Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Media Blame Game and the Whitey Tipster

The drama involving the Icelandic tipster that helped the FBI finally land killer mobster James “Whitey” Bulger is one of those once-in-a-generation confluences of craziness. Naturally, the media had a field day.

But hopefully today marks the end of The Boston Herald’s jihad against the rival Boston Globe for outing the tipster that nailed Whitey and pocketed $2 million.

Like many, when I read the Globe expose Sunday, I wondered if they should have outed the tipster. Even as a Herald alum who loves my former paper, I worried one of Whitey’s pals – and he surely has some left – might scare her, stalk her or worse. I worried the media would have a field day chasing her down.

But some proper Globe explanation and the Herald’s overreach in its coverage has tempered my fears.

First off, it’s obvious to note that the Herald’s outrage was likely fueled by simply being beat. Ask any  honest editor or reporter if they would have printed it and the immediate answer would be, “Hell, yes.” Of course they would. And the Globe was absolutely right to do print it – in almost the way they did.

That is not to say the woman deserved to be outed. She didn’t. It’s a shame she was. “America’s Most Wanted” vet John Walsh, who knows something about tipsters and their impact on violent crime, is right that anonymous tipsters should have a right to privacy.

But the mistake wasn’t the Globe’s or the media’s.

Within hours of Whitey’s arrest, word leaked from law enforcement sources that the tipster came from Iceland. The minute any good journalist knew the tipster was a person from Iceland (a land of just 318,000 – who knew?) who had spent time in Santa Monica, it was only a matter of time before the Globe’s intrepid lead Whitey reporter, Shelly Murphy, tracked the woman down.

So the outrage should be pointed at the leaking feds, first and foremost.

In fairness, the Globe should have done a better job at telling the story behind the story before the controversy hit. It’s fair to say that, once Whitey (and most of the woman’s neighbors and friends) learned the tipster was from Iceland, he figured out exactly who it was. And it is important that the feds didn’t warn off the Globe when they were told of the paper’s plans.

Could they have made more effort to speak to the tipster? Possibly. The tipster was clearly blowing off the reporter in Iceland – twice – so she couldn’t have reasonably done more. But if, as it seems, the Globe had her email address, why not send her an email or letter from Globe editor Marty Baron? Would that have worked in getting her to speak? Probably not. But it would have shown the Globe went far beyond reasonable means to track her down, give her a chance to speak and warn her that the story was coming.

As Dan Kennedy and others noted, the Globe should have explained their rationale as the story was published – either in the paper edition Sunday or online. The New YorkTimes and other media are doing a great job of authoring compelling ‘story behind the story’ pieces online and as subscriber-only content. Sure, they are mostly for news geeks like me and my kind but they help set a historical record of historic pieces of journalism – and follow the wise PR strategy of getting out ahead of your critics.

Lessons learned on all sides. It won’t help the poor woman in Iceland fending off TMZ and nosy neighbors (and hopefully not worse). But don’t blame the Globe for good journalism.

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