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Covering the case
Rhode Islanders can choose from a buffet of coverage when it comes to the Plunder Dome trial of Providence Mayor Vincent A. 'Buddy' Cianci Jr.

Photo by Richard McCaffrey

A highly anticipated ruling in the corruption trial of Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. and three codefendants -- about the admissibility of a secretly recorded conversation between former aides Thomas J. Rossi and Frank E. Corrente, replete with supposedly salacious details about Cianci's sex life -- was barely a few hours old when the daily dissection started anew.

In the categorical analysis of WHJJ-AM talk show host John DePetro, Chief US District Court Judge Ernest C. Torres's decision on Monday, May 20 to admit part of the FBI recording, which was taped by Rossi during a 1999 meeting with Corrente at a Dunkin' Donuts in Cranston, was "highly incriminating" and "a devastating, devastating blow" for Cianci's defense.

Not everyone saw it that way, though. An Associated Press dispatch didn't characterize the ruling as favorable for the prosecution or defense. Writing for, the Web site of the Providence Journal, David McPherson called it "a partial victory for both sides." Next-day coverage in the Journal and Boston Globe was fairly subdued in describing the significance of the decision. And DePetro was quickly contradicted by one of his regular guests, political reporter Jim Hummel of WLNE-TV (Channel 6), who noted that Torres excluded more of the tape than he left in, at least for now. With Corrente facing most of the impact, "How much spillover there will be for the mayor is yet to be seen," Hummel noted.

Although the ban on television cameras in federal courts has severely restricted the direct audience for the Plunder Dome trial to fewer than 40 people on a given day, detailed coverage can be found through a variety of outlets, including the detailed sweep of the Journal, the compressed reports of local television news, the updates of public radio station WRNI-AM, and the buzz of talk shows. And rather than representing a shortcoming, the contrasting viewpoints and different facets of the case that come through can be seen as real strength. In an age of intensifying consolidation of the national media, Rhode Islanders have the opportunity to pick and choose from a highly varied buffet of coverage, taking into account the idiosyncrasies of a particular source.

It's not really surprising, for example, that DePetro -- who wears his disdain for Cianci on his sleeve -- would perceive a mixed decision to be more favorable for the prosecution. ("Good," he remarked after being told by Hummel that lead prosecutor Richard W. Rose seemed to be taking a tougher approach during the start of the fifth week of the trial. "They've been too easy on these witnesses.") Similarly, Dan Yorke of WPRO-AM, who tends to be more sympathetic to Cianci, described the action regarding the admissibility of the tape as a wash, saying, "Sum total of this: not much going on." Yorke has also been out front in raising questions about friendly connections between Rose and mayoral candidate David Cicilline -- a matter that has gone unmentioned in the Journal. (Disclosure: Yorke has invited me to be a regular guest on his show.)

Photo by Richard McCaffrey

On the surface, the tone set by the Journal's headlines has generally been less favorable for Cianci than those in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald -- providing at least a little fuel for the mayor's critical view of the paper. Still, the Journal remains the most comprehensive source of Plunder Dome news, offering copious accounts of the court action, anecdotes, three daily Web updates, a weekly summary in the Sunday paper, citizen-friendly information on how to see the trial, and evocative photos of defendants and witnesses on their way to or from court.

The case against Cianci and his three codefendants is very familiar terrain for the members of the paper's investigative team, Mike Stanton (who has a deal to write a book about Cianci), Bill Malinowski, and Tracy Breton, who broke the news of many of the underlying elements of the case, such as the dispute between Cianci and the University Club, and Edward Voccola's suspicious $1.2 million lease from the city, long before the trial began. Unresolved tension between Belo-backed management and the Providence Newspaper Guild notwithstanding, the Plunder Dome coverage is proof positive that the Journal will still commit significant journalistic resources for big local stories.

Even in the realm of local television news, not always a place to turn for in-depth coverage, Rhode Island fares well by comparison, particularly since the three lead Plunder Dome reporters -- Hummel, Jim Taricani of WJAR-TV (Channel 10), Jack White of WPRI (Channel 12) -- are veterans who certainly know their way around the state's political intrigues. WPRI has made a particular commitment to Plunder Dome coverage, offering a half-hour of expanded coverage each weekday at 4:30.

Cianci, of course, is a reporter's dream and an American original, the driven, charismatic, irrepressible, and bullying man who overcame his notorious 1984 assault conviction to preside over the nationally celebrated Providence Renaissance even while coming under federal scrutiny. After years of cascading publicity about the city's revival, it's no wonder that the racketeering case against the 61-year-old mayor has attracted significant interest from outside of Rhode Island.

The Globe and Herald have regularly covered the Plunder Dome trial, and representatives of the national media, including the New York Times, Time, and Don Imus, have passed through town. Philip Gourevitch, the author of two books, including We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, has been in court recently, on assignment from the New Yorker.

Photo by Richard McCaffrey

Much of the national and regional focus, not to mention the local chatter, has rested on the underlying drama of the case -- "Can Buddy beat the rap?" -- as the headline on Time's May 12 story put it. That question won't be answered until the day in June or July when the 12-person US District Court jury comes back with a verdict. But while the outcome remains uncertain, there's little doubt that the trial has painted a damning portrait of
the underside of business as usual in Providence. Still, considering the length and complexity of the case, not to mention how many potential jurors were unfamiliar with Plunder Dome, one has to wonder about the extent to which people are paying attention beyond the headlines and entertaining details.

Brian C. Mooney, a veteran political reporter who's covering the case for the Boston Globe, came to Rhode Island 11 years to report on the state credit union crisis. His relish was evident when he wrote in a May 20 story that a reporter once called Rhode Island, with its cast of colorful and unsavory characters, "a theme park for journalists." At the same time, Mooney's story noted that The People's Court attracted more viewers before being replaced by WPRI's expanded afternoon Plunder Dome broadcast.

"It's a great story," Mooney told me during a recent pause in the action, "[but] you can't make people pay attention."

TO BE SURE, some people follow the case avidly, getting their Plunder Dome news from a variety of print, broadcast, and Internet sources. In some instances, even with the rich array of coverage, this is the only way to get a vivid sense of the trial.

The May 13 testimony of former Providence police chief Urbano Prignano Jr., for example, was keenly anticipated, not least because of simmering anger within the police department about promotions that may have been linked to payments or other illicit behavior. Malinowski's next-day story nailed the most important news -- that Prignano, testifying under a grant of immunity, indicated he'd given at least two officers test materials with the answers to promotional exams -- but one had to turn to other sources to get a real taste of the former chief's utter cluelessness.

Prignano got the year wrong when he left the department (2001, not 2000), twice refused to answer when prosecutor Rose asked him merely to identify his order of immunity, and, apparently confused, denied having discussions about moving into the chief's job before acknowledging that he indeed had. It was WPRO's Yorke who best captured the tone of his direct examination, called "meandering" in the Journal, by recreating Prignano's testimony from his courtroom notes.

Although there was justified dismay among pundits about a former police chief being compelled to testify under immunity, the more important question was how someone so ill-suited for being the city's top police administrator could rise to that position. Then again, if this came as news to anyone, they clearly weren't paying attention during Prignano's troubled five-year tenure as chief. This was the brief, writ small, of some of Cianci's critics -- that regardless of his criminal culpability, the trial has exposed serious managerial flaws in his oversight of municipal government.

The next morning, WPRO's Steve Kass and WHJJ's DePetro advanced the story in a logical journalistic fashion, taking calls from Michael Marcoccio, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, who supported the revocation of Prignano's pension. Although talk radio sometimes offers more heat than light, this marked an occasion in which the disparate elements of the Rhode Island media were pulling together pieces of the bigger picture. (DePetro, who sought to use the journalist's shield as an investigation probed WJAR's acquisition of the Frank Corrente videotape, nonetheless more closely resembles an entertainer in awarding Plunder Dome prize packages and the like.)

But even though Plunder Dome has become a staple of public discourse, it's doubtful that very many Rhode Islanders are watching the trial with a focus approaching that of Mary Tassone, the retiree who's a fixture in the spectators' section. "I would say the media coverage has been thorough, detailed, and pretty even-handed given the subject matter of the trial," says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. He adds, however, "People's ability to follow the trial has been really limited by the fact that TV cameras have not been allowed in the courtroom. It would be a much more compelling trial if people could hear the testimony first-hand, but as it is, everything we learn is second-hand, so it's not like [the amount of attention attracted by] the O.J. Simpson case."

This much is clear: the outcome of Cianci's trial will be reported far and wide -- and those who have exhibited only a passing interest will finally sit up and take notice.

In the interim, it's sometimes hard to tell whether it's typical Rhode Islanders or local and out-of-town reporters who get the bigger kick out of the picaresque elements of Plunder Dome. Much of it seems straight from the schemers' universe of David Mamet and the Sopranos, "thugs and bad rugs," in the parlance of DePetro. Or as ProJo columnist M. Charles Bakst -- who consistently voices outrage about the case -- wrote in an April 28 column about David Ead's use of "pizza and soda" as code for payoffs, "I mean, could Hollywood invent this stuff?"

Writing in the national section of the Times on May 7, former ProJo reporter Dan Barry captured the gestalt of the trial in a piece that highlighted the contrast between Cianci's voluble manner and the unusual need for him to be quiet and restrained in court. Like similar stories in the Globe and Herald, Barry cited the sense of "a city of 173,000 so greased by the I-know-a-guy style of politics that it seems to teeter between farce and tragedy."

Barry noted some of the closely linked connections in the case, from director Michael Corrente, a relative of Frank E. Corrente, who's looking at making a movie based on Stanton's book, to Charlie Hall, the courtroom sketch artist and comedian, who's writing a play entitled Buddy: The Musical, and who made some of the jokes that helped to inspire Cianci's ire at the University Club. The piece also cited Voccola's threat, previously reported in the Journal, to an insurance adjuster from Connecticut: "This is Rhode Island; I'll blow up your car and kill you."

Although unfamiliar with this level of detail, some out-of-towners see Plunder Dome as part and parcel of Providence's authenticity.

A May 5 travel story in the Hartford Courant advised readers that Cianci's federal corruption trial is "all the more reason to come join the fun. Sure, Providence in the past 10 years has become a trendy town of more serious professionals. But beneath the crisp new suit, it still remains a Runyonesque town where hard-edged, colorful characters like Cianci still set the tone. Providence is white collar without the starch, renaissance without the pretense or capital R. It's proudly parochial, comfortable in its skin."

But for his part, Journal op-ed columnist Ed Achorn, a sharp critic of Cianci, sure doesn't appreciate Providence's regained notoriety. "I suspect many Rhode Islanders feel a kind of perverse pride that the trial of their loveable mayor is being covered by the likes of the Economist, the New York Times, Time magazine, Imus In the Morning," Achorn wrote in a column on Tuesday, May 21. "But can they keep smiling as the testimony drones on, day after day, exposing the shabbiness, the secret fears, the lies of public life in Providence? If they can, they will continue to get exactly the kind of government they want."

THE STORY certainly has the rapt attention of the media, if not a deep percentage of the public. Karen Tumulty, a Washington, DC-based national political correspondent for Time, parachuted in during a relatively uneventful phase in week three of the trial since, as she told me, it was more interesting than anything in the capital. Not surprisingly, her story focused on the outsized personality of the star defendant. Tumulty launched her description of a night on the town with Cianci by citing the presence of his visage on a bottle of olive oil at a Federal Hill restaurant.

Cianci, who relishes the media attention away from court and doesn't hesitate to point out his high approval ratings, naturally wants to have it both ways. Reminded by the Time reporter of a Brown survey in which half of respondents said they don't believe he's honest, Cianci cited the perception as the product of "hype in the media."

As portrayed in the May 12 story, the mayor struck a self-effacing tone, saying of the extortion charge involving the University Club, "You think it would take me 25 years to screw them if I wanted to? If I was that kind of guy." Cianci also indicated that he toyed with making the Roger Williams Park Casino into the mayor's house, "but I didn't have the balls." The Time piece ended by capturing the mayor in a characteristically competitive stance, with him muttering, "Try following that," after wowing a dinner crowd with jokes and then running into one of his unspecified rivals in the mayor's race.

Although the media has played a crucial role in spreading word of the Providence Renaissance, there's little love lost between Cianci and the Journal, which has persistently probed for misdeeds during his two administrations. When details of Stanton's book deal were discussed during a few months ago during a news event at Prospect Park on the East Side, the mayor accused the reporter of capitalizing on him and encouraged him to play in traffic.

Headlines in the Globe and the Herald have tended to raise more doubts about the Cianci prosecution than the Journal, but the ProJo has been nothing if not comprehensive in its coverage of the trial. "What I've seen in the Journal is pretty factual, without drawing too many conclusions about what a particular bit of testimony may mean," says West, the Brown professor. "I thought they were low-key in reporting how efficiently [Richard] Egbert dismantled David Ead, but then they also haven't been very flamboyant about publishing [news of] the rigged test in the police department and the allegations of outright bribery."

The Journal has clearly avoided offering any news analysis of the trial, and some readers might benefit from a greater sense of the cumulative effort thus far. Journal executive editor Joel Rawson, who adopted a policy last summer of not speaking with the Phoenix, declined comment through an assistant. Says West, "I think the Journal wants to be careful not to overstep its role in reporting the news and is trying to not get in the middle of the story itself." Given Stanton's book deal and the paper's history of hostile relations with Cianci, it seems like a smart choice.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]

Issue Date: May 24 - 30, 2002