The problem with heroes

By ADAM REILLY  |  October 10, 2007

But public wrath wasn’t limited to the Herald. On October 5, the Boston Globe ran a package of stories hooked to the autopsies. One, on reaction inside the BFD, juxtaposed anonymous acknowledgment of substance abuse inside the department with this irate, on-the-record quote from Captain Patrick Nichols, Payne and Cahill’s former supervisor: “It’s not about me; it’s about the family you shot in the foot,” Nichols said of the press. “All the media is now all over this. [The families have] already gone through hell. This is a lot of crap.”

Too much, too soon
The consolation, for journalists, is that Nichols and his fellow critics are flat-out wrong. Yes, it’s terrible that Payne and Cahill’s families learned these details through press reports. But if some of the men and women charged with protecting Boston from fires are doing their jobs under the influence of mood-altering chemicals, that’s a grave public-safety problem — which makes it a story, for God’s sake. As Globe columnist Joan Vennochi put it on October 7: “Get mad, Boston. Not about the invasion of privacy suffered by the families of two Boston firefighters who died in the line of duty. Get mad about the shocking disregard for every citizen’s life-or-death interest in a drug-and-alcohol-free fire department.”

Good advice, but it lets the press off too easily. After all, the Boston media as a whole set the stage for an anti-media backlash with its initial coverage of Cahill and Payne’s deaths — coverage so laden with feeling and so lacking in detachment that it made the autopsy revelations seem like the journalistic equivalent of a sucker punch.

Consider, for example, how the Globe reported on the two firefighters’ funerals in early September, when their deaths seemed both tragic and uncomplicated. On September 6, the day of Cahill’s funeral, a photo of Cahill’s casket being carried into West Roxbury’s Church of the Holy Name appeared on the center of the Globe’s front page, under the headline RITES BEGIN FOR FALLEN FIREFIGHTERS. On B1, metro columnist Kevin Cullen chronicled the efforts of firefighters “working nonstop to dispatch [Cahill and Payne] from this world in a manner befitting their sacrifice”; an article on B4 discussed preparations for the two funerals.

The Globe’s September 7 front page featured a striking photo of Cahill’s flag-draped casket sitting atop a fire engine, surrounded by a crowd of saluting firefighters. The story that began below the photo, titled “LOVE INFUSES FIREFIGHTER’S RITES,” detailed the fine personal qualities recalled by family and friends during Cahill’s funeral, and continued on A14, under the banner A SOLEMN FAREWELL. That page also featured three color photos (of two of Cahill’s children, the hearse carrying Payne’s body, and an impromptu memorial outside Cahill and Payne’s West Roxbury firehouse); a story on mourners visiting the ruins of the Tai Ho restaurant, the site of the fatal fire; and a map and schedule for Payne’s funeral. As for the lead story, it closed, intentionally or not, with imagery that verged on the religious: “At the end of the funeral, members of Engine 30 handed the family Cahill’s badge and his fire helmet, which Adam Cahill held as he walked out of the church with his mother, his older brother, Brendan, and his younger sister, Shawna. The clouds had broken and the sun shone brightly on the family as they watched firefighters place the casket back on the engine for the journey to the cemetery.”

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  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Science and Technology, New York City Fire Department, Boston Fire Department,  More more >
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