The first review, performed by retired AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll and Boston University dean of the College of Communication Thomas Fiedler, is of Mr. Cullen’s column work and broadcast appearances in the aftermath of the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombings.
The second review, conducted by Globe assistant managing editor for projects and investigations Scott Allen, deputy projects editor Brendan McCarthy, and former Globe staff writer Joseph Kahn, is of a sampling of 100 randomly selected columns, checking for authenticity and accuracy.
The first review revealed significant problems, particularly a series of radio appearances by Mr. Cullen early in the morning of April 16, 2013, that, in the words of Ms. Carroll and Mr. Fiedler, “raise the concern of fabrication.” Specifically, the review found that Mr. Cullen details “scenes in which he was centrally involved but, to the best of our knowledge, didn’t occur.” Mr. Cullen described conversations he had with members of the Boston Fire Department that don’t appear to have happened. When asked about these radio appearances in two meetings in April and May, Mr. Cullen failed to provide an adequate explanation. In addition, Mr. Cullen appeared on a journalism panel in August 2013, broadcast on C-SPAN, in which he offered details of a scene on the night of the bombings that Ms. Carroll and Mr. Fielder conclude was a “complete fabrication.”
The problematic assertions made by Mr. Cullen in broadcast interviews never appeared in the pages of The Boston Globe, which explains at least in part why editors did not learn about them until five years later, when they were publicly raised. But Mr. Cullen did make a key mistake in his first-day column that was never corrected – a violation of Boston Globe standards and practices. This was an editorial breakdown that should have been corrected by both Mr. Cullen and his editor, Jennifer Peter, when they became aware of the mistake on April 16.
The second review was of a broader sampling of Mr. Cullen’s columns unrelated to the Marathon bombings. Approximately 100 columns were fact-checked, including calling sources who were quoted and people who were mentioned as well as comparing columns, when applicable, to other media accounts. The columns revealed the work of a diligent journalist who would very often go to the scenes of stories, personally meet the people involved, and make follow-up calls to confirm facts. The reviewers found no instances of fabrication in Mr. Cullen’s columns. The reviewers found Mr. Cullen’s writing to be “among the most appealing that appears in the Globe -- precise, well observed and often standing up for the forgotten man and woman with profound effect.” But they also found that his columns at times employed “journalistic tactics that unnecessarily raise questions about his accuracy” that “may open the door to providing seriously misleading information to the public.”
Our review leads us to a conclusion that Mr. Cullen damaged his credibility. 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.
Our review also leads us to believe that Mr. Cullen did not commit irrevocable damage. His long Globe career has been an exceptional one, from his start as a crime reporter to his role helping to uncover the protection Whitey Bulger received from the FBI, to his key contributions to Spotlight’s work revealing the Catholic Church pedophile scandal. He has written hundreds of highly read and often impactful columns about people from every walk of life without this organization receiving any complaints about the authenticity of his work. He has also acknowledged his failures and the issues they have created. “I own what I did,” Mr. Cullen said in a recent email, adding, “I accept responsibility for these shortcomings and I’m sorry that it has allowed some to attack the Globe itself.”
Mr. Cullen has been given a three-month unpaid suspension for his violations of our ethics policy, in addition to the two months of paid leave he has already served, for a total of five months. When he returns, he will work as a general assignment reporter for the first two months before returning to his role as a columnist. He will be barred from outside broadcast interviews for the first six months after his return, and subsequent appearances will be given heightened editorial scrutiny.
In terms of the system breakdowns, when we fall short of accuracy, we must immediately fix what went wrong – and we do. While there was chaos unfolding the entire week of the Boston Marathon bombings, it’s in the most trying circumstances that we must perform at our very best. And on all other fronts in our coverage of the bombings, the Globe did just that, including correcting, immediately and transparently, another mistake in our coverage that week.
I (Brian McGrory) have had a direct conversation about this breakdown with Ms. Peter, an otherwise very strong editor. While there’s no indication it was willful, it should not have happened, and she understands that. The column has now been corrected. Mr. Cullen’s primary oversight will shift from Ms. Peter to senior deputy managing editor Mark Morrow. I (Brian McGrory) also accept responsibility. While I can’t be aware of all mistakes, I am accountable for the system, and when it fails, I have as well.
We owe a significant debt of gratitude to Ms. Carroll, Mr. Fiedler, Mr. Kahn, Mr. Allen, and Mr. McCarthy for their time and wisdom, as well as to former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, who has reviewed both reports and offered his guidance. In addition, Kelly McBride, vice president at The Poynter Institute with a specialty in journalism ethics, gave us her insight into the completed report. We are thankful to all.
Finally, just to be clear, we are committed to accuracy and fairness at the Globe, hour by hour, day after day. That commitment is unyielding, and we apologize to our readers that we did not live up to it with these episodes. We have absorbed the lessons and renewed our commitment, even as we remain proud of the exceptional work performed by the entire staff in those days and weeks after the bombings.
John W. Henry, publisher
Brian McGrory, editor