Boston Globe Columnist Suspended After Review Finds Fabrications
Posted June 16, 2018 9:14 p.m. EDT
The Boston Globe suspended its columnist Kevin Cullen for three months without pay Friday after a review found fabricated details and inconsistencies in comments he made in radio interviews and at public appearances about the Boston Marathon bombings.
“Our review leads us to a conclusion that Mr. Cullen damaged his credibility,” John W. Henry, The Globe’s publisher, and Brian McGrory, its editor, wrote in a statement. “These were serious violations for any journalist and for The Globe, which relies on its journalists to adhere to the same high standards of ethics and accuracy when appearing on other platforms.”
Cullen, part of the Globe team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for reporting about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, will work as general assignment reporter for two months before returning to his role as a columnist.
He will also be barred from giving outside broadcast interviews for six months, after which time his appearances will face “heightened editorial scrutiny,” the statement said.
Reached by email, Cullen declined to comment Saturday. In their statement, Henry and McGrory said Cullen had “acknowledged his failures” in an earlier email.
“I own what I did,” Cullen wrote, according to the statement. “I accept responsibility for these shortcomings and I’m sorry that it has allowed some to attack The Globe itself.”
Cullen’s union, the Boston Newspaper Guild, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Scott Steeves, president of the union, said that it would appeal Cullen’s suspension, The Globe reported.
“The Guild stands behind Kevin 110 percent, disagrees with the findings and looks forward to defending him in arbitration,” Steeves said.
Cullen has been on paid leave since April, when Boston radio station WEEI raised questions about remarks he made after the bombings. The Globe, which has faced a string of recent internal and financial difficulties, conducted two reviews of Cullen’s work and remarks.
Kathleen Carroll, a former executive editor of The Associated Press, and Thomas E. Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication at Boston University, reviewed Cullen’s columns and broadcast appearances after the bombings on April 15, 2013.
In the second review, Scott Allen, The Globe’s assistant managing editor for projects and investigations; Brendan McCarthy, its deputy projects editor; and Joseph Kahn, a former staff writer, reviewed 100 randomly selected columns by Cullen for “authenticity and accuracy.”
The first review uncovered “significant problems” with radio appearances and public comments by Cullen the morning after the bombings and in the months that followed, the statement said.
In one interview the morning after the bombings, Cullen told the story of a firefighter he had spoken with by phone who rescued a 7-year-old girl hurt by the bomb before going back to search for her lower leg, which had been blown off.
The firefighter, a lieutenant in the Boston Fire Department, denied that account and said he did not speak with Cullen by telephone on the day of the bombing. He called the story of him searching for the child’s leg “crazy,” according to the report.
In another instance from August 2013, Cullen was a panelist at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication when he described an encounter with a deputy fire chief outside a pub the night of the bombing.
Cullen said the chief was on the phone trying to get the lieutenant, who had been with a child killed in the bombings, to come out for a drink. The report called the story “problematic for several reasons, including the question of whether the situation occurred.”
Neither the chief nor the lieutenant recalled speaking to each other by phone, although they said it was possible. The lieutenant said he did not meet Cullen until the day after the bombings at a firehouse.
“It is clear from interviews with the firefighters Mr. Cullen has cited that the episode simply did not happen,” the report said.
Cullen told investigators that he did not remember telling the story — a fact, the report said, that did not change “the inevitable conclusion that the story he told is a complete fabrication.”
Shelley Murphy, an investigative reporter at The Globe who has known Cullen for almost 40 years and who wrote a book with him, said Cullen made “embarrassing” mistakes that were unintentional.
“I don’t think he fabricated; he screwed up,” Murphy said Saturday. “He made a mistake and now he is paying dearly for it because in this business your reputation is everything. It’s sad for him and sad for The Globe.”
The Globe itself was criticized in the first review. Five years after the bombing, the paper had yet to correct an error from one of Cullen’s columns. In their statement, Henry and McGrory said that the error had been corrected and took responsibility that it had not been.
The review of Cullen’s columns found only five “errors of fact,” such as a misspelled name or an incorrect detail, “but far more commonly people praised Kevin’s accuracy and, in many cases, his willingness to call back to confirm details.”
Techniques such as vague sourcing or using only someone’s first name were criticized in the report as opening the “door to providing seriously misleading information to the public” during stressful situations such as the bombings.