Newspapers often use up a lot of ink and paper (or pixels and Web sites, as the case may be) telling their readers who and what’s gone wrong. In this, the seventh annual edition of the Providence Phoenix’s "Best" issue, we instead highlight six people and organizations who are doing exceptionally good work. These are local heroes who often labor behind the scenes. Yet they are changing the communities in which they’re based for the better. Regardless of what neighborhood you live in, all of us in Rhode Island are in their debt.
Grab a cup of coffee, settle in, and prepare yourself to be inspired.
Although he was initially disinclined to pursue a job in television, Jim Taricani has hewed to the best bedrock journalistic values during his distinguished broadcast career in Providence. This helps to explain why the WJAR-TV (Channel 10) investigative reporter seemed the picture of equanimity even while facing a prison sentence for failing to identify the source of a dramatic videotape aired before the Plunder Dome trial of former Providence mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr.
We spoke on November 4, the same day that US District Court Judge Ernest C. Torres offered Taricani two weeks to either identify his source or face a November 18 trial — and a maximum of six months in prison — for criminal contempt. Anchor Doug White, general manager Lisa Churchville, and other WJAR colleagues approached Taricani to offer support and share their concern, but the veteran reporter remained grounded by a principle. The bottom line, he says, is how "one of the tools of our trade is using confidential sources. We have to uphold that promise. If we can’t use confidential sources, and the sources don’t have confidence in us, the public is going to be deprived of a lot of stories they should know about, especially in the realm of government affairs and government corruption."
Some speculated that federal prosecutors leaked the surveillance videotape broadcast by Taricani in early 2002, which showed former Cianci aide Frank Corrente taking a bribe from confidential informant Antonio Freitas, to weaken Cianci’s defense and put pressure on Corrente to cooperate. Corrente, as it turned out, remained unmoved — he, Cianci, and several codefendants were convicted of corruption-related offenses — and the source of the tape remains a mystery. Torres has said he is pursuing the case against Taricani because of the need to know who violated a court order, breaking the law, by providing the videotape to the reporter.
Obviously, no one relishes a trip to the Adult Correctional Institutions, located, coincidentally, a stone’s throw from WJAR’s Cranston offices, but the prospect of going to prison raises particular concerns for Taricani since he received a heart transplant in 1996. Because his immune system is suppressed to tolerate the transplant, he is more susceptible to colds and infections, and uninvited sexual contact, he says flatly, "could be lethal."
But Taricani (an occasional Phoenix contributor) remains resolute in indicating that he won’t identify his source, and is prepared to accept the consequences, even if he doesn’t agree with them. The 55-year-old North Kingstown resident came to Rhode Island from his native Connecticut as a reporter for a small West Warwick radio station in the early ’70s. Despite his disdain for the tube ("I hated TV, swore I would never go into television," he says), Taricani, who developed a knack for investigative reporting, eventually found himself working in the medium, spending the bulk of his career as a familiar face on Channel 10.
A wall near Taricani’s desk is adorned with articles from various newspapers — the Providence Journal, Providence Phoenix, Boston Globe, and New York Times, among others – about the reporters, including himself, who are facing prison time for failing to identify their sources. Besides this sort of professional reinforcement, he steels his thinking in the investigative role models — like former ProJo scribes Jack White, now of WPRI-TV (Channel 12), and Randall Richard, now with the Associated Press — and the experiences that have brought him to this point.
In the ’80s, for example, Taricani was threatened with a multi-million dollar lawsuit after he aired a report linking union boss Arthur Coia Sr. of the Laborers International with the Patriarca crime family. "I was more bent out of shape on that one, because that was the first time something like that had happened to me," Taricani recalls. Although the matter dragged on for nearly a decade, the union’s case ultimately crumbled in court. A high-stakes confrontation in a different case dissolved when Taricani’s confidential source, the late Walter Stone, then the legendary commander of the Rhode Island State Police, was willing to testify about ties between a local carting company and the Patriarca family.
Taricani shares some well-founded concerns about the direction of journalism. Over time, the length of broadcast stories have been dramatically diminished, with more of an emphasis on exciting visuals than what makes a great news story. "I think we are far too concerned about attracting the ‘right’ kind of viewer, the ‘right’ kind of demographic for the sales department," he says. "The media as a whole has dumbed down this country." It’s likely, too, that Taricani’s plight will cause other local reporters and stations to tread more cautiously when presented with similar situations.
For his part, though, in an era when scandals have eroded the credibility of even elite media institutions, Jim Taricani’s watchwords continue to be principle, accountability, and the quest for truth.
— Ian Donnis
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Issue Date: November 19 - 25, 2004
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