A Buddy story for everybody
On the eve of Cianci’s reentry into public life, Michelle R. Smith, a Providence-based reporter for the usually more staid Associated Press, primed the pump of Buddy coverage with a lead asking this serious question: “Toupee or no toupee?”
Her story continued: “That’s the question as former Mayor Vincent ‘Buddy’ Cianci —famous for the array of toupees he wore before being sent to prison for corruption —is poised to be released from federal custody this weekend.”
Smith’s story was revealing. While Cianci’s reemergence raises serious questions (and some of them got aired in the ProJo, which highlighted front-page stories for three days running), our age of celebrity-driven media guaranteed an excessive amount of Buddy coverage, some of it about the most trivial details. At the same time, however, the return of the rogue is very much a legitimate story, and considering the emphasis once placed by Cianci on his “hair helper,” there was genuine and broad public interest in his post-prison appearance.
As Brown University political science professor Darrell West puts it, “I think the [saturation] coverage is appropriate, because it’s a big story when Buddy Cianci returns. He’s been part of the community for more than 30 years, he’s a larger than life figure, and he’s the story that everyone’s following.”
Although last Friday was an unusually active news day in Rhode Island, with the Pawtucket police fatally shooting an armed man, and the announcement of a blockbuster health-care merger between two hospital groups, Lifespan and Care New, the story of Buddy’s lunch on Federal Hill topped the front of the next day’s ProJo.
Of the three local TV stations, WPRI (Channel 12) — whose investigative reporter, Tim White, was the only one to cover the removal of Cianci’s monitoring bracelet on the Cape — gave the most prominent initial attention to the former mayor and his mid-day repast. It was also duly reported, of course, by WJAR (Channel 10) and WLNE (Channel 6). A day earlier, WJAR had broadcast a half-hour news special, titled Citizen Cianci, and offered a commercial-free broadcast of Buddy, the documentary by Cherry Arnold.
Meanwhile, thanks to an account by the AP’s Eric Tucker, the story of Buddy’s reemergence on Friday was printed in the Boston Globe, as well as papers as far flung as the Kansas City Star and England’s Guardian Unlimited.
To some, even the initial coverage reeked of media overkill. WPRO-AM talk-show host Dan Yorke poked fun at the reporters staking out the Old Canteen, describing the situation as being bereft of genuine news value.
Considering how it was clear that Cianci wouldn’t speak publicly until he was clear of federal custody, a similar charge can be made about the coverage of his release from prison and his arrival at a halfway house in Boston back in May. In an indication of the media interest, Buddy’s nephew, Turchetta, later went so far as taking out a no-trespass order to keep reporters off the grounds of his East Greenwich home.
It’s not hard to make the case that the media, especially TV news, focuses too much on celebrities and simple stories. As noted by Brown’s West, the media has become increasingly driven by personalities, so “when there’s a big name involved in a story, reporters are all over it.” He also cites how Cianci’s return has received more coverage than the proposed Lifespan-Care New England merger, even though the latter will have more long-term impact on the day-to-day lives of Rhode Islanders.
Still, anyone who has lived in this state for any length of time would have to lack a pulse to not sit up and watch with interest when a jovial Cianci was captured on tape without a toupee for the first time in decades. This happened as he briefly stopped to chat with reporters this past Saturday evening, on the way to dinner at Café Nuovo, another of his favored old spots. To the surprise of no one, the footage led the local 11 pm newscasts.