When I was last in federal court I had a conversation with Shelley Murphy of the Boston Globe. Shelley told me in as kind a voice as one could manage taking someone to the woodshed that she wasn’t happy with a story in my blog that indicated she and Kevin Cullen had paid Dick Sunday for the letters he had received from Whitey Bulger. She said I may have caused damage to their reputation because I accused them of doing something unethical when I made that suggestion.
I was taken by surprised by this. I apologized to her explaining that it was not my intent when I wrote that blog to infer that she did anything unethical nor did I intend to diminish her or Kevin’s reputation. I told her I didn’t think there was anything unethical about paying for information from sources. She said I should have called her first prior to making the suggestion.
Before I go on, let me be clear that although I have differences with Shelley and Kevin Cullen, and with other reporters on the Globe and elsewhere, I have spelled them out as well as I could by challenging their factual assertions. I may have even questioned the motives of some. I don’t recall doing that with Shelley or Kevin. I have tried my best not to suggest that any of them were doing anything wrong or unethical in the performance of their jobs. It’s just that we see things differently.
I’ve known Shelly for many years dating back to the John Connolly trial. I have always found her to be an outstanding reporter who told the story as it is. I feel bad that she thought I was accusing her of wrongdoing when that was the farthest thing from my mind. I apologize to her that my article made her feel that. I’ve known Kevin from even further back and always felt he did an excellent job as a columnist from the earliest days when he started writing for the Globe. If he feels that I have suggested he has engaged in any wrongdoing I apologize to him also. By the way, I also learned from Shelley that there is a great difference between a reporter and a columnist which I had never focused in on before.
Here’s as best I can gather the column that caused Shelley to be upset. I wrote it on February 12, 2012, about the time Shelley’s and Kevin’s book had just been released. It seemed a good portion of their book was based on letters that Whitey had written to Dick Sunday.
I wrote as part of it the following: “Once a convict ever looking for a con. Dick first wrote to Bulger and they became pen pals. The first thing that came to my mind was to wonder how much money Dick stuck-up the Globe for to give them the letters? We’re not told.”
My intent was to show that Dick had been playing “friend” with Whitey but that he probably had an ulterior motive in doing so. I figured he thought he could make a little money with the letters and offered them for sale at some undetermined price. I assumed someone at the Globe paid the price. I did not know who had done it. I also did not know it would have been unethical for the Globe to have done it.
I do not understand why it is unethical for a newspaper reporter to buy information from a source. To my way of thinking if it is one way to find out the truth of an important matter then it is fine to do especially if it involves documentary evidence.I went to the Internet to find out more about the ethics of paying for information.
I found an article in 2010 by Jack Shafer who says there really aren’t any ethical considerations involved. He said there has been a long ongoing debate over whether journalists should pay for information. Shafer pointed to a history of “respectable” news organizations paying for information. In a 2012 Guardian article the author Roy Greenslade suggests good investigative reporting can be done without paying for the information but he doesn’t suggest paying is wrong. John Cook ends his 2011 essay in the Colombia Journalism Review by saying: “But it’s hard to argue that papers that abstain from payments are morally or professionally superior to those that do, when the latter are catching important stories that might otherwise go untold.”
The bottom line is I did not believe the Globe thought it is unethical to pay for information when I knew others did it. I did wonder if Dick Sunday had received money from the Globe and how much. Shelley said it did not pay for the letters. I absolutely believe her.
Had I to do it over again I would not have written those lines if I had known Shelley or Kevin would have taken them as a negative comment on their professional ethics or upset them in any way. They are too fine individuals who I might disagree with but who I don’t doubt they believe as strongly as I do in telling things as they see them.
In so far that they were upset then I sincerely apologize.