When the Ombudsman Becomes Part of the Story

It was on December 12, 2005 that Boston Globe ombudsman Richard Chacon promised to investigate how the article by Steve Kurkjian that helped to drive Peter Quinn from office came to be written. What's happened since then? As the reporters say, "Repeated requests for comment have remained unanswered"


“Repeated requests for comment from the Globe’s ombudsman regarding the Quinn story have remained unanswered”

Employing an ombudsman is one of the hallmarks of a newspaper that is committed to maintaining the highest standards of journalism and only a few dozen American papers do so. The concept is simple: First, hire a professional whose sole responsibility is to monitor the accuracy and impartiality of the paper’s journalism. Second, place the ombudsman beyond the reach of the commercial as well as the editorial side of the business, so that he or she need not fear the consequences of exposing conduct that may embarrass the paper, or worse. And finally, tell readers (and the subjects of stories) how they may get in touch with the ombudsman if they think that the paper has fallen short of its espoused standards.

Or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. When it doesn’t turn out this way, the ombudsman is at risk of becoming part of the story, rather than the guarantor of the integrity of the news reporting process.

Unfortunately, I’m beginning to fear that this is what has happened in the case of the Boston Globe’s ombudsman, Richard Chacon. Although he agreed on December 12, 2005 to investigate a local story that has attracted global attention, he has since failed to return many calls and emails from a variety of readers asking when (or perhaps I should more appropriately say “whether”) he will report the results of his investigation.

The story in which Mr. Chacon is becoming embroiled revolves around the question of how Globe reporter Steve Kurkjian came to write a story that contributed to the resignation of Massachusetts State CIO Peter Quinn not long thereafter. In the story, Mr. Kurkjian questioned whether Quinn’s travel to technology conferences had been properly documented. He also reported that his calls to State personnel on this topic sparked an investigation into that travel.

The story ran on November 26, 2005, on the front page of the Globe and was in due course picked up by the national press. But it took state investigators only a matter of days to clear Peter Quinn, by simply calling and confirming that (as he earlier told Mr. Kurkjian) his travel had been duly authorized by his immediate superior, then Secretary of Finance and Administration Eric Kriss.

Mr. Kurkjian duly wrote a short piece on December 10, reporting that the CIO had been cleared, and also referring back to his original story � but this time the story ran on an inside page.

Had Mr. Kurkjian delayed publishing his original story (which aired on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend) until he was able to reach Eric Kriss himself, he could easily have learned � as did the investigators � that there was no story to report. Or, stated another way, if he had assumed that Peter Quinn was telling the truth rather than the opposite, he would have wished to speak to Mr. Kriss before airing the unsubstantiated allegations on the front page of his newspaper.

There are many people that believe (as do I) that it is highly unlikely that Mr. Kurkjian woke up one morning possessed of an irresistible desire to investigate Peter Quinn’s travel documentation. It is much more logical to assume that Mr. Kurkjian received a false tip, given the heated debates and lobbying that were ongoing at the time relating to Mr. Quinn’s controversial effort to implement a new technology policy. That policy requires the Executive Agencies of Massachusetts on and after January 1, 2007 to only save documents using office productivity software that meets the “openness” standards established in that policy.

Thus far, the Information Technology Division (ITD) that Quinn led has determined that office suites that support only two standards meet this test: Adobe PDF and OpenDocument Format (ODF), a standard developed by OASIS, a global consortium with headquarters in the Boston area. Microsoft Office does not support ODF, and has announced that it has no current plans to do so. It has also strongly contended that the ITD’s decision not to endorse a specification of its own design â�“ XML Reference Schema – is unjustified, and has since offered that specification to a European standards organization for adoption.

At the same time, there has been a nasty little turf battle playing out on Beacon Hill (where the Massachusetts Statehouse stands), in which one part of the State government is attempting to take control of information and communication technology policy away from the ITD, and place it under a new politically appointed “Task Force.” That transfer of power would occur under an amendment (the “Morrissey Amendment”) tacked on to an existing economic stimulus bill that is nearing adoption.

In his resignation email to his employees and a later interview posted at Groklaw.net, Mr. Quinn stated that his ability to function in his role as State CIO had been made impossible, due to the public smears (such as those relating to the travel investigation) and political attacks (including efforts to deny funding to the ITD) that were ongoing. As a result, his email to his employees reads:

It is also readily apparent that I have become a lightning rod With regard to any IT initiative. Even the smallest initiatives are Being mitigated or stopped by some of the most unlikely and often Uniformed parties. I view these circumstances quite troubling because the good work laid out by the IT Commission is slowly being strangled and brought to a halt. And the last thing I can let happen is my presence be the major contributing factor in marginalizing the good work of ITD and the entire IT Community.

In short, it had been no secret since the late summer of 2005 that Peter Quinn had many enemies, and certainly this was apparent by the time that the original Globe piece appeared. Lobbyists on both sides of the issue had been calling heavily on Massachusetts legislator and administrators for months, disinformation had been widely disseminated, as evidenced by public comments sent to the ITD and posted at its Website, and the stakes â�“ both political and commercial – were clearly high, with Office representing something like 40% of Microsoft’s profits. Any tip that a reporter might receive â�“ especially if it came from a source with a stake in the outcome of the dispute, whether a legislative aide, a lobbyist, or perhaps, say, someone working for a PR firm hired by a lobbyist hired by a party with a stake in the outcome â�“ would have a high risk of being at best inflated, and at worst totally baseless.

But if, as seems likely, Mr. Kurkjian received a tip, who made the call? And what motivated the tip? Finally, was Mr. Kurkjian set up by someone who expected his inquiries to trigger an investigation, thereby perhaps making Mr. Kurkjian feel that he had to take the story to print?

Whatever happened behind the scenes, what played out on the pages of the Globe left many people â�“ including myself – questioning whether Mr. Kurkjian and his editor had acted responsibly in reporting the original story. Accordingly, on the same day that Peter Quinn was cleared, I both called and emailed the Globe’s ombudsman, Richard Chacon on December 10, suggesting that he look into the situation. A copy of my full email appears here. Included in that email was a request to look into the following specific questions:

1. Did Mr. Kurkjian decide to look into Mr. Quinn’s travel on his own, or was this suggested to him by someone?

2. If there was a source, who was that source?

3. If there was a source, was that source inside the Massachusetts government or outside?

4. If the source was inside the government, were the disclosures made to Mr. Kurkjian made in violation of any State policy?

5. If the source was outside the government, did the source have any affiliations that would lead him or her to have an interest in the disparagement of Mr. Quinn?

6. Why did Mr. Kurkjian not wait to run the story until he was able to reach Mr. Kriss, who Mr. Kurkjian knew could confirm or disprove the basis for the story?

7. Was this story, and the investigation behind it, in compliance with the Globe’s policies?

I was pleased to receive a reply from Mr. Chacon on December 12, which reads in full as follows:

Mr. Updegrove,

Greetings and many thanks for your detailed note. I think you raise some reasonable questions about the Globe’s stories concerning Peter Quinn (I had many of the same ones when I read Saturday’s story that he was cleared in the investigation).

I don’t have immediate answers for you (or your blog readers, many of whom have sent their own similar notes after having read your page). I can tell you at the outset that Stephen Kurkjian is one of the most experienced, professional and ethical journalists that I have ever known. Nevertheless, I do believe that some of these questions deserve answers – from Steve and his editors.

I have already sent a note to Steve asking for a chance to talk about the stories. I will offer a more detailed reply when I have some answers.

Richard Chacon

I included this response in the blog entry noted above, so that others would know that the Globe was living up to its promise to be responsible to its readers.

Time passed. Peter Quinn announced his resignation on December 24 , and Mr. Kurkjian wrote another short piece several days later (on December 28), duly noting that the investigation into Quinn’s travel documentation had played a significant role in his decision â�“ but not mentioning that his own story had sparked that investigation. Nor did the story make the front page.

During this same time period (and while the Morrissey amendment was still pending on Beacon Hill), Microsoft purchased an “Advertorial” on the editorial pages of the Globe (the same ad ran in other local media as well, such as the Boston Business Journal) touting the advantages to Massachusetts of the “developer ecosystem” that it helped support in the Bay State, although it has few employees in-state. (ODF supporters IBM and Sun Microsystems were concurrently sending Governor Romney letters noting the thousands of high-paying jobs that they each maintained in Massachusetts.)

More time passed. On December 27 I sent Mr. Chacon an email informing him that Peter Quinn had announced his resignation, and asking him “Can we expect your report on the situation soon?” But I received no response.

Still more time passed, and I began to receive email questions and complaints from readers of my blog, asking when the ombudsman’s report would issue.

On February 9, I called Mr. Chacon’s office and spoke to his assistant. I left a detailed message, explaining the situation and asking that Mr. Chacon respond to me by email or telephone with an update on when we might hear more. I also sent him the following email the same day:

Mr. Chacon,

As you may recall, you and I corresponded back in December relating to Steve Kurkjian’s article about Peter Quinn; I’ve appended my original email and your response for your reference.

Following up on a message that I just left with your assistant, I am hoping that you will reply with a date by which you expect to be able to present your conclusions regarding the Kurkjian story. My reason for getting in touch at this point in time is that I am receiving more and more email, and seeing more posts on the Web, that read like this:

“I’m getting increasingly frustrated with the globe ombudsman as I still have not heard back from him – have you andy?” I know that you have been getting calls and emails from others on this topic, and doubt that those that are upset about the story are likely to let it sit. If you can give me an idea when you may be ready to offer something to the public, I can post that at my blog and set expectations broadly, as my site gets c: 200,000 visits a month, more than half of whom are following the ODF story through my blog. If people know that something will be coming, and approximately when, I expect that it will preserve some goodwill that is already in short supply�.

I hope to hear back from you, as well as look forward to hearing your eventual report.

Best regards,

Andrew Updegrove

[I have deleted one paragraph above, which contains what I have been told by someone I believe to be a knowledgeable source was the source of the tip.]

To date, I have (once again) received no reply.

It is now two and a half months since the original story by Mr. Kurkjian appeared in the Globe, and it is more than two months since Mr. Chacon indicated that he would look into the situation. Since that time, the Globe, through Steve Kurkjian and Hiawatha Bray (a technology reporter), has continued to publish articles on the ongoing ODF story � as well as paid Microsoft advertising on its Editorial page which is widely regarded as being intended to influence the legislature and the administration with respect to the Morrissey Amendment and the ODF policy.

So – how long is a reasonable amount of time to wait for the results of an investigation that may involve little more than two conversations – one with Steve Kurkjian and one with his editor? Given the fact that the story continues to be one of importance, I cannot help but think that a response is long overdue.

Certainly the ombudsman of a daily paper must be besieged with calls and email. I’m sure that while the great majority relate to trivial matters, there will be some that warrant investigation. But when the ombudsman himself is struck by a story, and indicates that he will follow up on it, then that promise becomes a part of the story itself. After all: how often have you read the sentence, “Mr. X failed to respond to repeated telephone calls requesting comment.” Reflecting that state of affairs here is as relevant as it would be in any other story reported by a Globe reporter.

Why has there been no reply to date? Truly, I have no idea. The very concept of an ombudsman is to maintain credibility, and Mr. Chacon’s commitment to report back on this story is publicly known. The longer he delays while the Globe prints Microsoft ads, the more that credibility is damaged â�“ regardless of what the final report may say (assuming a report does eventually issue), because events will have occurred in the meantime that may have been influenced by what is disclosed. Either those that may have acted improperly will have enjoyed an advantage in their continuing efforts to affect the outcome of the ODF policy and the Morrissey Amendment, or those that have been suspected of such conduct and are in fact innocent will have been wrongly suspected and maligned. There is no neutral ground in the court of public opinion.

Massachusetts is being watched by people around the world with respect to its leadership role in implementing ODF � and its petty squabbling over the same action has been equally noted. State CIOs have been intimidated by what befell Peter Quinn, and want to know why, and whether the same thing could happen to them. Whether there was a tip, and if so, who made that tip will tell much about whether those fears are justified, and whether other CIOs have something to fear as well.

Right now, only Steve Kurkjian knows the answer to that question. I don’t know that we can expect him to reveal his source to us, but I do know that Mr. Chacon can tell us whether he believes that Steve Kurkjian acted responsibly, and whether he concludes that Mr. Kurkjian was used to one side’s advantage, the other side’s harm, and to Peter Quinn’s defenestration.

Mr. Chacon, people around the world are waiting to here what you have to say. There is a way to remove yourself from the story, and that is to respond.

I, and many others, impatiently await your reply.

Richard Chacon can be reached (or not, as the case may be) at the following email addresses: chacon@globe.com, ombud@globe.com and by number at(617)929-3020; he also has a separate voicemail number: (617)939-3022.

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