In my 15 years writing and editing newspapers, I was ashamed of my profession and my paper only once. We did our jobs too well.
I was working in the Eagle-Tribune’s Haverhill bureau with an outstanding reporter I still admire named Bill Cantwell. I have to say that because, in this story, he does not look good. It’s the only time in my experience that he ever looked bad, or uncaring, to me, and he was just doing what he was supposed to do. I’m the first one who found out what the editors wanted to know, and I didn’t tell them. They would have been right to fire me if they ever found out. I thought being unprofessional was the right thing to do that one time. Bill was being professional.
The paper was trying to “get” Haverhill’s police chief, Dan Fasulo, now long retired. Many people in town thought he was crooked. We never found any evidence of it, and never printed it. No one in town would be quoted by name on the subject. Our paper’s policy wisely did not allow unnamed sources, especially people who accused someone of crimes anonymously. With no documents, it’s just gossip, not news.
In Washington, unnamed sources are a necessary part of journalism. When a low-level bureaucrat wants to stop his bosses from undermining democracy, abusing power, or threatening national security, he can secretly release (leak) official documents. If we named those sources, their lives would be ruined, and no one would blow a whistle again. Documents are evidence. We’ve seen that culture abused several times, by Dick Cheney talking to a reporter off the record — lying — about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda, and the special prosecutor in Bill Clinton’s case leaking confidential grand jury evidence that Bill was rotten as well as guilty of things he never proved in court.
In Chief Fasulo’s case, there were no documents or named witnesses to any crimes he might have committed. Even his enemies would not be quoted by name, or produce documents. So all we had were widespread beliefs and gossip we could not use, document, or verify. They all said they were afraid of police retribution, but we could not document or verify that either. But there was plenty of evidence that he was an incompetent bully who played favorites in the department, and was using the Civil Service laws to hang on to his job.
When the anti-Fasulo crowd elected a mayor, they hoped for some action against the Chief. But Mayor Ted Pelosi, for his own reasons, merely asked the state police to investigate and file a written report on the chief and his deputy. The report found no evidence of crime or corruption, but it found lots of non-criminal mismanagement and favoritism, and a demoralized police force. It was an official public document we could quote, and pursue its allegations.
One allegation we pursued intensely was that three rookie officers had taken the oath, and were carrying badges and guns on the street, after flunking a standardized psychological test given by the Police Academy. The public needed to know about it. What I still don’t understand is why the public needed to know the boys’ names.
Standardized psych tests are inaccurate, designed to throw up a red flag and have the applicant interviewed and evaluated by as professional. They are not accurate enough — by themselves — to make a final decision on a person’s ability to do a job. How a person did on those tests should be confidential because a bad result from the written test is so prejudicial, and does not prove anything. Only the written test plus a professional evaluation is evidence.
But Cantwell and I pursued the names as if the boys were officials on the take. We and our bosses were afraid the competition would publish them first. I got the names from my sources, and Cantwell from his. I did not tell anyone. Cantwell could not until someone in a position to know confirmed it. He got confirmation by throwing a curve ball to the local union president.
Cantwell was surprised at how upset I was.
“We killed their futures as Haverhill police officers — and maybe as police officers anywhere — based on unreliable, prejudicial evidence,” I said.
“Well, I didn’t do it to them,” he said, and continued typing.
That’s exactly what reporters say when they catch a crooked official on the take. I don’t know what happened to the boys,buttheywere finished as Haverhill police officers, and a newspaper can’t be sued for telling the truth.