Minihane: A closer look at the Boston Globe's storyteller, Kevin Cullen

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Photo credit Darren McCollester/Getty Images
"He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed them all as fact.
Just because ... we found him entertaining."
- Shattered Glass

I’ve always had my doubts about the work of Kevin Cullen.

Not that I read him a lot in the Boston Globe. His stuff was never anything approaching must-read status. But when I did read him, the stories almost always struck me as too clean. It all tied together in a way that seemed unrealistic. There were characters with no last names, dialogue that seemed better served in a Dennis Lehane novel, and lots and lots of firefighters, cops and bartenders who knew Cullen well, were his buddies. This was always a theme — Cullen was one of them, one of the good guys. 

Also this: Cullen cast himself as a tough guy, not afraid to fight for the truth. In his world, in his mind, the politicians hated him, the corporations hated him, he was on our side against the system. 

We’ll get to all the Marathon business in a moment, but just read the first half of his column from April 11, 2018 on the late Charles Austin of WBZ-TV and then we’ll ask a couple of questions.

"Years ago, when Ronald Reagan was still president, and I still had black hair, I showed up at a press conference at the attorney general’s office near the State House.
"As I was about to enter the room where all the cameras were lined up, some guy barred me at the door.
"'Too late,' he said, not looking me in the eye. 'You’re too late.'
"I looked over his shoulder. Reporters were milling around. No one was at the podium.
"'But it hasn’t even started,' I told the guy.
"He shook his head. Folded his arms.
"Now, I was born at night but I wasn’t born in the dark. I knew what was going on. A few days earlier, I had written a story about some screw-up at the AG’s office. It wasn’t even that big of a deal. The story ran inside the paper.
"But some flunky in the AG’s office decided to do to me what Seamus the Irish Setter used to do to the roof of Mitt Romney’s car.
Across the room, I saw Charlie Austin watching the whole thing. Charlie worked for Channel 4, and I knew him pretty well from the street. He was a good guy. A real reporter.
"So Charlie comes across the room and confronts the jerk from the AG’s office and asks what the problem is.
"The jerk from the AG’s office starts fumbling some lame excuse about me being too late to get in and Charlie starts remonstrating. The jerk from the AG’s office said something about me always being late and screwing stuff up and asking stupid questions.
"'Yeah,' Charlie goes, 'we know Kevin’s an [expletive], but he’s our [expletive].'
"Those, apparently, were the magic words. Because the jerk from the AG’s office just stepped aside and I walked in, high-fiving Charlie as I passed and Charlie continued to give the jerk from the AG’s office the evil eye."

OK. There’s a couple of Cullen trademarks here. One, the nickname for the subject, which I guess is a tool to let us know he’s buddies or close to whomever he’s writing about (which explains “Marty” for Martin Richard or "Janey" for Jane Richard, which we’ll get to later). Another Cullen staple is the idea that the government is against him, his work is so relevant and biting that someone from the AG’s office would attempt to bar him from entering a press conference. Third, the friend coming in and saving the day, but at the same time letting us know what a hard-ass Cullen is. 

Now, this is just a random column, one of thousands Cullen has written. It may be all true, though I seriously doubt it. If I worked at the Globe and my assignment was to check Cullen’s work I’d have some questions:

What was the story you wrote that pissed off the AG’s office?

What was the name of the "jerk" who wouldn’t let you into the press conference?

When was this press conference and what was it about?

Is there any other person who was at that press conference and can verify you were in fact barred from entering?

Why wouldn’t you write about that incident if it had in fact happened? 

Did anyone else see Austin confront the “jerk” from the AG’s office? 

Those are six questions I guarantee Cullen was never asked. They just let his stuff run without any questions, I suspect, because they wanted to believe it. Given the history of the Globe, with Mike Barnicle, Patricia Smith, and Jayson Blair, this lack of fact-checking is either incredible or shockingly arrogant. My guess is both.

So I’d guess maybe 18 months ago, before the show one morning, I turned to Gerry Callahan and told him there’s a lot of Barnicle in Cullen. And I really did file that thought away until a few months ago, when Cullen decided to take to Twitter to call WEEI a home of “open racism” while of course offering zero proof. At that point I started reading his work regularly, and once again had the same doubts as before. Nothing, though, prepared me for his column on April 14, 2018.

Titled “Five Years Later, We Feel The Grief Like A Sixth Sense,” Cullen writes about the upcoming five-year anniversary of the bombing. I read it before the show last Monday and knew after the first three or four paragraphs that something was seriously off. 

"I happened upon a house fire recently, in Mattapan, and the smell reminded me of Boylston Street five years ago, when so many lost their lives and their limbs and their sense of security.
"I can smell Patriots Day, 2013. I can hear it. God, can I hear it, whenever multiple fire engines or ambulances are racing to a scene.
"I can taste it, when I’m around a campfire and embers create a certain sensation.
"I can see it, when I bump into survivors, which happens with more regularity than I could ever have imagined. And I can touch it, when I grab those survivors’ hands or their shoulders."

I’ve watched biased people (hello to Dan Kennedy, WGBH and all the people who take money from the Globe) try and sell this idea that Cullen has been ambiguous regarding his location at the time the bombs went off at the finish line. That is, of course, total and complete bullshit. Read those last four paragraphs and tell me this is someone who wants you to believe he wasn’t there.

He can smell it? Taste it? See it? Touch it?

My question last Monday morning was a simple one: Was Cullen present at the bombing? I had never read that he was, but I could’ve missed it. So we went back (and we’ll return again to the April 14, 2018 column) and read his story the day after the bombing in 2013. And here’s some of what we found:

"And so it was alternately poignant and horrifying to watch as first responders frantically pulled metal barriers and the flags of so many different countries down into Boylston Street in a desperate rush to get to the dead and the injured on the sidewalk.
"After the initial explosion, runners instinctively craned their necks toward the blast site. Then, 12 seconds later, a second explosion, further up Boylston. It was pandemonium. I saw an older runner wearing high rise pink socks, about to cross the finish line. He was knocked to the ground by a photographer running up Boylston Street toward the second explosion. In an instant, so many lives changed. Some ended. The telephone lines burned. Everybody was trying to figure out who and why."

Cullen never writes if he was actually there at the scene, but he leads any reasonable person in that direction. He "saw" an older runner? He "watched" first responders pull metal barriers? 

Right away I believed he wasn’t there. And the main reason why? A guy like Cullen would never leave that kind of detail out. He’d make himself the story, put himself in the middle. But he couldn’t. So he did the best he could to dance around and hope no one called him out. And he knew his own paper didn’t care enough about the truth or didn’t want to know the truth.

Later that morning the show received a Tweet from someone who had heard Cullen on Bob Ryan’s Podcast. About 59 minutes in, Ryan asked Cullen if he had seen the movie "Patriots' Day," the 2016 movie about the bombing. Cullen quickly made the answer about his own post-marathon experience:

"I must say, like a month after the bombing I was completely screwed up myself. I was not taking care of myself, was not eating right, was drinking too much, was not getting the proper exercise and sleep. I think it was almost second-hand PTS, I was just dealing with so many people who had been traumatized, it really affected me. I remember really crying at night and stuff after talking to people."

Again, sound like someone who wasn’t there? And Cullen only gets into the PTS(D) after describing the terrible months after the marathon for rescue workers who were actually at the bombing. He can’t help himself.

So Chris Curtis and I continued to dig. Cullen was happy to speak to media right after the bombing. This is what he had to say to the BBC on April 16, 2013, the day after the bombing:

"I was probably like a mile away from the scene, but I kind of heard it."

What? Like a mile away? Kind of heard it? Where were you, exactly? And who could hear it a mile away? No one I’ve spoken to who was a mile or so away heard anything. The runners at Mile 25, who were stopped, couldn’t hear it. No one at Fenway has claimed to hear it. Just Cullen, who was "probably" a mile away and "kind" of heard it. More on this interview later, but let’s stay focused on Cullen’s location before we get to the more incriminating stuff.

On Thursday morning I decided to call Cullen during a commercial and try and get some answers. He picked up after a couple rings, I identified myself, and we had a brief conversation:

Me: Were you present when the bombs went off at the finish line?

Cullen: Was I ever at the scene?

Me: Were you there when it happened?

Cullen: No. I got there a few hours later … I can’t talk right now.

Me: Would you like to tell me about your relationship with Sean O’Brien (more on that later)?

Cullen: No. 

And he hung up. I’ve tried calling him several times since, but he hasn’t answered my calls. So we really have no idea where he was — Cullen mentions in his column the day after the bombing (and in the book "Our Boston: Writers Celebrate The City They Love") how he "watched in awe" of the coverage from WBZ-TV’s Lisa Hughes at the finish line. So was he watching TV all day? How could he watch Hughes if he was at the finish line? Where was he a mile away? The Globe isn’t a mile away. Morrissey Blvd. is nearly four miles away. Again, questions that should’ve been asked and never were. 

In that day after the column, Cullen writes this about the Richard family: 

"This is how bad this is. I went out Monday night and bumped into some firefighters I know. They said one of the dead was an 8-year-old boy from Dorchester who had gone out to hug his dad after he crossed the finish line. The dad walked on; the boy went back to the sidewalk to join his mom and his little sister. And then the bomb went off. The boy was killed."

Again, where was he? So now he’s out in Boston on Monday night? What time? Where? So he’s of course talking about Martin Richard, who was killed in the bombing. But Bill Richard didn’t run the Marathon, and there is no way anyone would be allowed to walk out at the finish line and hug a runner. That hasn’t been allowed for years, well before 2013. If Cullen had spent a minute of his life at the finish line he’d know that, as would any fact checker worth a nickel. Cullen expands on this with the BBC:

"I know him (Bill Richard). He had just finished the marathon, and his son Martin, who is 8-years old, ran out into the street and hugged him. And then Bill had to go on, I guess you have to register your time, and Martin went back to his Mom and his sister, and then the bomb went off and Martin was killed."

Nope, you don’t have to register your time at all. There is a chip on your shoe that takes care of that, has been the case for years. This isn’t a 5K in 1982, this is the biggest race in the world five years ago. There’s no way a runner finishes the race, comes back out (also never happens — once you’re done at Boston they move you away from the finish line, you never get close again) and a child gets over the barriers, gets on the route and hugs his dad. That is simply impossible. I suppose it’s all irrelevant when you realize Bill Richard never ran the race.

Another Cullen theme — he knows everyone. Every cop, firefighter, union rep, guy on the street, politician, everyone. Which leads us to his next thought with the BBC:

"I know the firefighter, a young terrific firefighter who carried the girl (Jane Richard) to the ambulance and, uh, he’s very upset and wished he could’ve done more."

Here we officially enter the world of fiction. In yet another interview with the BBC, Cullen tells us about the firefighter who rescued Jane Richard:

"I just got off the phone, not long ago, with a young firefighter I’m very concerned about. He’s a young kid, he’s a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he told me what he saw today was worse than anything he saw in a warzone. He carried a young girl who had a brother killed at the scene, I actually know the father, he just ran the race today … and the daughter, the girl, my friend Sean the firefighter picked her up and he carried her to an ambulance and he said when he put her down he realized her leg was missing. And he went back to the scene and he told me he crawled on his legs and his hand and his knees trying to find her leg and he couldn’t find it."

The "Sean" Cullen is referring to is Sean O’Brien, a veteran Dorchester firefighter who was at the scene and did talk to Cullen the day after the bombing. O’Brien, though, said he never told Cullen he carried Jane Richard anywhere. That was Matt Patterson, a Lynn firefighter who was off duty that day. I spoke to Patterson last Thursday and he wanted no credit or praise for what he did. It was his job. And I could tell he had no desire, really, to go over the events of that day again. He told me he had never heard of Cullen until last week and had never talked to him. What’s also odd is that it became clear, pretty quickly, that Patterson was the man who had carried Jane Richard. NECN had a story. WBZ. NY Daily News. The city of Lynn honored him in May of 2013. How did Cullen not correct this?

So there it all is. Cullen was either given totally false information from an unknown firefighter named Sean or wanted to tell a gripping, cinematic story to please the BBC about his friend Bill Richard and his friend Sean the firefighter. Was the image of a heroic firefighter crawling on his hands and knees, in the middle of chaos, to recover a limb of a child too tempting for Cullen to pass on, regardless of truth?

Also, when I spoke to Patterson he told me it would be virtually impossible for anyone with any rescue history to not know right away that someone had lost a limb — in Cullen’s story Sean the firefighter doesn’t realize this until he puts Jane Richard down in the ambulance. 

On April 20, 2013, Cullen writes about the bombing for the Irish Times. And, once again, Sean the firefighter appears. This time, the storyline about Jane Richard is gone. Now Sean kneels over the body of Martin Richard (which may in fact be true since O’Brien wouldn’t discuss that with me when we talked last week). Cullen writes about a discussion he had with Sean about finding Martin Richard: 

"When I looked at young Marty, Sean told me, I knew he was gone.
"This rugged firefighter, who is muscular and imposing, stopped to regain his composure. His lower lip quivered, and a tear fell from my eye and smudged my notebook."

Sean O’Brien has no memory of ever seeing Cullen cry in front of him. Cullen refers to him as his "friend" Sean in several places, but O’Brien says they met a few times right after the bombing and that was really it. He hasn’t spoken to Cullen in years. 

The Globe has announced they have suspended Cullen - with pay - while conducting an investigation into his work. I have no idea if they’ll look deeper than just the Marathon coverage. Of course they should. It’s borderline insane to think that someone would act this way for just a couple of days of a 30-year career. And just a quick glance at many of his works in the past raises plenty of red flags. But this is a bigger issue than Cullen, one that goes all the way to Brian McGrory, the editor of the Boston Globe. 

How did this happen? Who missed what? After all the issues of the past, including a hideously botched inward look at the paper’s history of sexual harassment, how was Cullen allowed to present himself this way in the paper and as a spokesman for the paper? It boggles the mind. 

I don’t like Kevin Cullen and have little respect for the Boston Globe. My bias is clear. But the truth is the truth and the facts are right in front of you. Should Cullen be punished less or viewed differently because The Kirk & Callahan Show broke the story? How absurd would that be?

Let’s leave the last words to Kevin Cullen, shall we? This is from the five-year anniversary story that ran last Sunday. Read this and tell me if this passes the test, if you believe it. Or is it the work of someone who wanted things to be true? Someone who wanted to be close to firefighters, wanted to think he was friends with people who have earned respect and compassion, people who have gone through tragedy and probably can’t comprehend why someone might want to sort of pretend he was part of it too. Pretend, for a moment, you work for the Boston Globe and your job is make sure everything Kevin Cullen writes is accurate. How many questions would you have after this?

"A few months ago, I was driving down Gallivan Boulevard, on the way to the Eire Pub, to talk to a man about a horse. As I was turning up Adams Street, I spied Jane Richard standing on the sidewalk, waiting to cross. She probably had just left her part-time job at College Hype, where the great Jack Doherty gives her a few hours of work here and there. 
"Jane lost her leg that day, and she lost her brother, Martin, who at 8 was a year older than she was. Since the bombing, Jane has been my talisman. A few months after the bombing, she posed wearing her tiger leg, the prosthesis that would let her run if not make her a semblance of the Irish step dancer she was before a couple of losers decided to put a bomb behind her and her siblings. I remember seeing that photo and smiling for the first time in weeks.
"'Janey!' I called out through my open window.
"It startled her, and she turned and looked in my direction and, without really knowing who I was or why I had called out, she smiled and waved enthusiastically.
"I parked in the Old Dorchester Post parking lot and as soon as I turned the engine off, for reasons I can’t completely explain, I began to weep."

Anyone believe him?