Nieman Class of 2003
A longtime Metro columnist at the Boston Globe, Cullen shared a 2003 Pulitzer for investigative reporting on the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. He co-wrote the bestselling Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice, and made an art of live-tweeting the mobster’s recent trial. He spent years covering Northern Ireland for the Globe, and has also worked on the paper’s Spotlight team. He is the only journalist to have twice won the American Society of News Editors’ prestigious Batten Medal, which was awarded to him this past March, and in 2008, for his “inspiring storytelling” and “commitment to ordinary people.” Cullen writes movingly but without sentimentality. He tells his stories in a tenderly tough voice, and with a gift for the kill shot and the evocative phrase. On the mobster Whitey Bulger: “Whitey’s trial wasn’t a sham. His life was.” And from the trial tweets: “Johnny swans in, looking like an old lounge singer.” On the poet Seamus Heaney: “He dared to leave the bog. He made words a weapon of wonder and tolerance.” (A Nieman-related bonus: “When people ask me what I studied during my Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, I usually reply, ‘The ceiling at the Plough & Stars.’”) When Cullen won the Batten prize, Globe editor Brian McGrory said, “Kevin can tell a story like few other people in newspapers today, but that’s only part of his talent. What makes him such a necessary read is the way he gives voice to those people in this city and in this region who wouldn’t otherwise have one. He’s not just a delightful columnist, but an important one.” Cullen said it was humbling to win because “Jim Batten was a gentleman, and the award given in his name is all about sticking up for the little guy, the marginalized, and the powerless. Those are the kind of stories I like to tell most.”
—“Walking on Air Against His Better Judgment,” on the life and death of the Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney. Excerpt:
Like everybody else who grew up around Boston, I always thought Harvard had very high standards, until they let me in.
When people ask me what I studied during my Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, I usually reply, “The ceiling at the Plough & Stars.” But the truth is it was a once in a lifetime, enriching experience. I took constitutional law with the incomparable Larry Tribe. I took an extraordinary class about the Vichy regime taught by the extraordinary Patrice Higonnet. I got to watch a young Samantha Power, now the US Ambassador to the UN, get her bearings as a journalist-turned-academic. And the friendship of my Nieman classmates, American and foreign-born, is priceless.
But, for me, the indisputable highlight of that year was being able to sit in on Helen Vendler’s seminar on Seamus Heaney. Like Heaney, the great Irish poet who died Friday at the age of 74, Vendler is an international treasure. No academic or critic gets Heaney the way she does. At least that’s what Heaney told me.
And that is why getting a spot in her class on Heaney was like hitting the lottery. So many students want in, but she kept it to a cool dozen, because for her digesting the words of Seamus Heaney is akin to a plate of fine oysters: too many and you’ll miss the briny magnificence of those words.
—His post-Boston Marathon columns. From “A Perfect Marathon Day, Then the Unimaginable:”
It was Patriots Day. It was tax day. It was Israel’s independence day. Theories swirled like the smoke above Boylston Street. Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the FBI assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the 18th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Then there was the story about the young Saudi guy who was being questioned by the FBI. Now, the FBI wouldn’t tell me if my pants were on fire, but my old pal John Miller from CBS News reported that the kid did a runner after the explosion and that somebody tackled him and held him for the police. Miller used to be an associate director at the FBI, and let’s just say his sources there are impeccable. Miller says the Saudi guy was cooperative and denied he had anything to do with the bombing. He says he took off because, like everybody else in the Back Bay, he was terrified. A law enforcement source later told me that Miller’s story is right on the money.
I saw Lisa Hughes from WBZ-TV trying to do her job, amid the blood and the body parts. And then I remembered that Lisa, who is as nice a person as you’ll find in this business, married a guy from Wellesley named Mike Casey who lost his wife Neilie on one of the planes out of Boston that crashed into the Twin Towers. And then I tried not to cry and just marveled at how professional Lisa was.
From “For Emergency Workers, a Moment Away:”
Jerry Foley, the great barman, cleared a table in the back on the lounge side of JJ Foley’s, the famous South End tavern, just after midnight.
The young cops, their faces a mix of exhaustion and relief, sat down heavily. They weren’t really there for the beer. They just wanted to sit. They just wanted to unwind, in a place where they didn’t have to train their guns on somebody.
They raised their glasses, to a job well done. A 19-year-old kid who held 1 million people hostage in their own homes was finally in custody, and maybe, just maybe, Bostonians will get some answers to why he and his disaffected 26-year-old brother decided to kill and maim innocents at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
“To Sean,” they said.
—His Whitey Bulger trial coverage, including his compelling live tweets. From “In the End, Everything Has Passed Whitey by:”
When the marshals drove him up Northern Avenue Monday, away from the courthouse named for his old neighbor Joe Moakley for the next-to-last time, it may have dawned on Whitey Bulger that he never got to set foot on the shiny new waterfront of his hometown, South Boston.
Among the crimes Whitey was convicted of was opening fire 31 years ago just down Northern Avenue, killing Brian Halloran, a hoodlum, and Michael Donahue, an innocent man who made the mistake of offering a ride home to someone Whitey wanted dead.
Back then, the Southie waterfront was a seedy, seldom-visited section of the city. On windy days, the smell from the fish processing plants in the Lower End wafted toward the waterfront. There were only a handful of decent restaurants — Anthony’s Pier 4, Jimmy’s Harborside, the Daily Catch — and the local bars were gritty gin mills.
Today, the waterfront glistens with new money and frenetic energy. Office and apartment buildings sprout up every year. Gleaming restaurants open every month. In the 16 years that Whitey hid in open view in Santa Monica, the Southie waterfront was reborn and rebranded as the Seaport.
—His book, Whitey Bulger, co-authored with the Globe’s Shelley Murphy:
On the map of coastal Boston, South Boston doesn’t look like anything special, just a stubby peninsula jutting out into the harbor, but in this case geography deceives. It is in fact a place apart, an island more than a peninsula, imbued almost since it was first settled with a proud separatism, an overweening sense of self. It might be a function of its having been so unwanted for so long. It might also be that for those who landed here, it was all they had, the first taste of security and possession and home.
Out of this place would come James “Whitey” Bulger. And from the shadows, he would one day rule it.
Before bridges connected it to the rest of the city in the nineteenth century, South Boston actually was an island at high tide, a place that was home to more cows than people. In 1673, James Foster, one of the Puritans who settled in the area, built the first house on Leek Hill, near the present-day intersection of E and Silver streets. By the start of the Revolutionary War, there were a dozen families living in what was called Dorchester Neck, but they fled as British forces flooded Boston. It was a bitter but timely retreat. The redcoats swept the Neck in February 1776 and burned down all the buildings. Within a month, this first incursion of unwelcome outsiders into Southie would be avenged when colonial forces used Dorchester Heights, overlooking the bay, to aim cannon at the enemy fleet.
—The 10 columns that won him the Batten prize, which is given in honor of the late Jim Batten, a former reporter, editor, and Knight-Ridder CEO. From “Separation, and Anxiety:”
It is the lull between lunch and dinner when the phone at Hingham House of Pizza grows cold, so Akram Dous puts down the dough roller and pulls out his cellphone to call his wife in Egypt.
“I told her to stay inside,’’ he says of the woman he has rarely seen since they married four years ago. “It’s too dangerous to go out.’’
Akram Dous is 31 years old, five years in this country, and he watches the images of his native land in open revolt and is torn between wanting freedom for his country and freedom for his family. Those things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but freedom for his wife and daughter must come first.
Akram Dous is a walking explanation of why Egyptians have taken to the streets. He got a college degree to teach but is making pizzas and submarine sandwiches in America because he lived in a country that can educate its young people but can’t put them to work.
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.