The Boston Globe, for decades one of the heavyweights in the enduring political wars that are a respected Massachusetts tradition, has been taking it on the journalistic chin in the last few days here in a small, steamy courtroom.
The paper's antagonist -- a wealthy Republican businessman, John R. Lakian -- has contended that The Globe "intentionally" sabotaged his political career in 1982 when reporter Walter V. Robinson wrote a story about "discrepancies" in Lakian's record.
And although many independent legal experts say that Lakian's $50 million libel case probably has little chance of success, at least in the long run, this is The Globe's costly and uncomfortable day in court. And its enemies, most of them also the paper's loyal readers, are quietly relishing the liberal paper's discomfiture.
"The Lakian situation has sort of unleashed all of the pent-up feelings of animosity towards The Globe," said former Massachusetts Senate president Kevin B. Harrington, who describes himself as a former target of the newspaper. "Lakian is coming on as a sort of symbol of what is perceived as imbalance or injustice by The Globe . . . and, although I don't think anyone here really thinks Lakian will ultimately be successful, it's just our chance to whack back at you guys."
"Part of the feeling about this case is that it's nice to see the biggest guy on the block get his nose bloodied," said Jack Flannery, a veteran political consultant who was called into Lakian's camp in 1982 to conduct what he described as "damage control" after the story appeared.
"There might be some of that," acknowledges The Globe's new editor, Michael Janeway, who spent last week in court to "show solidarity," as he put it, for a nervous but mostly unrepentant Robinson.
"But bear in mind that Boston is unusual . . . where the major city is also the state capital . . . , and this paper has had a high political profile and editorial endorsements that have been important. Its interests . . . in all the highways, byways and back streets of politics have always been very great. So there are people who have been at odds with it or didn't get the coverage they wanted, some of that feeling," Janeway said.
Still, with the Boston Red Sox flagging, this is the best game in town.
The Globe, at least during the two decades when former editor Thomas Winship dominated the paper, is more than a mere purveyor of the day's news. Under Winship, who retired in January but is expected to appear on the stand as the ultimate editor for this piece, The Globe often pushed progressive or liberal causes, sometimes to the dismay of its Republican or conservative Democratic readers. The paper won Pulitzer prizes and national attention. Circulation increased; the staff expanded to include some of the nation's best writers. But The Globe also made enemies, enemies like John Lakian.
"There's no question that The Globe, through its agent, Walter Robinson, was out to hurt my campaign and assassinate me as a human being," Lakian said before the trial started two weeks ago.
Robinson, an 11-year Globe veteran who spent a grueling five days last week on the witness stand with Lakian's flamboyant lawyer Norman Roy Grutman "doing a tap dance on his face," as one Boston writer described it, has said that his August 1982 story was true and "carefully documented."
Under the unrelenting pressure of Grutman, Robinson acknowledged last week that he had changed quotations, saying their meaning was not disturbed by the rewriting of one phrase and the dropping of another. And he said he had "misunderstood" Lakian's comments during an interview about annual fees that his firm generated. The misunderstanding was cited by The Globe as one of the nine discrepancies in Lakian's record, suggesting that he had exaggerated his annual fees for his management firm by $1 million to $2 million.
Said one Globe employe familiar with the story, "Lakian is trying to put The Globe on trial, when, in fact, it was his problem about stretching the facts about his own career that got him in trouble."
Both sides have called in big guns from New York. Grutman, Lakian's Wagnerian lawyer, who is given to correcting the vocabulary of not only the witness but of the judge, spares The Globe none of his eloquent venom.
A lawyer who has won libel cases for both Penthouse magazine and the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority, Grutman accused Robinson of having a "corroded heart" when he wrote his story, of being "The Globe's hit man," who made, not mere mistakes, but conscious decisions "as to how far he could mutilate the truth."
The Globe, recognizing that it could win the case in court and lose it on television, has taken the unusual step of hiring a public relations man, New Yorker John Scanlon. Scanlon is a friend of Grutman, who originally wanted Scanlon to work for Lakian. He is widely credited among media executives with helping CBS drastically improve its news media coverage after retired Army general William A. Westmoreland took the network to court last October.
Scanlon fumes that the Globe suit is a "political vendetta." He depicts Lakian as a man whose chief problem is that he cannot resist exaggeration.
The case, which should go to the stern-looking New England jury by August, has become a contest of reputations -- Lakian's as a politician versus Robinson's as a journalist and The Globe's as a newspaper.
With Robinson on the stand last week, questioned mostly by Grutman and briefly by The Globe's laconic attorney, Francis Fox, the errors or "glitches" in his August 1982 story became the source of embarrassing daily news coverage.
The article, which reported on Lakian's campaign during the GOP gubernatorial primary in 1982, said that there "appears to be a pattern of discrepancies between what he says and what the records show about his upbringing, schooling, military service and business career."
Among those "discrepancies" was Robinson's charge that he portrayed himself as a Republican "since 1970," when he had been an Independent and had voted Democratic in 1978; that he said his father died in World War II, when he died in an automobile accident; and that he "took graduate history courses at Harvard," when records show that he never attended courses officially.
But Grutman bore down on changes in quotes that Grutman said were "dishonest" but that Robinson said were "clarifications."
For example, Robinson changed Lakian's quote, "I registered first [as a Republican] for Charlie Mann," to "I registered first as a Republican in 1970."
Robinson, whose tapes of two interviews with Lakian are being played for the jury, told the court that he changed the quotation because it would have taken several extra paragraphs to explain that Lakian changed his voting status to Republican in 1970, when he ran Mann's state Senate campaign.
Other changes, Robinson said, were "sloppy transcribing on my part" that he said did not change the substance, including one section where he attributed his own comment to Lakian and another place where he denied speaking to one of Lakian's enemies, whom he had interviewed.
But Globe lawyer Fox said Thursday afternoon outside the courtroom, "I see nothing but semantical squabbles."
In the weeks ahead, however, it will be Lakian's turn on the stand, where he will face what most politicians try vigorously to avoid -- having an unfriendly lawyer asking him what may turn out to be uncomfortable questions about his record and what he has said about it. In a trial where one of his key desires is to "get his name back," as Lakian's lawyer describes it, the potential Republican candidate may give the public an opportunity to determine whether Lakian exaggerated, in an ordinary fashion, or lied, as Robinson's story suggested.
"Lakian's the first time I have known anybody to pursue a suit of this nature this far," said former Boston mayor Kevin White, who said his political fortunes had been both boosted and damaged by The Globe over the years.
Said one of those close to The Globe's side of the case, "I foresee the day when [Lakian] wishes he'd never gotten into this thing."
Friends of Lakian say that he is a "stubborn man" who decided to tackle The Globe not only because he believes that he has been wronged, but because he believes that if he wins one count, even if he loses the case, he can return to his political career.