Even before Kelly’s mob associations became widely known, his work was being criticized — but he also had his defenders. “I could not and never did respect his journalism,” said Susskin. “I’d use the word ‘yellow.’” Mel Bernstein responds, “His reporting lacked thoroughness sometimes, but that’s because he was an enthusiastic kind of guy, and sometimes his enthusiasm carried him to the limits.”
And it wasn’t long before Kelly’s outspoken defense of his hoodlum cohorts carried his already shaky credibility beyond such limits. “Jokes were being made all over the station about how Jack was an amateur PR man for the mob,” said Channel 7’s Jack Cole. “He just handed the mayor ammunition by continuing to be seen in their company. I told him it wasn’t such a good idea. He said that they were just businessmen.”
The whispered rumors about Kelly’s underworld links remained precisely that — and his journalistic career flourished — until October of 1975, when, just two and a half weeks before the mayoral election, he aired a story severely damaging to incumbent Kevin White. Kelly’s now-famous Ritz Carlton breakfast story alleged that, during White’s unsuccessful run for governor in 1970, the city’s chief tax assessor arranged a fund-raising breakfast at the landmark Boston hotel. At this gathering, Kelly reported, the mayor strongarmed several prominent real estate men and bankers for $10,000 contributions and violated state law by failing to report any of the money. The content of the story and its timing so soon before a hotly contested election could hardly have been expected to please the mayor; the White camp claimed, though, that it was the way Kelly went about his news-gathering that angered them as much as anything else.
Frank Tivnan, then White’s top press aide, recalls it this way. On the day the story was to be broadcast, he said, Kelly and Channel 7 News Director Bernstein had a mid-afternoon meeting with Tivnan and the mayor, a meeting at which Kelly recited the story’s outline and a list of those purportedly at the breakfast. “The mayor breathed a tremendous sigh of relief,” remembered Tivnan, “because he felt the story was so full of holes it would never run. He told them he could prove that at the time of the breakfast he had never even met four of those named.” But the mayor’s denial failed to stop Channel 7 from running the story; at 5:30 that afternoon, Tivnan recalled, Bernstein called to inform him that the story would air in 30 minutes, and asked if White had any statement on it. Said Tivnan: “At that point I told him that we had been tipped the story was coming, that we had been told it was coming from the underworld, and that it was their way of getting to the police commissioner (the since-departed Robert diGrazia, a White protégé widely regarded as a reformer). I also told him we knew who the source was — the son of one of the real estate men supposedly at the breakfast — and that the source was not credible. I asked him for a 24-hour delay, or at least a five-hour delay, so he could check out what I’d said, but he refused.