Boston Globe falls for "fake but accurate" memo

Several years ago, the New York Times bought the Boston Globe. And every now and then, we get a reminder of the results of that ownership. Today is one of those days.

A few weeks ago, when the absolutely abysmal construction of Boston’s Big Dig became too bad to ignore when the tunnel finally killed a motorist, both Boston papers unearthed old memos dating from years ago that showed there were concerns about the very problem that led to the ceiling panel collapse. The Boston Herald’s memo was from 2000, but the Globe stole a beat on them and obtained one from 1999.

However, officials at Modern Continental (the company that did the work discussed in the memos, and who allegedly produced said memos) had a few problems with the Globe’s memo. No one could remember ever seeing it. More importantly, there were just a few niggling problems with the memo itself. Among the unusual characteristics were the following:

  • The letterhead was not the form in use at the time;
  • The author was not assigned to that aspect of the Big Dig until two weeks after the date on the memo;
  • The author referred to supplies “left exposed to the elements” after delivery two months before they were delivered;
  • The author refers to water dripping out of holes drilled three weeks after the date on the memo.

The response of the two newspapers is also very predictable; the Herald is almost giddy, while the Globe is slowly backpedaling and only gives the evidence that they got snookered, without actually admitting it. They’re also laying groundwork to hang the alleged fraud on the author of the memo in question, who authenticated it for them.

It reminds me very much of the Texas Air National Guard memos that fooled CBS and the New York Times. In both cases, the documents had very strong contextual problems that strongly indicated they were bogus, but the crux of the matter so eagerly fulfilled the media’s need for them (in this case, the Globe’s desire to outdo the Boston Herald on a story of national importance in their own back yard) that they took it and ran with it without making damned sure they were correct.

This once again proves the value of having a two-newspaper town; it’s along the same lines as the theory that “it takes two thieves to make an honest bargain.”

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  1. epador August 3, 2006
  2. Candy August 3, 2006
  3. Teach August 3, 2006
  4. Dodo David August 3, 2006