Tag Archives: Boston

Journalism in the movies (Whitey Bulger edition)

By Christopher B. Daly 

A tip of the old scally cap to Dick Lehr — my colleague at Boston University and an old friend. He has a front-page piece today in his old employer, The Boston Globe, about his experiences visiting the film sets for the shooting of the feature film being made based on his book Black Mass. That excellent book, which Dick co-wrote with his former Globe colleague Gerry O’Neill, is the basis for a film being made with Johnny Depp, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Saarsgard, and Julianne Nicholson (who should not need any Boston-accent coaching, since she is a native of my hometown — nearby Medford, which was a stronghold of the Italian mafia that Whitey helped to bring down.) Personally, I am looking forward to the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother, Billy — the former state Senate president, whom I covered from 1983-1989. 

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Director Scott Cooper (l.) and writer Dick Lehr confer.

Dick told me yesterday that he has been spending a fair amount of time on the set, consulting about details for director Scott Cooper. The Globe says Dick will also have a cameo role in the film.

 

 

 

 

In his piece today, Dick struggles to describe his feelings as an author seeing specifics from his own reporting rendered into scenes and dialogue. Most compelling is the performance of Johnny Depp, who has occupied the role of the gangster and murderer Whitey Bulger. According to Lehr:

Whitey is fully in command, cold and calculating. In a close-up, there’s that terrifying look in his eyes. When the director yells, “Cut,’’ the filmmaking spell may be broken, but everyone viewing in the video tent stays quiet, still mesmerized, as a big chill lingers from the scene just finished a few yards away.

He compares his own experience as a journalist/writer to the reaction recorded by Truman Capote on the set of the filming of the movie “In Cold Blood,” based on his true-crime story. In Dick’s version:

Truman Capote once wrote an essay about visiting the set during the 1967 filming of his book “In Cold Blood,” and I wish I could compose lines as artful as his to describe the experience of seeing an actor who has brought an antagonist you know to life.

“I thought a ghost had sauntered in out of the sunshine,’’ he wrote about seeing Robert Blake for the first time portraying the killer Perry Smith. Capote said he had trouble processing the “mesmerizing reality’’ of the actor cast as Perry, because he was Perry, and that’s how it was with Johnny: He was Whitey. It was disorienting, “like a free fall down an elevator shaft,’’ as Capote put it. “The familiar eyes, placed in a familiar face, examining me with the detachment of a stranger.”

Perfect_storm_posterAll of which brings to mind the larger trend of works of journalism in the hands of filmmakers — either Hollywood feature 200px-Guadalcanal_Diary_1943_posterfilm directors or documentarians. Over the decades, plenty of true stories have been told first by journalists and then by filmmakers. From Guadalcanal Diary (book by Richard Tregaskis, film by Lewis Seiler) to The Perfect Storm (book by Sebastian Junger, film by Wolfgang Petersen) and on to the current filming of Black Mass, it has been a long and productive alliance.

 

What are your favorite examples of works of journalism providing the basis for films? Let’s get a list going.

 

 

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Death penalty for Marathon bomber: A reluctant “NO”

By Christopher B. Daly 

[Update, 2.4.14: A new study shows a surge in exonerations.]

I was opposed to the death penalty last April 14, the day before two immigrant brothers allegedly set off two homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, causing death, grievous wounds, maiming,and mayhem. It was a despicable act, and it made me furious (not terrified, by the way).

In the heat of the moment, I wanted to find the perpetrators and punish them. I thought maybe they should be put into stocks on Boston Common and subject to whatever vengeance the public wanted to wreak. I think they would not have lasted long.

The Boston case – in which Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Thursday that federal prosecutors would seek the death penalty – illustrates exactly why we have laws. It strikes me that we make these laws as much for ourselves as we do for the criminals. When we are not furious, we have the chance to deliberate and to make wise laws that we agree to abide by even when all hell is breaking loose.

Before the Marathon Bombing, I thought the death penalty was a bad idea, for several reasons. It has become so rare in the United States — especially in Massachusetts, where the first execution took place in 1630 and the last execution took place in 1947 — that it could be seen as so “unusual” that it is unconstitutional on those grounds alone.

What I find even more compelling is the experience of the Innocence Project at the Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University and similar efforts carried out by journalists and journalism students. For lots of reasons — racism, inadequate public defenders, bogus confessions, and more — there are a horrifying number of people in America who have been placed on Death Row only to be exonerated before execution. (As of today, the Innocence Project tallies 312 cases of exoneration of prisoners slated to be put to death.) And of course, some innocent people have certainly been wrongfully killed by the state — which is to say, by all of us, through our laws and our taxes.

Ultimately, the problem is this: the death penalty is an irreversible climax to an imperfect system of justice. If we could be absolutely sure that our courts never made a mistake, then the death penalty might be worth considering. But the fact is that we know that our courts (and our cops and our prosecutors) sometime make mistakes. So, it is illogical and immoral to cap off such a system with a penalty that has no remedy.

For these reasons, as someone who was born in Boston and works here I am pleased that the Massachusetts Legislature has repeatedly refused to reinstate the death penalty. The last time the issue came up for a vote, in 2001, the Legislature rejected it by a vote of 94-60. Even in the aftermath of the Marathon Bombing, a large majority of Bostonians said they opposed capital punishment. And I am glad that in a time of peaceful deliberation, the people of Massachusetts were able to listen to the angels of our better nature and put in place restraints on ourselves.

In the Marathon bombing, the would-be terrorists used death as the instrument of their purpose. Let us not sink to their level.

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No cheering in the pressbox, please.

By Christopher B. Daly 

Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy had a remarkable column on the front page of the paper today. It was remarkable for several reasons.

First, it was on page 1, which suggests to me that it was a newsroom decision to put this on the front page. I wonder why? That means, for one thing, that the Globe’s editors wanted this message to reach readers beyond those who read the sports pages.

Second, it makes a point about the methodology of writing columns, which is more “meta” than Dan usually gets. So, I wonder if this column was prompted by something specific. (Maybe the new Ted Williams biography by Dan’s former colleague, Ben Bradlee Jr., which reminds us of the feud Williams had with Boston sports columnists who were not sufficiently admiring.)

Perhaps it has to do with the Globe’s new owner, John Henry, who also happens to be the major owner of the Boston Red Sox. Was Dan declaring his independence from both the team and the new owner? Was the newsroom supporting him in this? Were they trying to tell Henry (who is new to the role of newspaper-owner) that he should not expect Shaughnessy — and, by extension, the whole Globe staff — to use their words and images to support the boss’s causes and interests? Does that extend to Henry’s business interests? To his politics?

Boston Globe image

Boston Globe image

Dan (full disclosure: he’s a friend, and our boys are friends) is making a case that should be self-evident. Years ago, the principle was established among the guild of sports writers that they attended sporting events not to root for the teams they were covering. This attitude was expressed quite well in the classic formulation: “No cheering in the pressbox.”

That goes for the hometown team, too. I believe the job of a sportswriter is to call them as he/she sees them. If my team stinks, I want to know why. I don’t want to be told that they don’t stink when they do.

Dan’s column got a lot of comments, many of which were the kind of harsh put-down that fills sports radio, the internet, and many a comments section. Turns out, a lot of guys want a columnist like Dan to agree with them. That, too, is not his job. As I understand the calling of columnist, the job is to be interesting, plain and simple. A columnist should write about things that are true in an interesting way and write about things that are interesting in a true way.

It’s not the same job as being a reporter or a beat writer. That is a more factual task, trying to answer the basic question: what happened? The columnist is trying to answer a different question: of the things that just happened, which ones are not obvious but would amuse, inform, challenge, provoke, or beguile my readers?

This has been true since the early days of column writing in the early 20th century and can be seen in the work of

Red Smith

Red Smith

the great Red Smith or in the tremendous columns churned out by the likes of Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Langston Hughes, and Ernie Pyle (see Covering America).

Keep ’em coming, Dan. And don’t pull any punches.

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Ted Williams and his feud with baseball writers

By Christopher B. Daly

The Boston Globe is running a series of excerpts from a new book about Ted Williams, written by Ben Bradlee Jr., a former Globe editor and son of the great Washington Post editor. Today’s installment focuses on Ted’s testy relationship with the press corps, particularly the large gang of baseball writers who worked for the Boston dailies in the 1940s and 50s. Fun fact: Boston had nine daily newspapers back then, with separate sports staffs. Here’s the line-up:

Between 1939 and 1960, the years spanning Ted’s career with the Red Sox, Boston had eight major newspapers, or nine if one counted both the morning and evening editions of The Boston Globe, which had separate staffs and circulations. The morning papers were the Post, the Herald, the Record, the Daily Globe and the Christian Science Monitor. The evening journals were the American, the Transcript, the Traveler, and the Evening Globe. The Post and the Record dominated the city in 1940 with circulations of 369,000 and 329,000 respectively.

Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

In the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, major league baseball was by far the dominant sport in the country, and would often take up a third of the front page of newspapers in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. To be a baseball writer assigned to cover one of the big league teams was a highly prized assignment.

The writers wore suits. On long road trips, they’d play poker on the trains with the players and among themselves. Some great yarns came out of those trips, but in the fraternal milieu, it was understood that the stories would stay in-house, never to turn up in print.

On average, the writers were a generation-or-more older than the players they covered. Before World War II, the vast majority had not gone to college, and in the ’40s, their salaries ranged between $5,000 and $7,000 a year. But you couldn’t beat the perks. In what seems a quaint anachronism today, it was common practice at least into the ’60s for the ball clubs to pay all the expenses of the writers when the teams traveled. The reporters would stay at the best hotels, order from room service, and eat at fine restaurants. Moreover, they spent six weeks in Florida for Spring Training on the teams’ tab as well. In return for such largesse, the clubs of course expected, even demanded, favorable coverage, and they received it. On the rare occasions they did not, the teams would not hesitate to assert their economic leverage over the papers.

Does any sportswriter still wear a suit? (or a fedora?)

Ted Williams surrounded by the gentlemen of the press.  (via Boston Globe)

Ted Williams surrounded by the gentlemen of the press.
(via Boston Globe)

 

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Whitey Bulger: Life without parole

By Christopher B. Daly 

 

In the end, the sentencing of James “Whitey” Bulger was oddly unsatisfying. Bulger  — the lord of the underworld, the big man with the killer’s coldness, the guy who struck fear into so many for so long – left the public stage without so much as a whimper. Playing the role of a stand-up guy (or at least, his version of one) all the way to the bitter end, Bulger not only refused to testify, he also refused to even make eye contact with his victims’ families.

 

To make matters worse, Bulger committed one last robbery: he robbed all of us in the Boston area of the satisfaction of a real showdown with the forces of images-1justice. Bulger should have been on the witness stand (and his testimony should have been on television), but he denied us that. It was a petty crime, compared to all his monstrous crimes against individuals, but it was one more shot at a public that grew tired of him long ago.

 

His trial over, Bulger will now spend the rest of his few remaining days in prison, where he belongs. So be it. I don’t believe in the death penalty on other days, and I will stick to my position on this one. I will not give Bulger the satisfaction of getting me to make an exception for him. I will choose not to sink to his level. (No more special treatment for you, pal.)

 

The whole process of putting Bulger on trial took so long that when the final stages unfolded in federal court last week, there was an odd quality of a formality about it. After all, Bulger’s capture took place more than two years ago. Ever since, it was more or less assumed that Bulger would be found guilty and given a life term.

 

Indeed, the thoroughly predictable and highly scripted process of a criminal trial was overshadowed this year by a lot of other local news of spontaneous origin. In April came the horrible crime of the Boston Marathon bombing, in which a couple of miserable losers decided to try to rob us all of something wonderful — the

Dhokhar Tsarnaev surrendering, with his forehead marked by a sniper's infrared.

Dhokhar Tsarnaev surrendering, with his forehead marked by a sniper’s infrared.

spirit that always used to bloom in Boston on Marathon Monday, a mix of having fun and playing hooky and being nice to out-of-towners and trying to hurry spring along.

 

That was followed this year (simply in time, not in a great cosmic reckoning, as some would have it) by the quite unexpected rise of the Red Sox, who gave us something of a civic bouquet this year — not by winning the World Series, which was nice but a bit much. No, I think the Sox’ real gift to us this year came from seeing them having fun playing a child’s game as if it mattered and seeing them outperform expectations. All that, plus beards — what a treat.

 

*       *       *       *

 

Yet, there is still some unfinished business in the Bulger matter. Whitey Bulger owes us all the answers that we didn’t get when he chose not to testify. He may try to tell his story – on his terms, of course, with a book or letters – but he should have had to sit in the dock, under oath, and face questions not of his choosing.

 

For that matter, his brother Billy (the former president of the state Senate) images-2owes us some answers, too. What did he know about his brother, and when did he know it? Billy owes us these answers because he was not a private person all those years. He’s not in the same category as the third Bulger brother or their sister. No, Billy was at or near the center of public power during the very same years and in the very same city that Whitey was at or near the center of criminal power.

 

I will not compare or contrast the two brothers, except to say that as a journalist who covered Billy during that period and who often got the back of his hand, I believe that even rough justice demands that he give answers to the people whose money he spent and whose government he hijacked. No more of his grinning and winking and ducking. What did he know and when?

 

Other unfinished business?

 

There’s the FBI, for one. The agency has yet to offer a convincing explanation of how Whitey Bulger could have drafted the FBI’s Boston office into his protection racket or of how the agency is preventing a repeat by some other hoodlum.

 

Then there is the matter of how anybody could have fallen for the blarney that Whitey was a good guy who was keeping drugs out of South Boston or that Billy was a good guy because he gave away some turkeys at the holidays. Both of the Bulgers got too much power, and we are the ones who let them get away with it.

 

So, in the end, I suppose, the final reckoning is not with them but with ourselves. That’s a sentence with no parole, no appeal. In a way, we’re lifers, too.

 

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Bulger trial coverage

By Christopher B. Daly

Whitey Bulger, courtesy of Boston PD. One of the greatest mugshots in the history of the genre.

Whitey Bulger, courtesy of Boston PD. One of the greatest mugshots in the history of the genre.

The long-awaited trial of gangster/murderer Whitey Bulger is in full swing in a federal courthouse in Boston (named for the longtime congressman from the district of South Boston, the late Joe Moakley).

Some of the journalists and news institutions covering the trial are doing excellent work. Here’s a guide:

The Boston Globe, the biggest news organization in New England, is all-in. Here’s a link to their special expanded coverage for “Globe Insiders” (which just means non-freeloaders — i.e., those who have a digital subscription, as we all should).

WBUR, the longtime news leader among NPR stations in the region, has a smart-looking special section as well, led by veteran reporter David Boeri.

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Both sites are rich with background, photos, timelines, who’s-who’s, and (my favorite) maps.

Also meritorious: the reporting of the ubiquitous Adam Reilly, who reports for the city’s other major NPR station, WGBH.

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And, if that’s not enough, you can always follow the Twitter feeds (#bulger), which are emerging as a pretty good workaround for the continuing silliness of banning TV cameras from federal trial courts.

Oh, and for deep background, read the Whitey biography written by my friend and BU colleague Dick Lehr.

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Whitey Bulger tries to exclude certain reporters from his trial. I object!

By Christopher B. Daly 

Whitey Bulger, courtesy of Boston PD. One of the greatest mugshots in the history of the genre.

Whitey Bulger, courtesy of Boston PD. One of the greatest mugshots in the history of the genre.

It is hardly news that Whitey Bulger — accused of 19 murders and more bad acts — is a mean and vindictive guy. It is also no secret that he does not like news reporters, especially the ones who have dogged him over the years when he was running rampant in Boston, corrupting the FBI, and laughing at all of us while he lived as a fugitive.

Now that his trial is getting underway in U.S. District Court in Boston, Bulger has come up with a clever (or “cute,” as we used to say when I was a kid) way to tweak some of those reporters. Here’s how: his attorney, the otherwise honorable J.W. Carney, has listed five reporters as potential witnesses. Once they are named as witnesses, they are banned from attending regular court sessions. They can attend only the session in which they are called as a witness.

Cute, huh?

Here’s the list of reporters Bulger wants to exclude:

–Dick Lehr, my BU colleague and former Boston Globe investigative reporter, who recently published the definitive biography of Whitey.

–Gerry O’Neill, a former BU colleague and former Globie who was Dick’s co-author on Whitey.

–Shelley Murphy, a current Globe crime writer, who co-wrote a rival Whitey biography.

–Kevin Cullen, current Globe columnist and Murphy’s co-author.

–Howie Carr, Herald columnist and former wise aleck turned mean-spirited conservative, who wrote The Brothers Bulger, defining Whitey as only half of the family business, allowing him to fire away at Whitey’s brother Billy, who ruled over the Massachusetts state Senate while Whitey was getting away with murder all sorts of mischief.

For several decades now, these five journalists have done a great public service to the people of Boston, and they deserve to be in court — in the front row.

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