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Boston.com story mocking Boehner threat draws ire

A Boston.com story that made light of a threat against House Speaker John Boehner has drawn the ire of the Ohio congressman, prompting an apology from the website.

Posted online Tuesday night, the story suggested that Boehner has a drinking problem and asked whether anyone would have noticed if Boehner had been poisoned.

That comment was in reference to news that a former bartender at an Ohio country club where Boehner is a member has been arrested for allegedly threatening to kill the congressman.

“Stories about Boehner’s drinking have circulated for years,” wrote Victor Paul Alvarez, one of a handful of associate editors at Boston.com. Then, in a passage that has since been removed from the website, he continued, “Had he been poisoned as planned, perhaps his pickled liver could have filtered out the toxins.”

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Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, fired back in an e-mail Wednesday.

“I would have thought it would be obvious to any sentient human being that your item mocking the threats against the speaker and his family was completely insensitive and inappropriate,” Steel wrote. “Should you wish to offer an explanation, or – better – an apology, feel free to respond.”

While Boston.com is owned by Boston Globe Media Partners LLC, it operates independently from The Boston Globe and BostonGlobe.com, with separate editorial leadership.

Mike Sheehan, the chief executive of Boston Globe Media Partners LLC, said he spoke with Boehner’s office and sent a note of apology Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s very difficult to hit the epicenter of tasteless, mean-spirited, and humorless in one fell swoop,” Sheehan said in an interview.

In a statement released Wednesday, Boston.com general manager Corey Gottlieb said the Alvarez piece did not reflect the site’s values.

“The original column made references to Speaker Boehner that were off-color and completely inappropriate,” Gottlieb wrote. “We are sorry, and we will do better.”

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In an interview Wednesday, Gottlieb said Boston.com policy requires that every story be read by at least one top editor before publication.

The piece on Boehner was somehow posted without proper review, he said.

“Clearly we’re not following it,” Gottlieb said of the policy.

Gottlieb said the story was published amid the rush to post several items online, and at a time when Boston.com is searching for a new editor. Interim deputy editor Eleanor Cleverly is acting editor following the departure of Matt Gross late last year.

Sheehan said the search for a new Boston.com editor is “getting toward the end,” though he said he was not sure how much longer the search would take.

He agreed that the lack of a top editor could have contributed to the publication of the Alvarez piece.

Gottlieb said the way stories are presented on Boston.com makes it difficult to distinguish opinion pieces, like the one Alvarez wrote, from news items. But, he said, the story about Boehner was inappropriate regardless.

“There is a really fine line between tongue in cheek . . . and what’s unfair or hurtful,” Gottlieb said, but Alvarez’s story clearly crossed that line. He declined to say whether Alvarez would be disciplined.

This is not the first time Boston.com has gotten in trouble because of editorial decisions. In December, Boston.com deputy editor Hilary Sargent was suspended for creating T-shirts that supported a Chinese restaurant in its dispute with a Harvard Business School professor — a popular story Sargent had reported.

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Sargent also penned a follow-up story, hastily removed, about an unverified e-mail message containing a racial slur.

Gottlieb said he does not believe the incidents will erode the credibility of Boston.com. But they do point to the need for the site to strengthen and stabilize its editorial safeguards, he said.

“We need to be triple sure that we have multiple reads on everything,” Gottlieb said.

Sheehan said the incidents were “unsettling.” “It can’t continue to happen,” he said.

The Boehner story will be left online in the interest of transparency, Gottlieb said, but altered and appended with an editor’s note: “A previous version of this article made an unsubstantiated reference to the health of Speaker Boehner.”

A federal grand jury indicted Michael R. Hoyt of Cincinnati on a charge of threatening a government official. Last October, according to police, Hoyt told them he was going to kill Boehner, who he claimed was responsible for the spread of Ebola.

Hoyt allegedly said he planned to shoot Boehner and suggested he could poison one of his drinks, authorities said.


Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.