Truth lies in the unadorned facts

Over the weekend, readers of Boston’s metro dailies, the tabloid Herald and the broadsheet Globe, were treated to a glimpse of how things were back 60 years when seven or so dailies competed for attention and respect at the news stands.

On Sunday, the Globe published an exhaustive report on the 16-year fugitive life of the infamous Whitey Bulger and his lady friend Catherine Greig detailing how they passed most of their time as just folks in an apartment in Santa Monica before they were arrested in June by the FBI. In the story, which took up four pages inside the paper, the Globe revealed the name of the woman from Iceland whose tip to the FBI on Bulger’s whereabouts had earned her $2 million of public funds in reward money.

Beaten badly on a story of high local interest by its competitor, the Herald saw a way to cash in on the broadsheet’s scoop by changing the emphasis of the story to how the Globe had, by printing the tipster’s name, imperiled her life. The tabloid did it up grandly on its front page for two days running, evoking, Pavlovian style, harsh negative comments from its readers and moving Globe editors and reporters, who presumably had also gotten some critical letters and calls, to publish a follow-up story defending what they did.

The Herald got what it wanted: Its essentially hypocritical questioning of the Globe’s editorial ethics and not the story itself became the focus of second-day follow-ups, e.g., the WTKK-FM morning radio show featuring the team of Margery Eagan and Jim Braude took time to debate the issue, with the usually level-headed Eagan, a Herald columnist, using the forum to bash her rivals for what she saw as egregious behavior and Braude defending the Globe’s right-on journalism.

Does anyone think that if the Herald had had the notion of tracking Bulger’s ways and means, and of spending its money to pursue the notion, that they would have held back the tipster’s name in the resulting narrative. No way. Yes, that’s speculation, if well-informed by history. This is, after all, a paper that has given free rein to a columnist with a radio show who sees fit to put all manner of matters of public record into the newspaper, any considerations of privacy of names and addresses be damned.

If journalism is to mean anything, the radio host/columnist is on the right track. The full story of the FBI’s involvement with Whitey Bulger, clearly a public matter and already fodder for numerous books, movies, and long-form journalism, remains to be told. Bits and pieces, like the recent stories about the federal government and the courts choosing legal casuistry to deny families riven by Whitey Bulger’s nefarious deeds any financial consideration will continue to beset us ad nauseam.

 As the government keeps playing a sort of dodgeball with the Bulger case’s ramifications, stories like the Globe’s on the Icelandic tipster should lay it all out – dates and names and numbers – because it is in the unadorned facts that the truth lies.

Tom Mulvoy is a former managing editor of the Globe.