Jun
12
2001

Boston Globe Ombudsman Distorts Readers' Concerns

In his June 11 column, Boston Globe ombudsman Jack Thomas distorted the concerns of hundreds of letter-writers, and failed in his responsibility to his readers by relying solely on his own paper's version of disputed events.

Thomas was responding to the many complaints he received about the paper's rejection of an ad from the environmental group ForestEthics that was critical of the office supply company Staples. Hundreds of people wrote in to question why the Globe editorialized in favor of other publications accepting controversial ads in seeming contradiction of the Globe's own advertising policies.

Most of these letter-writers heard about the Globe's apparent double standard through a pair of FAIR e-mail alerts (4/9/01, 6/5/01). Though Thomas received copies of FAIR's alerts-- indeed, many of the letters to the Globe refer to FAIR by name and were cc'ed to us-- his column does not mention FAIR, and falsely states that the letters were the result of a ForestEthics campaign orchestrated by public relations "consultants."

To clarify, ForestEthics was not involved with FAIR's action alerts, and FAIR has no financial or institutional connections with the group. We work to expose PR spin, not create it.

Thomas's baseless accusations of misleading PR are particularly troubling given that his explanation of the rejection of the Staples ad relies solely on the accounts of Globe employees, echoing the explanation offered to many FAIR activists over email by the Globe's PR director, Richard Gulla.

As ombudsman, it's Thomas's job to represent readers' interests by independently investigating matters like the Staples controversy-- simply repeating the paper's version of events is insufficient and inappropriate. But Thomas didn't contact ForestEthics for their side of the story, and he didn't even return the call ForestEthics campaign director Todd Paglia made to him when he found out that a column was forthcoming. (Likewise, FAIR has had no replies from Thomas or anyone else at the Globe.)

Perhaps as a result, Thomas's column does not acknowledge that ForestEthics disputes the Globe's account. Thomas claims that Dennis Lloyd, a Globe advertising manager, requested "supporting documentation" from ForestEthics to substantiate the ad's charges against Staples, which the group never provided. ForestEthics, on the other hand, says that the Globe never asked it to modify or substantiate the ad, but simply refused to run it.

"No one at the Globe could ever give me a straight answer as to why the ad was rejected," says Paglia, "nor did they ask for any changes to the text or design, nor did they ask for documentation." Paglia says he had several conversations in which he "specifically asked what could be done to make the ad acceptable to the Globe" without any clear response. When Paglia asked them to put their reasons for rejecting the ad in writing, "again, the reply was silence."

Information in the April 3 "Focus on the Corporation" column by journalists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman-- which first drew attention to the story-- lends support to Paglia's account. The Globe's Dennis Lloyd reportedly told Mokhiber and Weissman that the ad was rejected simply because "the paper was not comfortable with the way Forest Ethics 'expressed' its views in the ad." In his June 11 column, Thomas claims Mokhiber and Weissman "fanned the flames" of controversy by writing "falsely."

Thomas managed to condescend to readers while failing to seriously investigate their concerns. He didn't blame them for being misinformed, he wrote: "There's no reason, after all, to expect a plumber from Arizona or a farmer in Iowa to comprehend the quirks of publishing a newspaper in Boston."

Thomas went on to chastise readers for addressing their questions to both him and Globe editor Matthew Storin, whom he says has "nothing to do with this controversy." But Thomas did not acknowledge that readers were only contacting Storin because their first letters to Thomas, written in April in response to the first FAIR alert on this issue, had been ignored.

It is troubling that readers had to appeal to an editor to ensure that the ombudsman respond to their concerns on a serious question about advertising policy and editorial hypocrisy. It is even more troubling that the ombudsman's hard-won response misrepresented those concerns.

***

Boston Globe ombudsman Jack Thomas can be reached at 617-929-3020 or ombud@globe.com .

***

Read Boston Globe ombudsman Jack Thomas's column:http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/162/oped/Advertising_is_independent_of_editorial+.shtml