From what I’m told, Boston used to be a place where residents primarily had two interests—sports and politics. They loitered in dark barrooms, commiserated over Red Sox heartbreak, and when election cycles rolled around, they jousted viciously, debating over who should take the helm at City Hall and elsewhere. As legend has it, political discourse was once as neighborly as Bruins chatter, and as exciting to the public as any of the brutal gangland bloodbaths that made headlines in the ’70s. Oftentimes, gossip over pro sports, mob slayings and the state were even intertwined.
That’s no longer the case. As anecdotal evidence suggests, and as depressingly low voter turnout demonstrates, Bostonians care little about which officials make decisions that affect their lives. There are plenty of plausible factors fueling that trend, but none more obvious than the increasingly sad state of local television news. Even in the intellectual Graceland of Massachusetts, most people are instinctually apathetic about politics. When our anchors don’t remind us that elections are around the corner, a lot of us conveniently forget that we pay taxes and belong to a representative democracy.
In defending their lack of mayoral coverage, TV honchos would surely cite that many of their viewers live outside of city limits, and don’t give a damn about replacing Tom Menino. There’s also the trope that the election is too far off to focus on right now. Such excuses are ridiculous. As Boston is the economic hub of New England, its leadership should be of critical importance to anyone invested in the region. As for timing—the preliminary contest is just three months away, and voters still have more than a dozen candidates to meet. At this rate, only well-endowed contestants will have any chance of resonating through television news—with commercials in between segments about shootings and stabbings and celebrity infant sightings.
Reading generally, the Globe and the Herald have been on the case, covering mayoral happenings and even policy proposals. Responsible public outfits like BNN, NNN and WGBH have also stayed in tune, and will likely keep it up through November. As for NECN and the networks—flashes of attention have been paid to the race, but recently, they’ve offered little more than lazy riffs on various domestic scandals, superficial Supreme Court coverage and international news about Prince Philip’s safe return to Buckingham Palace after surgery. All that, plus uglier examples of wasted airtime, from gratuitous cooking segments and other nauseating “infotainment,” to those sickening Fox 25 Zip Trips.
Notably, local news producers have stayed true to the other historic Boston pastime—sports—and have diligently doted on the Bruins, in some cases going so far as to interview area dogs that are hockey fans, and to feature special game day weather reports despite there being a roof over the TD Garden. Considering this predictably excessive pandering, politics probably won’t fare much better after the Stanley Cup playoffs, since the Red Sox are first in their division, with the best record in the American League. During Menino’s reign, about 26 percent of registered voters turned out for citywide elections in years that the Sox made the post-season. When the team failed to advance, that number increased to nearly 40 percent.
Finally, there’s the Whitey Bulger trial, which also appears to be interfering with mayoral coverage. But with the gangster’s long-awaited courtroom drama dominating news, at least one candidate may benefit. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard the name “John Connolly” a lot on television. And though commentators were referring to the FBI agent turned Bulger crony who is now behind bars for racketeering, City Councilor-at-Large John Connolly should use the name recognition to his sweet advantage. In a state where a brother of the top mob boss served as Senate president, there’s no apparent liability in conflating crime and politics. Take it or leave it, but at this juncture, it’s just about the only on-screen acknowledgement there is.
Chris Faraone is a former Boston Phoenix reporter and author of “99 Nights with the 99 Percent” and the upcoming “I Killed Breitbart.” He lives in Jamaica Plain.