Jeff Jacoby's office at the Boston Globe is sandwiched between those of his more liberal colleagues Joan Vennochi (COM'75) and Derrick Jackson. You might think this geography discomforting to Jacoby, the editorial page's sole resident conservative, who over the years has compared Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's comments supporting legalized abortion to eugenics, opposed same-sex marriage, and denounced President Obama's health care program.
But the columnists get along fine, according to Jacoby (LAW'83), for whom the newspaper's economics, not relationships, are the toughest part after 17 years at the paper.
"We've gone through some pretty rough times at the Globe," he says. "A lot of people have left because of the financial pressures that the paper's been put under." (The New York Times, which owns the Globe, won pay cuts and other concessions in 2009 after threatening to close the paper, which has also seen its once-proud foreign bureaus shuttered and daily circulation collapse by more than half since 1998, to 232,432.) Then again, Jacoby spent two years in the '80s learning to develop a thick skin as an aide to John Silber (Hon.'95), then president of BU. Plus there's the joy of writing for a global audience since the advent of the internet. "I hear from people in New Zealand and South Africa," he marvels.
BU Today chatted with Jacoby, whose column the N.Y. Times syndicates, about his career, BU, and his Silber years.
BU Today: So they let you, the token conservative on the op-ed page, out without a minder?
Jacoby: The Globe is not quite the unthinkingly liberal institution it once was. Former editorial page editor H. D. S. Greenway, who hired me, kept the editorial page from lurching too far to the left. It was when he was editor that the Globe endorsed Republican Bill Weld over Democrat John Silber and opposed a graduated income tax when it was on the ballot.
To some extent, this is in the eyes of the beholder. There are times when I write columns that confuse my friends and confound my foes. I'm very much against the whole anti–illegal immigration furor. But that's an issue on which I think I've got the right conservative position. I wrote a column praising Barack Obama's speech about the shooting in Tucson.
It's been said that conservative rhetoric might have ginned up unhinged people to commit violence, such as last month's Tucson shooting, which wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six.
Anybody whose first thought is blaming Sarah Palin or making a political issue out of it—which is what Paul Krugman did, the New York Times did—has something wrong upstairs. That's not a healthy reaction. I thought it was disgraceful, all the more so now that we know there was absolutely no connection between the alleged shooter and politics. I'm a great believer in civility. I think people ought to speak like gentlemen and ladies. That applies right, left, and center. For years, I did an annual column on what I called hate speech from the left.
Are you comfortable discussing politics with your colleagues?
Early on, after virtually every column, I would be inundated with angry comments from colleagues in the newsroom: "You can't say that!" I guess over the past 17 years, either they've left or gotten used to me. I have an office between Joan Vennochi and Derrick Jackson, and the three of us are quite friendly. Both were at my older boy's bar mitzvah. I think it's good to be exposed to points of view that you don't agree with. One of my biggest laments about the news business is that for all the talk about "diversity," what it has ended up meaning, by and large, is people who look different but mostly think the same.
I don't buy the idea that newsrooms need more blacks or women or people of Serbo-Croatian ancestry. One of the things that make you a better journalist is not the color of your skin, but the experiences you bring with you, the outlook that you've got. Why in the newsroom are there virtually no people who are pro-life? How many evangelical Christians are working at the Boston Globe?
Do you have any sense of the number of people who read your columns?
I don't track that. Practically from my first day at the paper, I've been told by the letters editor that the Globe gets more letters to the editor about my column than about any of the others, sometimes more than the others combined.
Are there any topics that are so emotional, the possibility of being misunderstood or distorted so great, that you're hesitant to write about them?
The topics that draw the most response are anything gay-related, anything Muslim-related, anything Middle East–related. Rather than stay away from topics, I'm that much more careful to write exactly what I mean. The only issue I've never written about, because I'm of two minds on it, is drug legalization. My libertarian and traditionalist halves are at war with each other.
You graduated BU with the intention of becoming a lawyer. What happened?
I went to Ohio, where I'm from, and ended up joining a huge law firm. I was given assignments that dealt with suburban ordinances regarding backyard swimming pools or something. This was not what I envisioned myself weighing in on.
What was it like working for John Silber?
Smart people were attracted to work for Dr. Silber. It was good to work for them. It takes a certain personality to be good in that job, and I don't have that. I'm much more a solo operator. As everybody knows, he certainly has a volatile personality. But I took it as flattering that he was interested in having me come work for him.
Did the BU School of Law teach anything that has served you in your career?
Absolutely. I announced when I was six that I was going to be a judge. I ended up handing down opinions after all. The only difference is mine aren't legally enforceable. There are many times that I've written about law-related issues. It's helpful to have a legal background. A legal education spared me from being too superficial in understanding what it means to say that something is constitutional, a term that can be tossed around very casually.
Rich Barlow can be reached at email@example.com.