Even the hardest-hearted news consumer had to wince this past week when the private autopsy results of Paul Cahill and Warren Payne were leaked to some of the press. Cahill and Payne were, of course, the Boston firefighters who died in a restaurant blaze in August and were promptly lionized by the public and the press. While the Phoenix has not seen the autopsy data, Cahill, according to multiple news reports, had a blood-alcohol level of .27 at the time of his death, more than three times the legal limit for drivers. Payne, meanwhile, had traces of cocaine in his system (and marijuana, according to the Boston Herald), though it’s not clear whether or how much he was impaired when he was killed fighting the fire.
The Boston Globe was the first to report the leaked autopsy results for Boston firefighters Paul Cahill and Warren Payne, posting an item on Boston.com’s Local News Updates blog on the evening of October 3. But the Globe’s achievement comes with an asterisk, since it took a questionable injunction — now overturned — from Suffolk Superior Court Judge Merita Hopkins to keep WHDH-TV from getting there first.
This was — and remains — a multifaceted story. There are the painful issues of whether Cahill and Payne’s alleged substance use contributed to their deaths and endangered their fellow firefighters. There are lingering questions about the scope of substance abuse in the Boston Fire Department (BFD), and why Boston does less to screen for substance abuse than many other cities. (The Globe reported that, despite a lax testing protocol, 10 percent of the department has been ordered into treatment in the past three years; according to a recent medical study, 10 percent of all US adults have problems with substance abuse at some point.) There’s even a freedom-of-the-press element: a judge’s ruling (dubious and quickly overturned, but all too characteristic of government opacity in Boston and Massachusetts) kept WHDH-TV from breaking news of the autopsy results on October 3.
But ultimately — at its core — this story is about our collective need for heroes, the press’s collusion in that quest, and the way we respond when those heroes fall from grace.
Consider the way response to Cahill and Payne’s autopsies played out in the Herald, which diligently positions itself as the paper of blue-collar Boston in general and of Boston cops and firefighters in particular. A story on the results — titled FIREHOUSE SHOCK — led the paper’s front page on October 4. By midmorning, the story had attracted more than 100 comments on the Herald’s Web site, the vast majority of them negative. “These men are heroes,” complained one reader. “To make this news is a disgrace. . . . Leave these men and their poor, suffering families alone. Unless you are willing to charge into an inferno, you are not one to judge.” Another summarily consigned the three Herald reporters who wrote the story to hell. “To O’Ryan Johnson, Laurel J. Sweet and Michele McPhee: Don’t forgot [sic] the sunscreen, you’ll need it where you’re going.”
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.