March 4, 2011

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how Martin Baron, or any brand-new editor, could have had a stronger start than he did his first day at the Boston Globe. Within hours of his inaugural morning staff meeting, Baron “lit the match,” in his words, to ignite the Globe’s Pulitzer-winning investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and its cover-up by church authorities.

It happened almost 10 years ago — July 30, 2001, to be exact. Surprisingly, Baron says his days at the Globe “seemed kind of slow at the beginning.” That no doubt reflected the turbulence of his previous job, as executive editor at the Miami Herald, when that newspaper had produced Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Elian Gonzalez immigration case, and stirred investigations of the Bush-Gore presidential election that teetered on Florida’s “hanging chad” ballots. (Baron’s Boston plans also took a sudden detour, as did the work of so many journalists, just six weeks after he started his new job, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. As a local Boston story that trumped all others, including the church investigation, and the first priest-related pieces by the Globe’s investigative Spotlight Team didn’t actually appear in print and online for five more months, running Jan. 6-7, 2002.)

Baron’s Boston experience was different from the start. He recently reflected on what journalists a decade later can learn from the Globe’s investigation, when he spoke to a class called “Impact Journalism” that I teach at Emerson College. Baron was the seventh in a group of Globe editors and reporters who worked on the 2001-2002 project to speak with my students. His discussion stood out as unusually detailed and personal. It occurred in the same glass-walled Globe conference room where Baron had first sounded out his skeptical sub-editors about delving into reported sex crimes by priests.

The class is studying the Pentagon Papers and the Washington Post’s landmark coverage of Watergate, among other historic cases, seeking to understand not just how they changed history, but how they changed journalism.

“Super-distribution” and damning documents

“The reverberations of [the Globe’s priest investigation] story are still being felt today; the church is still trying to figure out how to apologize,” Baron told the 15 Emerson students. Indeed, the class had just examined a two-day-old front-page Globe article about Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who stepped in after the paper’s coverage drove Cardinal Bernard Law from office. O’Malley was pictured washing the feet of abuse victims in Ireland.

And Baron agreed that the Globe’s investigation made journalistic history with what New York University professor Clay Shirky has called a very early example of the “super-distribution” of news, initially through the paper’s website. The combination of print and online publishing made the priest revelations and the cover-up “a synchronizing story [that] kicked off this rolling wave of concern that’s now gone global,” Shirky said last year at an appearance at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

Essential to the online reach of the story, Baron told the Emerson class, was how “we used the tool of the Internet,” still in its relative infancy for such applications, to display for readers the extensive range of damning court documents that the Globe’s lawyers had managed to get unsealed in late 2001.

“It’s not the first time people had written about abuse in the Catholic Church,” he told the students. “But it was the first time you could see everything laid out before you. And the church couldn’t deny it, because there it was.”

Since the successful challenge to the sealed documents was Baron’s idea, asked Emerson student Zachary Lucius, “to what extent do you think of the story as yours?” Baron answered, “I don’t think it’s any one person’s — certainly not mine.” He pointed instead to the research skills of the reporters on the Globe’s Spotlight Team — skills that helped identify abusive priests — and to interviewing skills that drew out so many victims’ stories. Globe lawyers deserve credit, too, Baron said, for winning the challenge that opened “a treasure trove of documents.”

Baron admitted that when he arrived in Boston in 2001, he “didn’t know about the Spotlight team at all,” although when told of it, he “thought it was a curious name.” Indeed, he said he had then and has now mixed feelings about standing investigative units in general. “I have no particular ideology about it,” he said. “Some people think they’re good and some think they’re not so good.” At the Globe, he allowed, he now has learned that “it works very well. It has a great tradition, and they produce results.”

Responding to a question from student Meena Ganesan, Baron said his direct supervision of the investigative team had been very limited. “My sense was they were digging into it and digging into it well,” he said. Having “lit the match,” he said, the team was “off and running, and eventually, you’ve got a bonfire.”

But Baron’s answers to further questions from class members suggested several other ways in which his leadership made a critical difference to the outcome of the investigation.

“What’s the truth here?”

“To have impact, you have to say, what’s the truth here?” Baron told the students. The truth that eventually emerged included at least a 40-year history of priests raping children in the Boston area under the protection of church leaders — the tip of an iceberg of abuse around the nation and the world.

Baron was determined to avoid “he said, she said” accounts. He saw that unsealing court documents would be the key to opening the fuller story about what Father John Geoghan, the subject of scores of lawsuits, along with other priests and the church itself, had done to victims over the years.

When a Globe lawyer declared the chances of getting those documents unsealed to be 50-50, Baron declared those to be good odds. He persuaded then-publisher Richard Gilman. (Baron believes in “a no-surprise rule: Don’t surprise the publisher.”) He also determined that the paper’s success was more likely because the church was handicapped by “inept legal counsel.” And he calculated that the paper would benefit from the assignment of state Judge Constance Sweeney — a Catholic woman from Springfield, not Boston — to rule on the sealed documents.

Baron also tried to set a restrained tone for the Globe’s stories. “I wanted to be careful with the language, avoiding words like ‘explosive,’ ‘stunning,’ ‘shocking’,” he said. The words applied to priests raping children, of course, but “adjectives like that are the kinds of things people seize on,” Baron told the students. “You don’t need to do that, because the story speaks for itself.” Instead, he imposed an “almost dispassionate” standard. (On the day the Globe’s public-service Pulitzer was announced in 2003, then-Spotlight team leader Walter Robinson had joked about Baron to his fellow staffers that “somewhere within sight of this newsroom there has to be a closet full of adjectives he excised from these stories.”)

Emerson student Jovvann-Dominique Cafua asked if, during the coverage, Baron had come to think of it as Pulitzer material. Baron laughed, “Oh sure, I’m not that selfless.” He recalled a January 2002 press conference in which Cardinal Law responded to the Globe stories with a mild apology, rather than the expected counterattack on the paper. Baron said then-projects editor Ben Bradlee Jr. — son of famed Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee — told him, “Marty, we hit one out of the park.” (The students, who had heard the same story from Bradlee, smiled.)

A “gratifying” feeling

Beyond the revolution in news that the Internet brought on, Baron elaborated on the evolution of investigative reporting since 2001. He noted the sharp increase in collaborative projects between newspapers and other organizations, such as ProPublica. The Globe itself has developed a close relationship with students at Northeastern University, who are guided in investigations by former Spotlight leader Robinson, now a professor there. The relationship has led to numerous front-page exposes in the Globe, where the Spotlight Team continues to operate.

Baron was also asked if it felt like a decade since the church project had started. “Yes, it does seem like 10 years ago,” he said. In fact, even some shorter stretches of time since then seemed to last forever, Baron told the students, referring to a brief period two years ago, when the Globe’s New York Times Company owners discussed shutting down the Boston paper.

The last question was one Baron often gets these days: With the financial constraints facing the paper — and all newspapers — would the Globe pursue a story like the church scandal if it came along now?

Of course, he answered without hesitating — and, Baron said, not just because he now knows the impact that the story had, and continues to have. “It was a cover-up that lasted for decades, and that would have lasted for decades more,” had the paper not done that reporting. Knowing that the Globe changed so much is “gratifying,” he said.

It was an adjective apparently understated enough to escape Baron’s closet.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is editorial director of corporate-finance online site He is the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism” (U. of Missouri, paperback, 2010).

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Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, published in an updated edition…
Roy J. Harris Jr.

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