Post-Whitey: A lingering cacophony of media myth, frenzy, fact, and fiction

By Peter F. Stevens
BIR Staff
It’s “ovah.” Or is it? James “Whitey” Bulger finally stood trial and received a long-belated, long-deserved verdict. One can only hope that his victims’ families received at least some scant measure of solace, courtesy of a jury that had to endure not only graphic, horrific testimony and grisly crime-scene photos, but also a sorry cast of prosecution witnesses as vile as the gangster on trial.

Sorry, in another way, were members of the print, broadcast, and online media who breathlessly and embarrassingly strained to turn Whitey’s trial into a “real-life” version of “The Departed,” “The Sopranos,” and “Boardwalk Empire” combined.
Was it only my mind and ears that were filled somewhere between bemusement and amusement as local reporters and columnists went Hollywood with the “Towniest” of Townie accents for a national audience eager for some real-life version of the aforementioned “The Departed?” I don’t believe I’m alone in still wondering how several well-known Boston Globe and Boston Herald reporters and columnists were ostensibly providing “objective” live coverage of the trial while hawking their Whitey-and-his-minions “nonfiction” books in front of every camera they could find – and they found plenty. When, too, did objective reportage blend with daily, impossible-to-miss “Whitey-book” ads in writers’ own newspapers?
From inside the proceedings at the Moakley Courthouse – admittedly a fitting location – the very turf that Whitey and his gang that could shoot all too straight once ruled – some reporters’ and commentators’ desire for the “Towniest-of-Townies” title percolated and boiled over daily in blogs that read like bad crime-noir.
If one needs additional proof of how hard local and national media strained to turn Whitey’s trial into a made-for-Hollywood drama, one need look no farther than the Robert Duvall sightings in and around the courtroom scene. Reporters giddily speculated on which of the myriad Whitey scripts in the cinematic pipeline Duvall might be involved in. After all, gushed one star-struck local television reporter, Duvall even looks like Whitey today. I’m sure the actor would be thrilled with that nugget.
Thankfully, some of what was actually unfolding in the courtroom served to expose just how absurd so much of the coverage was. If anyone still held to the myth that Whitey Bulger was some sort of Robin Hood figure who admittedly made a lucrative living in organized crime, but kept the streets of Southie safe from drugs and “outsiders” and killed or shook down only those in the same business as he was, the trial testimony eviscerated that myth. Of course, it is still a safe bet that when the Whitey biopics hit the market, the lead character will be a tough and ruthless hood with some semblance of a conscience and a heart and a huge dose of cinematic charisma, even an antihero of sorts. It won’t matter to screenwriters, directors, and producers that the just-convicted Bulger represents something far less complex.
Then there’s the matter of William Bulger and his treatment by the media. Over the years, rumors, innuendo, and street talk from so-called insiders from the media and both sides of the law have swirled around the brothers’ relationship. From intellectually lazy incarnations of Cain and Abel by writers to the legions of politicians and reporters who butted heads with the ex-Senate president and generally came up short, the bromide that Bill Bulger’s power resided in the dark presence of his brother’s threats and protection took hold for many locals. It didn’t, and it doesn’t seem to register with haters of all things Bulger that despite the relentless efforts of Bill Bulger’s many foes, no one has ever shown, let alone proven, that they were anything except brothers.
Unless I’ve missed something, Bill Bulger was in no way associated with his brother’s crimes. Of course, to listen to some in the media, innuendo means more than fact.
Opined one of those high on the list of those who swallow whole Howie Carr’s Brothers Bulger “thesis/shtick,” MSNBC’s and Dorchester’s Lawrence O’Donnell: “And so the story of the Bulger brothers ends with Billy and Whitey together again with nothing left to lose because Whitey, the cowardly punk with a gun, the murderer, the rat, lost it all for himself and his little brother Billy. And they should always be remembered in Southie and everywhere else as the losers that they are.”
O’Donnell based those words on the fact that at a Congressional hearing in the years after Whitey fled Boston, Bill Bulger took the Fifth when questioned about knowledge of his brother’s whereabouts. Like it or not, Bill Bulger was within his rights when he said before the House Committee on Government Reform in 2002, “One of the Fifth Amendment’s basic functions is to protect innocent men who might be ensnared by ambiguous circumstances. I find myself in one of those circumstances.”
What O’Donnell and others conveniently overlooked is that they expected Bulger to do the FBI’s job and that members of that self-same FBI were as crooked and corrupt as James Whitey Bulger.
In the closing days of the trial, Whitey refused to testify and dishonestly – big surprise there – labeled the proceedings a “sham” because he was barred by US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper from introducing a reputed immunity deal he had allegedly struck with the late former US Attorney Jeremiah O’Sullivan in exchange for “protecting” Sullivan from “the Mafia.”
Patricia Donahue, widowed by Bulger and his gang, yelled, “You’re a coward!” Unlike O’Donnell, Carr, and others, however, she explained her outburst by expressing her anger that Whitey would not reveal more about the FBI’s complicity in his crimes. She personally and viscerally understood what was missing in large part from the proceedings: “I wanted to hear about all the government corruption. I’m very disappointed in this trial.”
I’m just wondering one more thing: What happens now to Howie Carr’s all-Bulgers-all-the-time career path? Guess he can again summon the Kennedys from the bullpen.