Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Mac Daniel's New Job: A Conflict of Interest?

I feel like I have a problem with this, but I'm not sure I really should.
The new communications director at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is someone with experience dealing with the agency. Mac Daniel has covered the Turnpike for years as a reporter with the Boston Globe. His hiring comes about a week after legislation went into effect making Governor Patrick's transportation secretary the chairman of the Turnpike's governing board of directors.
See the full article at WPRI.com

I've talked with Mac personally a handful of times, he's a nice enough guy. And in the interests of disclosure I frequently do send in questions & tips to his email address: starts@globe.com

But he's been oft-critized by sites like BadTransit for being too "soft" on the MBTA and other transit agencies around Massachusetts. I don't really agree with that assessment, but I can see why...Mac rarely "went for blood" on his Starts & Stops column in the Globe. Granted, the Globe is not a "gotcha" news organization...they strive to be objective...but I do concede that our transit organizations here in Boston definitely need someone to smack them around on a regular basis, since the elected officials certainly won't (most Massachusetts transit agencies are havens for patronage jobs) and the public is routinely ignored by these organizations.

So you can see why I'm uneasy about Mr. Daniel leaving his job to report on the transit in Boston, to go work for one of the agencies he used to report on. It raises legitimate questions about the objectivity of his reporting.

For example, how long ago did he know he was a candidate for this job? During that entire time, his objectivity is completely in question. Now, carrying that train of thought to a logical (albeit extreme) conclusion...has Mr.Daniel always wanted a job like that? If so, then virtually everything he's ever written should be considered "invalid" because maybe he "took it easy" in his column to avoid annoying the people who are now his supervisors.

Again, for the record, I choose to believe that Mac Daniel has enough journalistic integrity that none of his writing should be questioned. But the problem (mostly for the Globe) is that there's no way anyone...even Mac...can prove that he did have that integrity. And as such, it looks bad.

As my journalist friends often remind me...when it comes to journalistic integrity, looking bad is the same thing as being bad. So that's why I feel uneasy about this.

But at the same time...it's not like he was writing columns for months or years while knowing he had this job in the wings. Charging Mr. Daniel with a conflict of interest feels a bit like a Catch 22; is he never allowed to ever have a job in a transit agency just because he covered transit while at the Globe? Maybe his column gives him valuable insight and experience for the job!

Argh. I don't need these moral dilemmas in the summer...it's too damn humid to think.


Anonymous said...

I've been a regular reader of Starts and Stops since its beginnings, with writer Tom Palmer. Palmer was harder on the numerous agencies than Daniel ever was. I only hope that the Globe editor chooses to maintain the feature.

Anonymous said...

But Palmer was lazy. He never took the time to actually learn about what it takes to deliver transit services. I always thought he would have made a better Herald reporter instead.

Anonymous said...

A few thoughts:

Analyzing his columns and concluding that he rarely "went for blood" is fine.

However, I don't think that taking a new job raises questions about his performance or objectivity in the past. I'm fairly certain he didn't know about this job in 2002 when he started as the transportation reporter. If all of a sudden his writing style changed and he started writing about transportation entities in an incredibly positive manner, then I would say that your comments regarding his objectivity have merit. Yet, it seems he's always been objective.

Aaron Read said...

Anon.10:48 - I agree with you, but the problem here is that none of us can really know for sure. As I said, journalistic integrity is more than just reality - the perception of the reality is equally important, and here the perception has been damaged.

BTW, thanks to Adam Reilly at the Boston Phoenix's MediaLog for linking to this post. Also, a comment at MediaLog I thought was exceptionally valid: how soon we forget about former Phoenix writer Seth Gitell going to work for Boston Mayor Menino's office. This is the exact same issue: everyone I know who's worked with Seth has said he was an excellent journalist but nobody...even Seth, really...can know for sure whether he was subtly biasing himself in his reporting. It's all about the appearances.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you're right, none of us can ever know for sure. Some people will always think the worst, some will always think the best, and the truth remains obscured.

I agree with you about the perception of objectivity. Certainly the perception of guilt is very prevelant in our society as well.

If I were a journalist, I think I'd get tired of worrying about people's perception of me. I'd probably go get a state job.

Anonymous said...

Hey Aaron... hope all's well. Whatever happened to dumpling/dim sum club?

Anyway. "Starts and Stops" was gentle, but Mac Daniels's daily articles weren't. Though he wasn't Sean Murphy, of course, assigned to go for blood.

I find it hard to believe that Daniels wants to be on the other side of the equation after he's spent so much time writing about the clanky, rusty bureaucracy. Now he has to defend the agency to the new him.

Anonymous said...

This is the new media landscape. Sadly, to me, this is less about perceived conflict of interest than it is about the continued defection of journalists to the communications/pr field due to the fact that its becoming increasingly difficult to make a good living as a journalist. When i came from CBS in NYC back to Mass. in 2000, it was with the idea to get into public affairs/PR....not to look for print or even broadcast work. Of course i wasn't a talented, singular journalist like say, Seth was. Nor have i since worked for anyone i covered at CBS. These moves are obviously far more common now than 7 years ago and it appears the defections are going to continue. -N-Lo

Unknown said...

Hiya Danielle...mmmmm...dumplings.

While I wouldn't be surprised if Mac took this new job while holding his nose, :-) I'm not surprised he did it. The future for newspaper journalists is shaky at best, and just today another report was released about declining ad revenue for the Globe's parent company (The New York Times). I'd be willing to wager Mac's new job pays better, has better benefits, and is a helluva lot more secure for the long haul.

Whether those were really the factors that influenced Mac's decision are entirely unknown, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Certainly if someone offered me a cushy PR job at a state agency, I'd be mighty tempted.

- Aaron Read

Anonymous said...

To an outsider, Mr. Daniels' move to the agency he was covering is just another example of the unaccountability of the Mass. state government, and of the transit agencies in particular. The Turnpike Authority isn't kept in check by the legislature nor the governor's office. (I guess the federal government kicks them around sometimes.) The press is all "we" as citizens have; now, even the press is getting into the Mass. state back-scratching game.

I can't see how this isn't a conflict of interest, at least going forward. If newspaper reporters who are seeing their careers flash in front of their eyes now see a way out -- and a 9 to 5, high-salary, full-pension way out at that -- then how can we readers really trust that they're looking as carefully as they should at the agencies they cover?

This sure seems like bad news to me.

Anonymous said...

All I know is the turnpike should seriously keep their interns on a short leash. Several barely legal females have had run ins with this douche bag.

Anonymous said...

ditto. as a former globe newsroom employee, i can vouch that turnpike interns better be ready to deal with some improper advances.