City Councilor Michael Gaffney has been in the local news a great deal lately – often not for a policy position he has taken, but as a result of his relationship with the local media and specific members of the media. As an ultimate show of contempt, Mr. Gaffney has refused to respond to media inquiries throughout the current election season.
Like President Trump and the national media, local emotions surrounding the Gaffney/media dustup are running pretty high.
The media’s treatment of Gaffney
I cannot remember a more volatile relationship between one city councilor and the collective local media. The first time I ran for mayor, the Worcester Telegram publisher and the lead editorial writer did everything they could to stop me from being elected. Even some of their reporters found their efforts so repugnant that they would concede, when they called to ask a question, that they thought the ensuing story was not fair but they were “told they had to call.”
But there were others in the media who were fair, some even kind, in their treatment of me and my candidacy. And once the election was over everything settled down, and the media was generally fair and reasonable.
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With the exception of local blog Turtleboy Sports, Mr. Gaffney seems to have just about everyone else looking for his scalp. While some of the critical comments are, in my opinion, fair and within the boundaries of reasonable journalism and commentary, some are not.
Commenting on the 2015 local elections, Worcester Telegram columnist Clive McFarlane wrote: “… Mr. Gaffney, who is openly dismissive of criminal justice reform advocates in this city and who seemed inclined to turn the public schools into armed encampments, is now the vice chairman of the City Council. And every time he swings that gavel in the people’s chamber, it will likely resonate among the city’s community of color with the sting of a slave master’s whip.”
The point Mr. McFarlane was trying to make was that Mr. Gaffney wanted more local police in the public schools. I am only guessing he felt the presence of police would disproportionately hurt minority students.
Reasonable people can disagree on the proper role of police in a public school setting. But Mr. McFarlane went way beyond what could be considered reasonable commentary. I cannot think of anything worse. In all my years in public office, that is one of the most outrageous things I have ever seen printed in a respectable newspaper.
More recently, Worcester Magazine reporter William Shaner went out of his way to try to link Mr. Gaffney to a white supremacist.
Shaner wrote: “Quoting a white supremacist is not the best look, especially after one of them rammed a car into a group of people, killing one and injuring 19.” Mr. Shaner went on to refer to an article Mr. Gaffney wrote in the Worcester Independent Leader. Mr. Gaffney used a famous quotation to make his point. “To learn who rules you, find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”
Mr. Shaner acknowledged that Gaffney, like most other people, thought this quote was from the French writer/philosopher Voltaire. Whether Voltaire actually made these comments is disputed. He pointed out that, in fact, the quote was more likely from a white supremacist named Kevin Alfred Strom, a despicable person who “denied the Holocaust, advocated for a Neo-Nazi party and pleaded guilty to child pornography possession charge.”
If most people think Voltaire made the remarks, why would the reporter go out of his way to try to link Gaffney to what would have clearly been an honest mistake? Perhaps the better question is this: If someone else made this mistake, someone like Sarai Rivera or Joe Petty, would the reporter have taken the time to point out the discrepancy?
I understand why Michael Gaffney is upset with the local media.
Of course, Gaffney supporters have screamed that his treatment by most local media has been unfair. And many people have taken sides both for and against Mr. Gaffney on the basis of the comments made by the media.
Interestingly, I have spoken to a number of people who do not necessarily support Gaffney, but who think the local media is being unfair to him. “This isn’t news,” said a local voter who has never voted for Gaffney. “I’m no Gaffney fan, but they are ganging up on him and that’s not right.”
The sources of concern
There appear to be two primary sources for the racially tinged complaints against Councilor Gaffney.
The first is Mr. Gaffney questioning a minority-run, local nonprofit agency, Mosaic Cultural Complex, which accepted grant money from the city. Mr. Gaffney said the agency had used its facilities for political purposes, including being involved in a Black Lives Matter protest at Kelley Square. The city conducted an audit of the agency and a serious management issue was found, including lack of proper documentation and reporting.
Second is Mr. Gaffney’s relationship with Turtleboy Sports. A number of local activists have accused the writers at Turtleboy, among other things, of being racist. They complain that by advertising his legal services on the blog, Mr. Gaffney is associating with racists and therefore is one himself.
Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Mr. Gaffney’s response to his media critics has been equally as volatile and over-reactive as the people he has disagreements with. He has personally attacked his media critics with a ferocity that we have never seen locally.
He has posted personal comments on Facebook and then, like a child watching the wind take his kite higher and higher, sat back and watched people on social media try to destroy his opponents. And when the wind comes out from under his kite, he blasts new air into social media to keep his kite flying.
In particular, his recent campaign to destroy the editor of Worcester Magazine has been disgraceful. I understand why he is angry, but his response put him right in the middle of the mud pile he was complaining about.
Mr. Gaffney released portions of online conversations the editor, Walter Bird Jr., had with a woman in 2015 saying the texts were part of a campaign of sexual harassment by the editor. Mr. Gaffney threatened to release other texts from two other women. As a result, the editor was suspended by Worcester Magazine and an investigation was conducted. The internal investigation found the exchanges to be consensual and the editor was allowed to return to work.
Instead of going to the appropriate authorities or encouraging the women who complained to him to do so, Mr. Gaffney held the damaging information for months and then released it as an attack when he felt he had been harmed – and in a way that would do the most personal damage to the editor.
Like I said, I think some of the comments made about Michael Gaffney have been unfair and beyond the bounds of responsible journalism. But his response has been equally inappropriate – perhaps more so.
Stop the personal attacks
How should Mr. Gaffney have responded? First, he should never have responded with personal attacks. But personal attacks seem to be his modus operandi.
And second, he should have relied on the good judgment of people watching and reading the news to decide what was, and was not, fair.
I remember in my first campaign for mayor, when I thought the Telegram had gone well beyond the boundaries of a respectable publication. Its attacks on me were vicious. Near the end of the campaign, I had gone through enough. I put together a scathing written response which we intended to distribute to every household in Worcester.
I called my campaign steering committee together and went around the room and asked each person, one-by-one, what they thought we should do. Every one of the 30 or so campaign supporters in the room was as angry as I was. They wanted to hit back and hit back hard.
When everyone was done venting their anger, I tore up the material I had prepared to respond. They were stunned. I explained that if everyone could clearly see that the Telegram had gone way beyond the line, so could all of the voters in Worcester. There was no need to respond. We would keep our hands by our sides and let the good voters do what they knew was right. Personally and politically, it turned out to be the right decision.
Just like our personal focus on President Trump takes away from our focus on the important issues facing our country, the media focusing on Michael Gaffney and calling him names only takes our eye off the ball – safer neighborhoods, cleaner streets and better schools.
Locally, we need to resist the personal attacks that have become so commonplace in our national politics. We need to stay focused on what matters.
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Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown and global issues that impact it every Sunday in Worcester Sun.