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Memo To Gov. Patrick: The Role Of The Media Is Not To Be A Cheerleader

There are a few surefire guidelines for making public speaking an easier gig, and none is more true than this: Know your audience, and give them something they can cheer for.

As one of the country’s top politicians, Gov. Deval Patrick understands this little shortcut very well. And at last month’s annual meeting of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, he deployed it in expert fashion.

“The media here is awful to the business community. It’s just awful,” Patrick said, eliciting applause from the still-waking breakfast crowd. “The only thing that seems to get reported is bad news. When somebody hits one out of the park, it’s hard for anybody to get any attention ... I think it’s different in other parts the country — people make a thing of it when somebody succeeds in the business community, and that breeds a buzz.”

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Sitting off to the side, as a reporter covering the meeting, I almost did a spit-take with my coffee. The event’s moderator, Boston Globe business columnist Scott Kirsner, gamely parried Patrick by saying, “I think we can debate that.”

As a member of the media, you get used to people taking you down a notch, complaining about how you screwed something up or missed a big story or just generally got everything wrong. It comes with the territory. Patrick’s little jab, however, was among the dumbest attempts at press criticism I’ve heard in a long time, for a couple of reasons.

The media here is awful to the business community. It’s just awful.

Gov. Deval Patrick

First of all, it’s not the job of a free, independent press to be a cheerleader.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be good-news stories in the media — denying the successes of businesses, political leaders, and regular folks would be leaving out a huge part of the story.

But there are also plenty of institutions in our society that fill the niche of boosterism, especially in the business world. If Patrick has any trouble finding stories of entrepreneurs who have “hit one out of the park,” he should look no further than the local Chamber of Commerce, economic development agency, or industry trade group. His hosts at the MassTLC could, I’m sure, regale the governor for many hours with stories of business victories across the commonwealth.

If it mostly churned out tales of how smart and successful the business community is, the press would quickly be diagnosed as irrelevant by the employees, shareholders, and customers who know better. The validation that Patrick seems to be pleading for would quickly become meaningless.

But here’s the real reason Patrick’s dig at the press was so galling: It’s demonstrably false.

Look at the business media in this state and try to tell me, with a straight face, that the narrative being presented is solely one of doom, gloom and failure. You can’t.

Let’s just take a tour through the recent business headlines in the local press to illustrate this. This past Sunday, there was a big Globe feature by Kirsner himself on Entrega, a local biotech company that is developing a way for patients to take powerful drugs in a pill, rather than the injections currently used.

The Globe also featured no fewer than four separate stories through the last week of March on U.S. and European regulators approving a new multiple sclerosis drug from Biogen Idec, a step that the paper saw as “cementing the Weston company’s dominance in MS treatments.”

The Herald covered the rise of 3D printing, putting some Massachusetts startup companies on the map alongside other players nationwide in this burgeoning tech trend.

Both papers, along with online-only news outlets like my employer, Xconomy, also carried lengthy pieces about a new offering from Nuance Communications that could see the Burlington, Mass.-based company leading the way in voice recognition-equipped advertising — the kind of stuff you might see in a sci-fi movie.

Not exactly a bunch of sourpuss talk.

That’s not to say we all just shout the praises, of course. The press has extensively covered the fall and attempted resurrection of A123 Systems, an advanced battery maker that went into bankruptcy after getting significant government assistance.

Reporters at the Globe recently unveiled a nine-month investigation that exposed the seedy, corrupt side of the taxi industry in Boston.

The media also has covered some curious moves at Avid Technology, a local maker of audio and video editing systems that recently changed CEOs and skipped its earnings report while it looked into some apparent accounting irregularities.

If it mostly churned out tales of how smart and successful the business community is, the press would quickly be diagnosed as irrelevant by the employees, shareholders, and customers who know better.

Should the press have ignored these stories? Would everyone be better served if we newsies just stuck to the happy stuff?

Of course not. For all the changes roiling the media industry, this much remains true: The press is protected by the First Amendment so it can pursue an independent agenda, uncontrolled by government or business or any of other powerful interest. We don’t always get it right. But we don’t always get it wrong, either.

Patrick knows this. If I had to bet, I’d say he was just trying to distract this particular crowd from the fact that he’s trying to raise a half-billion dollars in business taxes, with targets including software and computer services.

So, you’re welcome, governor. Happy to help. But just remember there’s not much sport in bashing the press. It’s kind of like tee-ball: Even if you don’t have any skill, everybody gets to take a swing.


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This program aired on April 4, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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