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Back on the beat
Jim Taricani talks about the fallout of the source confidentiality agreement that landed him in home confinement for four months
BY IAN DONNIS

AFTER SPENDING a good part of his career reporting on criminals, WJAR-TV (Channel 10) investigative reporter Jim Taricani found himself on the other side of divide when he was convicted of criminal contempt in US District Court last November. The matter at hand was the veteran newsman’s unwillingness to identify the source of a FBI videotape — showing Frank Corrente, a top aide to then-mayor Vincent A. " Buddy " Cianci, accepting a $1000 bribe from a government informant at City Hall — that WJAR broadcast in 2001. Although the graphic depiction of corruption confirmed longtime suspicions about Cianci’s administration, the provision of the videotape also violated a court ban against the distribution of such material.

With Taricani facing a possible prison sentence, the case took a strange turn when he had a " chance encounter " at a coffee shop on the day of his trial with FBI agent W. Dennis Aiken, a longtime source. During a casual conversation that Taricani considered " Dennis to Jim, rather than agent versus reporter, " the reporter unintentionally made it possible for the feds to identify the source of the leaked videotape as lawyer Joseph A. Bevilacqua Jr. (see " The trials of Jim Taricani, " News, December 10, 2004). Bevilacqua was already a well-known figure in Rhode Island, in part because his father had left his post as chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court amid impeachment proceedings in the ’80s.

As it turned out, US District Court Chief Judge Ernest C. Torres sentenced Taricani, 55, a heart transplant recipient with particular health needs, to six months of confinement at his North Kingstown home. The sentence ended April 9, two months early, after Taricani pursued the judge’s invitation to seek " early termination. " (Bevilacqua, who is scheduled for sentencing August 18, faces a federal prison sentence after pleading guilty May 20 to charges of perjury and contempt of court. His law license has also been revoked.)

To some observers, the principle of source confidentiality was overstated in the Taricani case. Torres, for example, made uncharacteristically lengthy remarks after imposing Taricani’s sentence, attempting to debunk a series of " myths, " the judge said, that had grown up around the case. Still, with reporters Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of New York Times facing as much as 18 months in prison for refusing to testify about their sources, Taricani (who enjoyed unstinting support from NBC-owned and operated Channel 10), remains a beacon for most in the journalistic community.

We spoke in WJAR’s newsroom on Thursday, May 26

Q: What was it like coming back to work?

A: Ah, it was great. I like my job, so it was good coming back to work. I begged my news director, Betty-Jo Cugini, not to have anything special done — no cakes. I really wanted to come back and just go to work, and I did. I walked back in here and just started to go through mail that had accumulated, and get my computer back up running, because that had been disconnected. My voicemail had been disconnected because of the court order, so it really felt good to get back to work. I really missed it when I was at home. I didn’t watch a lot of television — purposely didn’t watch a lot of television — but I missed the reporting part of it.

Q: Did going through a period of confinement change the way that you look at your job of being a journalist?

A: What it made me think about a lot was, in broadcast news and print, we need to gain the public’s trust back. The TV that I did watch — and you know, when you’re in this newsroom and you’re involved in your day to day activities, you’re reporting — you kind of never have a chance to sit back and look at what you do from afar. Well, I was afar. So I looked at some of the news that we do. It’s what everybody does — we don’t do anything any differently than any other TV station. But I think part of the problem that we’ve lost some of the respect of the public is that we do too much of the so-called sensational news of the car accidents, and the minor house fires, and the minor police actions, and I understand why we do them.

But I think that if we got to do more serious, issue-oriented news, I don’t know — I don’t know if the audience would accept it — but I think we might gain back some of the respect. And I think that goes along with when reporters get in these situations when they’re talking about protecting sources. If you want to have the public sympathize with you, and empathize with you, they need to respect you first. I thought a lot about what we’re doing in the business. I had tons of time to think. In that way, I don’t know if it changed me. It certainly made me more aware of what we’re doing and where I think we could improve.

Q: There is this crisis of confidence in the media. At the same time, a lot of what is the norm in television news is the industry standard, nationally. Trying to change that is a pretty tall order. What would it take to bring a change to the more issue-oriented reporting that you’re talking about?

A: I think two big things. One is for the industry as a whole to say, " Look, we’re going to do more of this serious news. " But then it takes — the other half of that equation is the public. Because, as you probably know, all of us in the commercial news business, we do research to find out what the public wants to see. And usually what you see on a newscast is what they want to see, because when we try other things, the ratings start to go down. I think the public’s a little bit at fault for being perhaps lazy. You could ask most people in the public. They could probably tell you an awful lot about American Idol. Ask that same person something about the selection of the judges going on in Congress, and they’d probably look at you cross-eyed. So there’s a two-pronged issue, I think, and the public needs to demand better news, and we need to give better news.

Q: You’ve previously said that you felt like you were prosecuted for doing your job. At the same time, by sentencing you to home confinement rather than to prison, Judge Torres exhibited some concern for your health and welfare, and the unique circumstances of your case. How do you reconcile these things, and how do they affect the way you look at the criminal justice system?

A: I’m convinced, and my lawyers were convinced, that had it not been for my heart transplant, I was going to go to prison. I am appreciative of the judge taking my health into consideration, because it was a real consideration. Me, my wife, my family, I had a lot to think about. Having said that, as you know — I think you were in court — we recommended a 30-day sentence. To this day, I think the six-month [sentence] was too harsh. I certainly wasn’t pleased with it. I thought it was too lengthy. I don’t know — I still don’t understand why it was that long.

I was interviewed by someone else, and they asked me what I thought about the judge, and maybe this sounds hypocritical, but I do respect Torres. He’s a by the book judge, and I expected nothing less than him to be stern with me. He’s certainly not a liberal judge, and he’s certainly by the book, so I knew what was coming. But I have faith in the justice system, despite what happened in my case. I don’t like what’s happening to journalists, like Judith Miller and Matt Cooper, who are facing this outrageous sentence; Judith never wrote a story, and Matt Cooper wrote three paragraphs or something about the story, and they’re facing a year-and-a-half in jail. So I don’t like what the justice system is doing to reporters in general, but if we can’t have faith in our justice system, we’re in a hurting way in this country, I think. So I still do have faith in the justice system. That hasn’t just colored me there; I just hope for the best.

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Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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