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The Importance of Politics Ignored

Michael J. Ring

If you had just landed from Mars last week and happened to stumble upon one of Boston’s daily newspapers or a local television newscast, you couldn’t be blamed for believing MIT was falling apart at the seams.

The accidental explosion related to the promotion of Phi Kappa Sigma’s Skuffle party dominated local news headlines for two days. On Tuesday, media vultures descended on campus anxious to pick at whatever bones they could find. On Wednesday, PKS’s eviction from their Beacon Street house dominated the p.m. news cycle.

Just as the fervor over the PKS incident subsided on Thursday, the revocation of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s dormitory license at 484 Beacon Street threw another bone to the ravenous media.

As the ink and camera lights are focused on these fraternities, the local media -- particularly the television news outlets -- have ignored far more important matters to local residents: politics.

Boston and Cambridge have reached important political and economic crossroads. Residents are enjoying full employment and safe streets. But housing prices continue to soar, development pressures continue, and in some ways these cities are becoming victimized by their own successes. Several important political stories are currently unfolding on the state and regional level as well. These features demand and deserve attention in the local media, but they’ve largely been pushed off page one of the paper and past the first commercial break on the TV news by the recent events at MIT -- events which are quite trivial in comparison.

For those of you that missed them, here are some major political stories. Read and judge for yourself whether MIT fraternity hijinks deserve more attention than these issues.

Today is Election Day in several cities across Massachusetts, including the cities of Boston and Cambridge. The decisions to be made by the voters in the latter two cities are especially pivotal to local political progress in the next decade.

A gaggle of new development proposals threatens to alter the face of the city of Boston. New skyscrapers in the Back Bay, Chinatown, and the South Station area would, if built, alter the city’s landscape. Meanwhile, a convention center of leviathan proportions, especially considering its South Boston surroundings, was unveiled last week. All of these projects would create hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs. But they would also attract traffic and congestion, and many worry these projects would negatively alter the city’s aesthetics.

District 8 (Back Bay-Beacon Hill-Fenway) -- the location of the two fraternities evicted last week -- is targeted for much of the new development. Two especially large projects stand out from the other proposals. Millennium Partners proposes a mixed commercial complex over the Massachusetts Turnpike across for Tower Records -- a project to be capped by a 49-story tower most Back Bay residents feel is inappropriate for their neighborhood. And The Boston Red Sox are seeking to build a new Fenway Park -- a topic producing much emotion and consternation among baseball fans and neighborhood residents alike.

Several spirited City Council races in Boston, stories which should have dominated the local media over the past week, were instead buried. In the at-large race, young challenger Michael Flaherty threatens to dethrone the aging, acerbic incumbent Albert “Dapper” O’Neil. In District 7 (Roxbury-South End), candidates Chuck Turner and Tracy Litthcut are locked in a lively contest over political progress in Boston’s minority community. And in District 8, political scion Suzanne Iannella and young, aggressive Michael Ross are battling to represent a neighborhood in the crosshairs of developers.

On this side of the river, the issues are less concrete: there is nothing of the scale of Millennium or Fenway Park to rile the denizens of Cambridge. But many of the themes of Cambridge’s City Council campaign are the same as those of Boston’s. Development pressures, the lack of affordable housing, and the search for policies to keep Cambridge affordable for working-class residents top this city’s issues.

The political drama is delicious as well. With veteran councillors Francis Duehay and Shiela Russell retiring, Cambridge is guaranteed at least two new councillors. The question on this campus, of course, is whether Erik C. Snowberg ’99 can reverse the traditional student apathy and win a council seat. But Cambridge’s proportional representation system guarantees us other twists as well.

Are Ken Reeves and Henrietta Davis, scared by weak showings in 1997, in danger from progressive challengers like Jim Braude and Marjorie Decker? Will Sonny Peixoto’s aggressive campaigning in East Cambridge hurt Tim Toomey? The quality of life for 95,000 Cantabrigians hangs in the balance to the answer of these questions. Certainly they deserve more attention than the ongoing fraternity saga.

The Fiscal Year 2000 budget for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now four months overdue. The operations for this state of six million have continued through a series of monthly budgets. But only with passage of the new budget will come new social services, tax credits, and other programs needed desperately by some of Massachusetts’ citizens.

Instead of turning the cameras on MIT students and attempting to inflame the student body, the media should turn the lights instead on House Speaker Thomas Finneran and Senate President Thomas Birmingham and ask them why the budget is 120 days overdue. The absence of a budget undercuts the financial stability of Massachusetts, and the inability of the Legislature to produce a timely budget for its electorate of six million is more reckless than anything SAE or PKS ever did.

The state of Rhode Island has also witnessed a sad but important political story this week. Its senior senator, John Chafee, died last week at the age of 77. A moderate Republican with 23 years of service, Chafee was respected on both sides of the aisle. He had considerable clout and could produce results for Rhode Island. That state will surely miss his commitment and dedication, and his passing deserves more notice.

Chafee’s death also deserves more reporting from the media as well because his passage could have potentially devastating consequences for environmental legislation. As a Rockerfeller Republican, Chafee supported strong environmental legislation, and as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, he single-handedly killed many anti-environment bills advanced by the rabid right of his party. His probable successors, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe or New Hampshire Republican-turned-Independent (turned Republican?) Robert Smith, have horrible environmental records. The media have largely missed their responsibility to assess the impact of the change in leadership at Environment and Public Works.

There are plenty of people around this campus who would like the media to ignore these incidents. That suggestion is absurd. SAE does have a pattern of reckless behavior; the actions of PKS members were dangerous. These stories do deserve to be reported, and each group -- particularly SAE with an undeniable historical record of these incidents -- deserves to be criticized in the media.

These incidents should not, however, eclipse the ongoing political battles and controversies so important to all of us. In a few months most of us will have forgotten about the events of the past week, but the new City Councils of Boston and Cambridge will still be dealing with soaring rents and increasing development pressures. Politics is one story which shapes all our lives. The local media should stop the excess harassment of MIT students and living groups and start reporting stories which matter to all of us.