Off the Record

Under the blue electricity-saving lights of the two-story media tent at the Fleet Center, it’s nearly impossible to find any news. There are newspapers and news digests and news releases, but they pile up, unread and unreadable. Their material comes in two main varieties: There’s the stuff that everyone knows already happened: “A Ringing Call for Change,” “Clinton Sees Big Contrast With the G.O.P.” And there’s the stuff that everyone knows will happen: “Daschle Speech to Look Homeward,” “Teresa’s Test Tonight.”

News proper-the stuff that, yesterday, nobody knew would happen-is missing. It doesn’t belong, for the same reason that clocks don’t belong in casinos: It might break the spell.

There is no story to be had here in Boston. That is the hardship, without which life has no meaning. That is why the assembled thousands, in pressed trousers, are traipsing through the rat maze of fencing around the convention site, putting their laptops on the X-ray belt and emptying their pockets into trays. This is a tough job we do, buddy. This is a big deal.

We are going to sit here and watch John Kerry get nominated for President, precisely as expected, if it kills us. For that, North Station has been closed and the elevated trolley tracks trimmed with barbed wire. For that, traffic has choked to a halt throughout Greater Boston, leaving the streets … “half-empty and occasionally hushed”?

Come again? Nightmare gridlock was supposed to be part of the agenda, sure as the Creative Coalition party or the crowd-pleasing debut of Barack Obama. But according to the front page of The Boston Globe , the traffic jams “never happened”; in fact, getting out of the convention is as easy as hailing a cab and breezing down the wide-open Storrow Drive.

Learning that, though, would have meant actually getting out of the convention. “Nobody can really do it the way that we do it,” said Globe editor Martin Baron. Mr. Baron was sitting at one corner of the Globe ‘s media-center space Monday evening, after a day spent outside the convention bubble.

The modern political convention is a media event. That truism has so much force that it now works in reverse: The media event is a political convention. Where once a half-dozen factions of Democrats-wets, drys, silver-standard backers and the rest-would vie to control the nomination, now the battle for primacy is among the assembled media outlets. The question on the floor-or rather, in the curtained workspaces of the tent-is: Who matters?

Nobody has the answer yet. Advance hopes had been running high for the bloggers, but then everybody turned out to be blogging ( The Observer included). The new technology breeds speed and agility, but the convention itself is still a lumbering target. So if there’s nothing worth reacting to, who cares how fast you can react?

On the eve of the convention, The Globe didn’t look much like a winner. Its first act was a lavish-unto-horrifying convention-kickoff party, which reportedly cost a half-million dollars. The event, in Boston’s enormous new convention center, was notable less for featuring an indoor Ferris wheel than for being so overscaled that you could forget you were in the same room with a Ferris wheel.

After Little Richard and the shag-rug-floored tents had been cleared away, however, The Globe set about demonstrating the old-fashioned advantage it holds in the contest: It knows what it’s talking about. While The New York Times anchors its convention coverage with history essays and Ivy League reminiscences, The Globe has reporters in place who know their way around the actual town, not the figurative Hub orbited by cod, beans and 10,000 Harvard men.

And if the out-of-towners choose not to compete with the traffic reports, that still leaves the fact that The Globe is the presumptive nominee’s newspaper of record.

“The convention is a huge hometown story for us,” Washington bureau chief Peter Canellos said. “The convention is our biggest Boston story, and Kerry is our biggest national story.”

Thus, while other outlets were printing generic accounts of Mr. Kerry’s differences with Catholic Church dogma, Mr. Baron could point to his paper’s report that Mr. Kerry had declined to invite the archbishop of Boston to give the invocation at the convention, picking a liberal Paulist priest instead.

The exclusives don’t have to be big ones. Mr. Kerry’s surprise visit to Fenway Park on Sunday spawned dozens of identical front-section stories about its symbolic effect. The Globe , however, was also able to add an entry to its Red Sox Notebook: Mr. Kerry’s first words on entering the hometown clubhouse, the sports staff reported, were: “Where’s the men’s room in here?”

“We want to give insight into Kerry that perhaps other people don’t have,” Mr. Baron said-not specifically referring to the rest-room coverage.

The Globe has been scrutinizing Mr. Kerry’s life and career-often more closely than Mr. Kerry would have liked-for more than three decades. “I know there’s been tremendous agita over the years, back and forth,” said Globe columnist Alex Beam.

“Mostly back,” Mr. Beam added. Mr. Kerry, he explained, has been somewhat notorious for calling the paper to express his displeasure with stories through the years.

Last June, The Globe gave Mr. Kerry a chance to feel his displeasure all at once, as it rolled out a monumental seven-part profile of the then front-runner. Mr. Kerry’s war record, his ancestry and his financial past all yielded juicy, sometimes uncomfortable revelations.

The project, Mr. Baron said, “revealed information … even he didn’t know.” For one, Mr. Kerry had never known the extent to which he had haunted Richard Nixon and his cronies in his youth as an antiwar activist. (“A Kennedy-type guy,” H.R. Haldeman told Nixon in tape transcripts dug up by The Globe , “he looks like a Kennedy and he, he talks exactly like a Kennedy.”)

And then there was the minor matter of his ancestry: Mr. Kerry’s grandfather, Frederick A. Kerry, turned out to have been born Fritz Kohn, an Austrian Jew.

Mr. Kerry hadn’t been aware that his Kerry forebears were Jewish. But unlike The Globe , he had at least known they weren’t from County Kerry.

“We thought he was this Irish guy from Massachusetts,” said Nina Easton, deputy Washington bureau chief and one of the authors of the Kerry profile. And in a state where politicians flaunt Hibernian names on their lawn signs, Mr. Kerry had quietly allowed The Globe to perpetuate the mistake for years.

Mr. Baron said that Mr. Kerry denies any deceit, and added that The Globe doesn’t distrust the candidate. “In the Reagan spirit,” he said, “we wanted to verify.”

The full, verified package came out to more than 30,000 words. The paper considered turning its labors into a book. And then Mr. Kerry proceeded to tank in the polls.

“We thought-like everybody else-he really wasn’t going to succeed,” Mr. Baron said. Knowing Mr. Kerry as intimately as The Globe does, having seen his previous campaigns rally under the bleakest-looking circumstances, when did the paper realize that its work hadn’t been in vain after all? “When the publisher called us, actually,” Mr. Baron confessed. After Mr. Kerry’s win in Iowa, Public Affairs Reports rang up to remind The Globe of the potential book project; after he won New York, the deal was done.

The final result is the 448-page John F. Kerry , whose subtitle stands as a fair example of gauntlet-throwing: “The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best.”

Todd Purdum, who has been writing about Mr. Kerry for The New York Times , said the book is “intimidating to follow.”

“It’s especially daunting because they’re our sister paper,” Mr. Purdum said. “There is, I’m sure, a strong wish that we could hold up our own flag on this topic.”

Mr. Purdum said he’s hardly conceding the field to The Globe -“I don’t think they’ve written the last word by any means”-and Mr. Beam seconded the view that the Kerry story is “wide open.”

“What matters now is John Kerry going forward, and there we don’t have any advantage over The Los Angeles Times , New York Times or anybody,” Mr. Beam said.

Mr. Baron said that he hasn’t seen the competition catching up with The Globe on the subject of Mr. Kerry just yet. “There hasn’t been much [new] that’s come up about Kerry since that series was published,” he said.

If Mr. Kerry becomes President, The Globe ‘s familiarity with the candidate and his Massachusetts advisers could give the paper new leverage in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think we’re going to overtake The New York Times or The Washington Post in terms of national coverage,” Mr. Baron said. Instead, he continued, the paper could assume a role like that of “boutique investment banks”-beating its bigger, more powerful rivals in a narrow, Kerry-based area of expertise.

That suits The Globe ‘s status as a paper with national influence but without the power to set the national agenda. In 2000, the paper delivered two of the most notable stories of the Bush-Gore election. It wrote one of the earliest pieces to posit that Al Gore had trouble telling the truth-a notion that defined coverage of the candidate for the rest of the way. And it broke a meticulously reported story about how George W. Bush had apparently shirked his military duties during the Vietnam War-a story that the rest of the press greeted with silence.

As a regional paper, Mr. Baron said, The Globe still needs the rest of the press to listen to it: “Never underestimate the power of people in Washington to ignore what other people have to say.”

But as a regional paper, Mr. Baron noted with some relief, The Globe didn’t have any obligation to match its Kerry stories with seven-part series about Joe Lieberman or Richard Gephardt during the primaries. “We don’t have to worry about covering everything equally,” he said.

And for Democrats nonplused by Mr. Kerry’s emergence as the nominee, The Globe is the expert on being nonplused. In endorsing Mr. Kerry in the New Hampshire primary, The Globe offered an almost baffled-sounding concession that he was “the most presidential of the candidates.”

“You’re in a family, you say things about each other that are tougher than you’d say to somebody you don’t know,” Mr. Baron said. “Your image of the Presidency is different than your image of any one individual …. People naturally take a skeptical view of anyone when they know them that well.”

“The stakes used to be much lower,” Mr. Beam said. “He used to be so easy to make fun of. Now he might be the leader of the free world.” Off the Record