Lawyers for Jack Dunn and ‘Spotlight’ engage in war of words

The dispute between Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn and the makers of “Spotlight” is escalating. “Spotlight,” as you no doubt know, is a movie about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the pedophile-priest scandal in the Catholic Church.

For the past few days, starting with a Kevin Cullen column in Sunday’s Globe, Dunn has been making media appearances claiming that he was falsely portrayed in the movie as uncaring toward victims at BC High School. The filmmakers have pushed back hard, arguing that the depiction of Dunn is accurate and that it was vetted by Globe reporters Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer.

According to an exchange of letters that I obtained this evening, Dunn’s lawyers are accusing the filmmakers of portraying Dunn in a way that is “defamatory” as well as “false, malicious and fabricated.” The letter on behalf of Dunn, addressed primarily to screenwriters Tom McCarthy and Joshua Singer (McCarthy is also the director), says in part:

In general, the film, in dramatic fashion, divides the individuals it depicts into those who heroically searched for the truth about the horrific sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy and those who sought to suppress facts about the abuse. In a critical scene in the film, which is nearly entirely fabricated, Spotlight squarely and falsely places Mr. Dunn in the category of those who actively attempted to interfere with and thwart the efforts of the Boston Globe reporters to unearth and report on the abuse scandal.

In their answer, the filmmakers’ lawyers “respectfully, but vigorously, disagree with your allegation that the film defames Mr. Dunn.” Here’s a key excerpt:

Most importantly, the film’s portrayal of Mr. Dunn is substantially true. It is based on the recollections of Walter Robinson and was vetted by him and Sacha Pfeiffer. Mr. Dunn’s overarching concern for Boston College High School (and Boston College) is reflected in contemporaneous and later media accounts. Indeed, there is no evidence that Mr. Dunn was an outspoken advocate for transparency or accountability before the Boston Globe broke the story, or that he came forward on his own to initiate an investigation into abuse at BC High before the Globe’s coverage forced the school to act.

I am posting these rather lengthy documents in the interest of putting them before the public in advance of what could be a significant legal battle.

Click here (pdf) for the full letter (with exhibits) from Dunn’s lawyers, David H. Rich and Howard M. Cooper of the Boston firm Todd & Weld.

Click here (pdf) for the full letter (also with exhibits) from the filmmakers’ lawyer, Alonzo Wickers IV of the Los Angeles firm Davis Wright Tremaine. No, I do not know why parts of it have been highlighted in yellow.

For background and some relevant links, see my commentary for WGBHNews.org, which has been updated with a statement from the filmmakers.

Update: The Globe has now published an article on the dispute.

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Some reflections on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s apology

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

It’s impossible to live in the Boston area and not have an opinion about Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s apology, which he delivered in federal court Wednesday as he was formally sentenced to death. For what it’s worth, here’s mine.

I think he was sincere — up to a point. I’m sure he sincerely wishes he didn’t find himself in this predicament, and he would have to be inhuman not to be affected by the victims’ stories that he heard during his trial. He is not inhuman, though he committed inhuman acts.

More than anything, though, I was struck by his aggrandizement and narcissism. He very much wants to impress us with his religious piety. Genuine humility and remorse? Not at the top of his agenda. I’ve heard a number of people say he apologized only because his lawyers pushed him into it. That may be true, but they couldn’t have been very happy with his smug self-regard — or with his thanks to them and others for making his life behind bars so “very easy.”

I was also struck by Kevin Cullen’s observation in The Boston Globe that Tsarnaev spoke with “an affected accent,” which suggests that he remains deeply under the influence of the jihadist propaganda on which he and his brother, Tamerlan, gorged themselves before carrying out their unspeakably evil mission. (And for the umpteenth time: Why couldn’t we see and hear Tsarnaev for ourselves?)

In the years to come, I hope Tsarnaev comes to a more genuine sense of repentance. And though it’s only natural that we focus on what motivated Tsarnaev to act as he did, we should never forget that the people who truly matter are Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier, as well as their friends, families and those who were injured.

Where Boston’s papers stand on death for Tsarnaev

The Boston Globe today offers some powerful arguments against executing convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Metro columnists Kevin Cullen and Yvonne Abraham weigh in, as do the paper’s editorial page, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and retired federal judge Nancy Gertner. (Columnist Jeff Jacoby has previously written in favor of death for Tsarnaev.)

Over at the Boston Herald, the message is mixed. In favor of the death penalty are columnist Adriana Cohen and editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen. The lead editorial calls for the death penalty as well. Columnist Joe Fitzgerald is against capital punishment for Tsarnaev. Former mayor Ray Flynn offers a maybe, writing that he’s against the death penalty but would respect the wishes of the victims’ families.

Globe wins Pulitzer for ‘story none of us wanted to cover’

Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement.
Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement. (Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.)

This article was published earlier at WGBH News.

Within moments of the announcement that The Boston Globe had won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, Martine Powers tweeted from the newsroom. “This was a story none of us wanted to cover,” she quoted editor Brian McGrory as saying. The staff, she said, then observed a moment of silence at McGrory’s request for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The Globe easily could have won two or three Pulitzers for its coverage of the bombings and their aftermath. The breaking-news award, of course, was well-deserved, and frankly it was unimaginable that it would go to anyone else. But the paper also had worthy marathon-related finalists in Breaking News Photography (John Tlumacki and David L. Ryan) as well as Commentary (Kevin Cullen, who emerged as the voice and conscience of the city after the attack).

McGrory’s classy response to winning underscores the sad reality that the Globe’s excellent coverage was driven by a terrible tragedy — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. (The Globe was also a finalist in Editorial Writing, as Dante Ramos was honored for a non-marathon-related topic: improving the city’s night life.)

The Pulitzer also caps what has been a remarkable year for the Globe. On Marathon Monday 2013, McGrory was relatively untested as editor and the paper’s prospects were uncertain, as the New York Times Co. was trying to unload it for the second time in four years.

The Globe’s marathon coverage — widely praised long before today’s Pulitzers were announced — have defined McGrory’s brief term as editor as surely as the paper’s pedophile-priest coverage (which earned a Pulitzer for Public Service) defined Marty Baron’s. Moreover, the Globe now has a local, deep-pockets owner in John Henry who’s willing to invest in journalism.

But the focus should be on Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier, as well as their families and all the other survivors. Good for McGrory for reminding everyone of that.

A couple of other Pulitzer notes:

• A lot of observers were waiting to see whether the judges would honor the stories based on the Edward Snowden leaks. They did, as the Pulitzer for Public Service went to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, then affiliated with The Guardian and now with the start-up First Look Media, as well as Barton Gellman of the Post, were the recipients of the Snowden leaks, which revealed a vast U.S. spying apparatus keeping track of ordinary citizens and world leaders both in the United States and abroad.

The choice is bound to be controversial in some circles. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has already called the award “a disgrace.” But it was the ultimate example of journalism speaking truth to power, and thus was a worthy choice.

• The oddest move was the Pulitzer judges’ decision not to award a prize in Feature Writing. I thought it might go to the New York Times’ series “Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life,” or possibly to the Globe’s “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev.” (I should note that neither of those stories was listed as a finalist.)

The Pulitzer process can be mysterious. But it would be interesting to see if someone can pry some information out of the judges to find out why they believed there wasn’t a single feature story in 2013 worthy of journalism’s highest honor.

Whitey Bulger plays unfavorites in the press

James_Whitey_Bulger_capturedA few days ago we learned that Whitey Bulger had named Boston Globe reporter Shelley Murphy, Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr and former Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill as possible witnesses in his federal trial.

Today we learn the likely reason: the five, all of whom have written books about Bulger’s murderous ways, might be barred from attending the trial if Judge Denise Casper rules that potential witnesses must be kept out of the courtroom.

Murphy writes that her paper has asked Casper to allow her and Cullen to attend the trial on the grounds that they are the Globe’s leading experts on the Bulger case, having covered it since the 1980s. She reports that prosecutors have called Bulger’s witness list a ploy to keep out certain media and non-media witnesses.

In the Herald, Laurel Sweet quotes Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly as saying, “It’s not a real witness list. He’s just putting names on there in order to keep them out of the courtroom.”

Let’s hope Judge Casper refuses to go along with this travesty.

Two more for your must-read list

Eric Moskowitz’s Boston Globe interview with the Tsarnaev brothers’ carjacking victim is just astonishing — detailed, full of suspense (even though we know the outcome) and tautly written. And the Globe’s Kevin Cullen continues to show why he has emerged as the voice of the city following the Boston Marathon bombings.

Shelley Murphy talks about her Whitey Bulger book

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Update: This, by Northeastern’s Matt Collette, is much better than my tweets.

Shelley Murphy has been chasing the notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger since she was a young reporter at the Boston Herald. Now a Boston Globe reporter, she and Globe columnist Kevin Cullen are the authors of a new book, “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice” (Norton).

Murphy, who graduated from Northeastern one year after I did (I won’t say when), spoke on campus today before a packed room in Snell Library. She shared some great stories — some funny, some harrowing. I live-tweeted the event, and offer some of what she said below.

Poynter analyst hails Globe’s prospects

Rick Edmonds

Earlier this month, before the New York Times Co. announced it was putting The Boston Globe up for sale for the second time in four years, Poynter Institute business analyst Rick Edmonds sat down with Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab for the lab’s weekly podcast, “Press Publish.”

Toward the end of their nearly hour-long conversation, Benton asked Edmonds which newspapers he thought had the brightest prospects over the next few years. Edmonds responded that he could think of four major metros that were getting it right: the Globe, the Seattle Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Tampa Bay Times — formerly and still better known as the St. Petersburg Times.

(It should be noted that Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times, although I think anyone would point to that paper as one model for how to do it right.)

What Edmonds meant: the four papers had done a better job than most of maintaining the quality and depth of their journalism while at the same time achieving some measure of success financially. Earlier in the podcast, Edmonds voiced his enthusiasm for flexible online paywalls such as the Globe’s (now becoming less flexible).

As another prominent newspaper analyst, Ken Doctor, observes, a lot of newspapers are likely to be sold in the months ahead. The business has recovered slightly since the depths of 2009 and prices are low. Of course, prices are low because the long-term prospects for newspapers remain grim. Still, there are no doubt a number of prospective owners who have enough money and ego to think that they will be the great exception.

Seen in that light, the Globe is a prime property that can be acquired for an attractive price. “The Globe isn’t going anywhere,” Globe columnist Kevin Cullen writes. “It’s changing owners.”

The Swartz suicide and the sick culture of the Justice Dept.

Harvey headshotRepublished by permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where this article first appeared. Thanks to my friend Harvey for making this available to readers of Media Nation.

By Harvey A. Silverglate

Some lawyers are joking when they refer to the Moakley Courthouse as “the House of Pain.” I’m not.

The ill-considered prosecution leading to the suicide of computer prodigy Aaron Swartz is the most recent in a long line of abusive prosecutions coming out of the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, representing a disastrous culture shift. It sadly reflects what’s happened to the federal criminal courts, not only in Massachusetts but across the country.

It’s difficult for lawyers to step back and view the larger picture of the unflattering system from which we derive our status and our living. But we have an ethical obligation to criticize the legal system when warranted.

Who else, after all, knows as much about where the proverbial bodies are buried and is in as good a position to tell truth to power as members of the independent bar?

Yet the palpable injustices flowing regularly out of the federal criminal courts have by and large escaped the critical scrutiny of the lawyers who are in the best position to say something. And judges tend not to recognize what to outsiders are serious flaws, because the system touts itself as the best and fairest in the world.

Since the mid-1980s, a proliferation of vague and overlapping federal criminal statutes has given federal prosecutors the ability to indict, and convict, virtually anyone unfortunate enough to come within their sights. And sentencing guidelines confer yet additional power on prosecutors, who have the discretion to pick and choose from statutes covering the same behavior.

This dangerous state of affairs has resulted in countless miscarriages of justice, many of which aren’t recognized as such until long after unfairly incarcerated defendants have served “boxcar-length” sentences.

Aaron Swartz was a victim of this system run amok. He was indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.

As Harvard Law School Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig has written for The Atlantic: “For 25 years, the CFAA has given federal prosecutors almost unbridled discretion to bully practically anyone using a computer network in ways the government doesn’t like.”

Swartz believed that information on the Internet should be free to the extent possible. He entered the site operated by JSTOR, a repository of millions of pages of academic articles available for sale, and downloaded a huge cache. He did not sell any, and while it remains unclear exactly how or even if he intended to make his “information should be free” point, no one who knew Swartz, not even the government, thought he was in it to make money.

Therefore, JSTOR insisted that criminal charges not be brought.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz obscured that point when announcing the indictment. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, whether you take documents, data or dollars, and whether its to feed your children or for buying a new car” she said, failing to recognize the most basic fact: that Swartz neither deprived the owners of the articles of their property nor made a penny from his caper. Continue reading “The Swartz suicide and the sick culture of the Justice Dept.”

The Globe turns up the heat on Carmen Ortiz

Given The Boston Globe’s past favorable coverage of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, I’m heartened to see how aggressively the paper is covering her conduct in the investigation of the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 9.50.45 AMToday the Globe fronts a story by Shelley Murphy about some repulsive tweets posted by Ortiz’s husband, IBM executive Thomas Dolan, in which he defended his wife and lashed out against Swartz’s grieving parents. Dolan’s Twitter feed has since disappeared, but BuzzFeed posted what I can only hope is the worst of them Tuesday.

Murphy’s story follows an angry piece by Globe columnist Kevin Cullen on Tuesday. Cullen wrote:

The argument about whether prosecutors should have been insisting that Swartz, who had written openly and movingly about his struggle with depression, serve at least six months in prison is not an academic question. It is a question about proportionality and humanity, and on both fronts the office of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and the prosecutors who handled this case, Steve Heymann and Scott Garland, failed miserably.

For too long Ortiz has led a charmed existence, using and abusing the power of her office in order to burnish her law-and-order credentials. In 2011 The Boston Globe Magazine went so far as to name her its “Bostonian of the Year.”

Ortiz is not to blame for the suicide of a young man who had long struggled with depression. Nevertheless, her insistence that he serve prison time was absurd given the nature of his offense. Now we’ve lost a brilliant, creative thinker whose greatest contributions were yet to come.

Correction: Updated to fix Thomas Dolan’s name.