT BOSTON HERALD

By: Lucia Moses

Bank Merger Coverage Questioned



The Boston Herald’s editorial guild has alleged that the normally
aggressive tabloid has censored stories to placate a major advertiser.



About 68 employees signed a petition claiming senior editors killed a
staffer’s stories about a controversial bank merger, then told him not
to write anything more about the bank, and later reassigned him.



‘[W]e protest and condemn the unethical influence of advertisers and
business interests over the Herald’s recent handling of the
Fleet/BankBoston takeover story,’ reads the petition, sponsored by The
Newspaper Guild of Greater Boston, which represents about 300 editorial
and advertising employees at the Herald. ‘[W]e implore you to end this
practice immediately.’



The controversy stemmed from stories the paper’s consumer columnist,
Robin Washington, wrote in early April about the bank’s plan to raise
fees for BankBoston customers whose accounts were switched to Fleet as
part of the merger, and the customer complaints that ensued.



With the union of New England’s two biggest banks, Boston-based Fleet
becomes the seventh largest U.S. bank, with some 1,300 branches in the
Northeast, according to Hoover’s Online.



‘The merger of Fleet and BankBoston affects many, many people,
including many of us,’ said Lesley Phillips, Guild president. ‘It was a
bit stunning, and reactions from some of our reporters was of
disbelief.’



The petition was delivered Thursday to Publisher Patrick Purcell, who
issued a statement saying ‘it’s ridiculous’ to accuse the paper of
being influenced by advertising interests and maintaining that the
Herald has reported aggressively on the merger.



The statement, while it didn’t address the Guild’s specific claims,
said: ‘We make hundreds of choices every day. Reporters constantly vie
for front-page treatment. Judgements are made based on our readers’
interests. Sometimes stories continue, sometimes they run out of steam.



‘We insist on objective, balanced, fair reporting throughout the
newspaper. If we detect problems in those areas, we move swiftly to
correct them,’ the statement continued.



Jim Mahoney, a Fleet spokesman, said that while the bank complained to
the Herald twice about Washington’s reporting tactics, ‘There was no
conversation between me or anyone else at Fleet in which advertising
was related to those matters.’



Washington, a journalist of 22 years who has been at the Herald for
four, said Herald Editor Andrew Costello initially praised the stories,
but, as time went on, the bank’s denials of wrongdoing became more
forceful. On April 23, according to Washington and the Guild, Costello
told him not to write any more about Fleet. On April 25, Washington was
taken off his column and put on general assignment.



The Guild is monitoring the Herald’s handling of Washington, Phillips
said.



Questions about Fleet’s influence haven’t been limited to the Herald.
Last month, The Boston Globe refused to run a $25,000 full-page ad from
a national housing advocacy group criticizing the bank’s fees and
encouraging people to go to the bank’s April 18 annual meeting, which
was then upcoming.



Bruce Marks, CEO of the advocacy group Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of
America (NACA), said the decision smacked of censorship: ‘Obviously,
Fleet has power to veto who goes in the Globe.’ The Globe said the
paper rejected the ad over concerns about its accuracy.



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Lucia Moses (lmoses@editorandpublisher.com) is an associate
editor for Editor & Publisher magazine.









(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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