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It’s 1974 all over again: For the Globe, Trump’s angry words have consequences

Entrance to the lobby of the Globe’s former plant in Dorchester. Photo (cc) 2012 by Dan Kennedy.

Early Monday morning, a gunman fired one shot through the plate glass window of the plant’s lobby facing Morrissey boulevard, narrowly missing a security guard, and three more shots through the plate glass windows of the press room. No one was injured.

— The Boston Globe, Oct. 8, 1974

Angry words have consequences. Nearly 44 years ago, The Boston Globe came under attack because of white racism, fueled by anti-integration activists who were furious at the Globe’s sympathetic coverage of and editorial support for court-ordered desegregation.

In addition to the shots that were fired at the Globe on two separate occasions (possibly by the notorious killer James “Whitey” Bulger), the Globe was beset by a violent demonstration in front of the plant as well as vandalism. At one point, gun-wielding youths forced a driver out of a Globe delivery truck, whereupon they pushed it into Fort Point Channel. All of this is described in J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” (1985), possibly the greatest book ever written about Boston.

What brings this history to mind, obviously, is a death threat made against the Globe following the Globe’s campaign to persuade newspapers across the country to editorialize against President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. (Ultimately more than 400 papers joined in.) The suspect, a Trump supporter named Robert Chain, reportedly referred to the Globe as “the enemy of the people,” thus quoting his hero’s oft-tweeted characterization word for word.

Fortunately no one was hurt, just as the anonymous shooter or shooters in 1974 somehow didn’t injure or kill anyone. But Trump’s dangerous words add up to incitement to violence — not in the legal sense, perhaps, but certainly in the moral sense. Our president is a careless and evil man.

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Every bit as bad as Bulger

Yes, Whitey Bulger is evil scum. But the star witness against him, John Martorano, served only 12 years for murdering 20 people, one more than Bulger, according to the federal indictment.

Martorano’s victims include, by his own telling, at least two innocent teenagers. Martorano has also profited mightily from his homicidal career, splitting six-figure advances with a film company and with that paragon of virtue Howie Carr.

What is wrong with this picture?

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.

Masters of narrative journalism share their insights

Image (1) B_Kirtz.jpg for post 10773By Bill Kirtz

“Revel in hardship,” NPR’s Beirut-based correspondent Kelly McEvers told last weekend’s annual narrative journalism conference at Boston University. “Don’t despair if you have a scarcity of resources.”

Sneaking into danger zones where sources were too terrified to speak, the award-winning reporter has spent the past two years covering the Arab Spring uprisings, producing vivid stories with ambient sound, protective descriptions and a remote network of dissidents.

International photographer Alan Chin echoed her comments. He’s an editor at, a Kickstarter-funded collation of amateur and professional voices and video that focuses on undercovered human-rights stories. As traditional journalism faces financial crises, “we have to take chances…. We can’t just sit around” complaining about our problems, Chin said. “We have to absolutely be willing to fail.”

Newsmotion founder Julian Rubinstein, a prize-winning magazine and book author, hopes the site offers insight that deadline-driven traditional outlets often neglect.

And narrative journalism’s goal is insight, using fiction’s tools to create compelling scenes — with one huge distinction. Every detail must be as accurate and well documented as in the best investigative reporting. Mitch Zuckoff and Dick Lehr answer the perennial “How did the author know this?” question with 30 to 40 pages of endnotes verifying every detail.

The two, who won several reporting prizes at the Boston Globe and who now teach at Boston University with conference organizer and narrative journalism exemplar Mark Kramer, stressed that point with examples from their latest books.

For Zuckoff, the challenge is to tell an important story in the “richest possible way” — not “lecturing to people,” but drawing them into a complex history. In “Frozen in Time,” he weaves a World War II search-and-survival story into recent attempts to locate a long-missing rescue plane.

Lehr followed the traditional reporter’s dogged tactic of never abandoning the fight to get documents about mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. After years of trying, he found a “treasure trove” of prison files to use in his co-authored “Black Mass,” which chronicles the FBI’s corrupt ties to the fugitive killer.

Narrative journalism doesn’t take years’-long immersion in a story, noted Amy Ellis Nutt. Although she won a Pulitzer Prize ago for a 20-page Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger feature series, she said she’s now a big fan of “miniatures.”

Why? “We don’t live life in long narrative span, [so] short is natural,” she said. “You [can] just jump in the middle.”

To make her point, Nutt cited Ernest Hemingway’s ability to tell a dramatic tale in six words: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” One of her recent narratives, which starts by saying it was “too cold even for the seagulls,” delivers precise description in relatively few words.

Neil Shea, a BU lecturer and award-winning war reporter, has also turned to short-form narrative. He said that conventional coverage of such familiar topics as Afghanistan can become “background noise” for news consumers. So he’s doing regular 300- to 1,100-word vignettes of colorful dialogue and scenes without overwhelming readers with context.

Shea was one of several speakers who underscored the need to prune excess material ruthlessly.

“We have to be merciless self-editors,” he said. When considering using the first person, he said, ask yourself, “Do I really need to be in this story?”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Rosalind Bentley advises cutting anything, no matter how compelling, if it doesn’t support the story’s main thesis. She pored through the 500-page trial transcript after the poet Natasha Trethewey’s stepfather killed her mother to winnow out just this detail: “She died on the pavement.”

Any quote she uses “has to sparkle like the Hope diamond.” If it doesn’t, she’ll paraphrase.

“You can’t just wing it and start writing,” she said. “All your choices have to be deliberate.” So she wields multi-colored highlighters over pages of scrawled notes to boil down the essence of a story in one sentence, and then just one word.

In her definitive profile of Trethewey, the word was “self-definition.”

Why do narrative journalists keep plugging along in an age of economic uncertainty and audience fragmentation?

Author, magazine founder and University of California Berkeley journalism professor Adam Hochschild put it this way: “When you tell a story, it takes on a life of its own and sometimes it affects people.”

He said “Bury the Chains,” his 2005 account of how a few men started a movement to free the slaves in the British Empire, got good reviews, many awards and decent initial sales — then languished on remainder shelves for years.

But recently, Hochschild started getting speaking invitations from global-warming groups, who saw his 18th-century abolitionists as a model of how a few people could change how the world thinks about an issue.

His point: “A story can come bouncing back to you.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.

Shelley Murphy talks about her Whitey Bulger book


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.

The Globe, the tipster and the FBI (IV)

The FBI’s statement criticizing the Boston Globe for claiming the agency had acquiesced in the paper’s decision to name Whitey Bulger tipster Anna Bjornsdottir has breathed at least one day of new life into a story that seemed to be fading away. I’m not going to rehash everything, but here are a few observations for your consideration.

Dueling Michael Sullivans. When the Boston Herald first reported on Monday that the Globe may have endangered Bjornsdottir and harmed the FBI’s anonymous tipster program, it quoted former U.S. attorney Sullivan as saying, “They can’t guarantee her 100 percent safety going forward. It’s unnecessary publicity and unnecessary harassment.” Herald reporter Joe Dwinell uses that quote again in today’s follow-up.

Yet Sullivan appears to have had at least a partial change of heart, according to a story today by Denise Lavoie of the Associated Press. She writes:

Former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said he does not believe Bjornsdottir will face retaliation, citing testimony from several former Bulger loyalists who have cooperated with prosecutors in the past decade and not been harmed.

But Sullivan said he does worry the revelation could hurt the FBI’s ability to cultivate criminal informants and tipsters who report sightings in high-profile fugitive cases.

“For some folks who are informants or tipsters, the idea of anonymity is critical,” Sullivan said. “Some people just wouldn’t cooperate at all if they thought for a moment their identity is going to be revealed.”

I leave it to you to decide whether a news organization should be worried about reporting news that could harm the FBI’s internal operations, but that is clearly a far lower concern than Bjornsdottir’s safety.

And by the way, the Globe’s Travis Andersen covers the FBI statement here.

Dueling Herald columnists. Joe Fitzgerald today uses the FBI statement to go after the Globe big-time, calling the paper’s naming of Bjornsdottir “a chilling decision,” and writing: “Somewhere this morning, there’s a wannabe wiseguy hoping to move up, to ingratiate himself with the big boys, mulling the tipster’s whereabouts and thinking dark thoughts of career advancement.”

Yesterday, though, Peter Gelzinis, who spent years covering the Bulger saga while courageously continuing to live in Bulger’s South Boston neighborhood, was fairly dismissive of concerns about Bjornsdottir’s safety, writing: “If the Icelandic tipster had anything to fear after diming Whitey Bulger out to the FBI, then John Martorano and Kevin Weeks and Teresa Stanley, to name just a few, would already be dead.”

Gelzinis also makes the important point, as have others, that once law-enforcement officials revealed last June the tipster was from Iceland, it was only a matter of time before her name became known — a development that would suit the FBI’s purposes. Gelzinis wrote:

Having squandered their credibility for years in this city, the G-Men knew that unmasking the “phantom tipster” from Iceland would immediately remove the latest cloud of suspicion and skepticism hanging over the Boston office.

The FBI’s agenda. As guest columnist Juliette Kayyem, a terrorism expert, observes in today’s Globe, it was, in fact, federal authorities who outed Bjornsdottir last June, shortly after Bulger and Catherine Greig were arrested. The story that the tipster was from Iceland was first reported by David Boeri of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), another longtime veteran of the Bulger wars.

Bulger and Greig had befriended Bjornsdottir during their years in Santa Monica, Calif. Once they learned of the Icelandic connection, they instantly knew who the tipster was. Kayyem writes:

Of course, that fact alone — the neighbor from Iceland — makes the whole debate over revealing her name somewhat irrelevant. Bjornsdottir was effectively identified as soon as law enforcement sources described her that way to WBUR’s David Boeri. Did anyone think there were two? Bjornsdottir’s identification was part of a very compelling narrative, controlled and then revealed by sources in the law enforcement world, about how the mythic Bulger was finally captured.

I think it’s likely that some observers would have expressed outrage at the time if so many hadn’t been caught up in speculation that federal authorities were lying about the Iceland connection. It just seemed too perfectly weird given the FBI’s long history of criminal dealings with Bulger and his gang. Now it turns out that it was true — or at least partly true. It’s still hard to know.

Which is what Boston University journalism professor Fred Bayles gets at in an interview with the Herald’s Jessica Heslam today. Yesterday’s FBI statement says the Globe was wrong to interpret the agency’s silence as a sign that it did not believe Bjornsdottir’s safety would be endangered if she were named. Heslam writes:

[Bayles] said, “The FBI has been known to leak information when it suited them. The FBI has been known to manipulate the media in terms of its own investigations.” Bayles said he remains skeptical that the public will know the full scope of the Globe’s dealings with FBI agents in this matter. “It’s something that probably we’ll never get to the bottom of, as to whether or not the FBI did know about it and either said nothing or said ‘OK,’ and now they’re coming back to cover their asses.”

Will this story now begin to fade away, or is there more to come? Well, we haven’t heard from Bjornsdottir yet, so my guess is there’s still another shoe or two to drop.

The Globe, the tipster and the FBI (III)

Whitey Bulger

Boston Globe editors today explain why they decided to release the name of Anna Bjornsdottir, the former actress from Iceland who tipped off the FBI that Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig were living in Santa Monica, Calif. Sunday’s story, by Shelley Murphy and Maria Cramer, stands as the definitive look at Bulger and Greig’s life on the lam.

The comments from Globe editor Marty Baron and metro editor Jennifer Peter parallel those Murphy made yesterday on WFXT-TV (Channel 25): that the FBI raised no objection to Bjornsdottir’s being named; that Bulger surely knew her identity already; and that attaching a name and a face to the story was important given the FBI’s corrupt dealings with Bulger over the years. Those dealings led to widespread speculation that the Icelandic-tipster angle was just another ruse. Here’s Peter:

We were confident Whitey Bulger and Cathy Greig knew exactly who the tipster was. We asked people directly involved in the investigation if she would be in danger if we named her. No one told us she would be in danger at all.

Today’s story, by Peter Schworm, also quotes me as saying the Globe should have included this information in its original story on Sunday, and that the newsworthiness of the story trumps Bjornsdottir’s privacy concerns (Bjornsdottir declined to speak to the Globe, and her husband asked that she not be named). Let me explain.

Schworm and I were talking in the context of there being no safety threat. He asked me if I thought Bjornsdottir’s desire to keep her name out of the paper should be respected purely from a privacy point of view. I responded that as long as publishing her name wouldn’t place her life in any danger, then no. Newsworthiness should in most cases trump privacy concerns. She had come forward, contacted the FBI and accepted $2 million in taxpayer money.

If that sounds cold, journalists reading this knows how many stories would never see the light of day if they respected the wishes of family members who contact them. The idea is to treat people with dignity and respect, and not to make decisions that are gratuitously cruel — but to report the news. Given all that, I think the Globe made the right call.

The Boston Herald, which raised questions yesterday about the Globe’s decision to name Bjornsdottir, doubles down today with another front-page splash. This one quotes two congressmen, Stephen Lynch, D-Boston, and Dan Burton, R-Ind., as saying there ought to be an investigation into whether the FBI was complicit in Bjornsdottir’s name being released. But Murphy told Channel 25 yesterday that the Globe got the name from neighbors. Here’s her answer to the first question from anchor Kim Carrigan as to how the Globe learned Bjornsdottir’s name:

Really from going out to Santa Monica and interviewing neighbors. Word had come out shortly after Bulger’s arrest that the tip came from a woman in Iceland, and what we discovered in talking to neighbors is that there really was only one woman from Iceland who lived in that neighborhood and knew Bulger and Greig by name and could have called in that tip.

Another way of looking at this, though, is that the Icelandic connection was the real breakthrough, and that identifying Bjornsdottir was easy once it had been established that the tipster was an Icelandic neighbor of Bulger and Greig’s. Here is how the Globe reported it on June 25:

Also, a law enforcement official said yesterday that the tip that led authorities to Bulger came from a woman from Iceland who had crossed paths with the fugitives in Santa Monica. She was watching CNN when she spotted a story about a new FBI television ad campaign focusing on Greig and quickly called authorities.

On the same day, the Herald published this: “Meanwhile, media outlets reported yesterday that a woman in Iceland with ties to Santa Monica, Calif., was the tipster that reported seeing the couple.” (I can’t reconstruct the time line, but I assume the Herald refers to “yesterday” because the Globe published its story online the day before.)

Between June 25 and this week, the Herald published several articles and columns mocking the claim that the tipster was from Iceland, chalking it up to yet another instance of the FBI lying about the Bulger case. If folks at the Herald had considered the possibility that it was true (and I’ll admit that I thought it might be a lie), then they would have realized that someone in authority had indeed outed Bjornsdottir to the only person who might be interested in doing her harm.

In that respect, Lynch’s and Burton’s calls for an investigation into who leaked the Icelandic connection may be right on target. And the Herald’s outrage is three and a half months overdue.

The Globe, the tipster and the FBI (II)

How Whitey Bulger got caught:

Boston Globe reporter Shelley Murphy appeared on WFXT-TV (Channel 25) this morning to talk about her and Maria Cramer’s impressively detailed story about Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig’s life on the run. And it turns out that anchor Kim Carrigan asked her whether she had any concerns that the tipster who turned in Bulger and Greig, Anna Bjornsdottir, might be in danger as a result of the Globe’s having identified her. Here is Murphy’s response:

I can tell you that before we ran the story, we did speak to federal officials. We spoke to the U.S. attorney’s office, we called the FBI, we told them we were thinking of naming her, and it was never suggested to us that there was any issue of danger. And her husband, when he emailed us, said he was concerned about her privacy. So we would not have printed her name if we had been told that her life would be in danger. And I do want to note that there are a lot of witnesses cooperating against Bulger. They’re not in witness protection. There are a lot of people out there and have been for years who cooperated against him.

When I wrote my first item, I had hoped that the Globe would respond in tomorrow’s edition to the question of whether the FBI tried to talk the paper out of naming Bjornsdottir. (Actually, I still hope to see that.) I did not realize that Murphy had already answered the question. Since writing that item, I have learned that (1) Bulger and Greig almost certainly already knew Bjornsdottir’s identity and (2) the FBI had already been given a chance to make any objections known, and apparently chose not to.

The answers to my questions were already out there. That’s a failure of due diligence on my part. I will try to do better.

The Globe, the tipster and the FBI

Note: Please see this update.

The Boston Globe on Sunday published an exhaustive story about Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig’s life on the lam. The package of articles, by Shelley Murphy and Maria Cramer, reveals the identity of the tipster who led the FBI to Bulger and Greig’s apartment in Santa Monica: Anna Bjornsdottir, a former actress from Iceland. Bjornsdottir declined to talk to the Globe.

Today, the Boston Herald counters with a front-page splash claiming the Globe may have endangered Bjornsdottir and chilled future witnesses by revealing her identity. The story, by Joe Dwinell, quotes former U.S. attorney Michael Sullivan as saying, “They can’t guarantee her 100 percent safety going forward. It’s unnecessary publicity and unnecessary harassment.”

First, kudos to the Globe. The Bulger saga has already been over-covered for my taste, but Sunday’s package is truly definitive. But the Herald deserves some credit, too, for coming up with an unexplored angle. This morning’s question: Is there anything to the Herald story or not? At the moment, we have no way of knowing. (Although see the addendum below: Murphy points out in a Globe video that Bulger and Greig almost certainly knew already who had turned them in.)

It’s not clear from the Globe’s reporting how the paper learned of Bjornsdottir’s identity, though the friends and neighbors who were interviewed certainly could have supplied the name. The paper has this to say in a sidebar explaining the backstory: “The Globe relied on sources familiar with the circumstances of the tip as well as Bjornsdottir’s friends and people who knew her in Santa Monica to reconstruct her relationship with Bulger and Greig.” Was the sentence carefully crafted to avoid saying whether Bjornsdottir’s name was originally supplied by an FBI source? There’s no way of knowing.

More to the point, the Globe does not say whether the FBI asked that Bjornsdottir’s identity be protected. If it had, and if the Globe decided to publish her name anyway, I would like to think that the editors would at least explain their reasons. Not that the FBI’s wishes should necessarily be the deciding factor.

The Herald, for its part, quotes no one in a position of authority. In addition to Sullivan, Dwinell offers up former federal prosecutor Michael Kendall and Jamarhl Crawford, described only as a “Roxbury community activist.”

The FBI is notoriously close-mouthed about its operations, and Dwinell writes that he was unable to get the agency to comment. FBI officials ought to reconsider, given that its every move in the Bulger case is suspect for obvious reasons. The Globe should be prepared to tell us more as well.

More: Commenter Ally Manning points to a video in which Shelley Murphy talks about the decision to reveal Bjornsdottir’s name. She says that “a lot of thought went into whether or not we would name her,” and points out that Bulger and Greig almost certainly already knew who the tipster was: it had been reported some time ago that the tip came from Iceland, and they knew they had befriended Bjornsdottir.

Murphy notes that there had been a lot of speculation over whether the Icelandic connection was real or an FBI fiction, and says naming Bjornsdottir was an important part of getting the truth out: “If we were to write a story and say, ‘We know who it is but we can’t tell you, we’re keeping her name secret,’ that that would cause more — it would just fuel this conspiracy theory that’s already out there.”

Murphy is absolutely right that Bulger and Greig had to have known who turned them in, and I’m smacking my forehead for not thinking of that myself. But neither she nor Maria Cramer addresses what (if any) dealings the Globe had with the FBI and whether the agency tried to talk them out of naming Bjornsdottir. I still think that’s an unexplored question that’s worth answering.

Four smart people, two debates

In today’s Boston Globe, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and Globe columnist Scot Lehigh take on the issue of former Massachusetts Senate president Bill Bulger’s conduct with regard to his brother Whitey Bulger, the notorious mobster who’s been charged in connection with the killings of 19 people.

Silverglate argues that Bill Bulger, also a former president of UMass, was under no obligation to help authorities capture his brother, and that the testimonial privilege granted to spouses should be extended to other family relationships as well. Lehigh counters, “Faced with a moral dilemma, William repeatedly made the wrong choice, putting loyalty to his felonious brother over responsibility to his neighborhood, his constituents, or the larger public community whose university he led.” (Note: Silverglate and I collaborate occasionally, and the latest example will be online later today.)

On an entirely different matter, Slate media columnist Jack Shafer assesses Patch, AOL’s network of hyperlocal sites, and finds them lacking. “Besides being wildly expensive to create, hyperlocal news doesn’t seem to appeal to a broad audience,” Shafer writes.

That prompts a response from Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, an independent hyperlocal site in western New York. (Owens posts two comments; read the second one first.) Here’s an excerpt:

As my friend and fellow indie publisher notes, it’s only expensive if you have a big corporate structure to support and shareholder demands to meet. There are a handful of successful local online ventures that produce a ton of highly engaging, sought after, popular, memorable local news that do it at a fraction of the cost of the corporate entities.

I posted a brief comment as well, contending that Shafer’s complaint seems to be more about his lack of interest in community news than about anything intrinsic to Patch.

Instant update: Paul Bass, editor and founder of the New Haven Independent, just weighed in. And if you scroll way down, you’ll see a brief comment from another Media Nation favorite, Debbie Galant, co-founder and co-editor of Baristanet in Montclair, N.J.

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