Former ‘Spotlight’ reporter Stephen Kurkjian talks free press, election

Stephen Kurkjian is pictured. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
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Stephen Kurkjian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and founding member of the investigative “Spotlight” team of The Boston Globe, spoke to the Tufts community on Oct. 29 in an event entitled “Free Press: Enemy of the People or Democracy’s Lifeblood?” The event was co-sponsored by Tufts’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

Kurkjian opened the conversation by criticizing President Donald Trump for his attack on the credibility of journalists and the free press.

“In the last four years … we’ve had to withstand the most witheringly negative attack on our most important commodity as newspaper people — our credibility — in the history of the country, by perhaps our big greatest demagogue, Donald Trump,” Kurkjian said.

Citing Thomas Jefferson, Kurkjian argued that a free press is essential to a vibrant democracy, without which there could be dangerous consequences.

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“As [Jefferson] saw it … whatever party was out of favor — the minority party — it would never be able to be heard unless it had an unrestrained press … [without which] there could be no peaceful transition of power,” Kurkjian said.

He later explained that as an Armenian American, journalism salvaged his family lineage. He recounted the history of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and noted that the New York Times’ reporting of the genocide enabled Armenians to escape to the sanctuary city of Aleppo and to receive support and sustenance from missionaries in the United States.

Kurkjian also discussed the importance of journalistic integrity to the development of Somerville. He explained that in the 1960s, the city administration was plagued by corruption and nepotism, which led to stagnation in the city’s growth, but Somerville was revitalized after the Spotlight team broke the story about the city administrators’ giving no-bid contracts to relatives and friends.

“We broke that story, three or four or five days of articles, and it stirred the people, so much so that then when they had a public meeting … people would come in with little insignia [that says] ‘I believe in Spotlight,’” Kurkjian said. “The city started to come alive, and people wanted to go to Somerville. That’s what strong, authoritative reporting can do.”

Recalling the Spotlight team’s reporting of the child-molesting scandals by Catholic priests in the Boston area — the story that inspired the movie “Spotlight” (2015), in which Kurkjian is also a character — Kurkjian explained how journalists could convincingly have difficult conversations with their sources.

“I said to [one of the priests], Father … priests have been abusing kids and getting away for it for decades, and the only way it gets broken open will be if people like yourself whose lives have been ruined by this cycle of abuse speak about it,” he said. “[To talk to sources is to] appeal to their better angels, to say something good will come out of it. Yes, you may see your name in the paper, but something good will come out of it.”

The conversation later opened to questions from the audience.

Kurkjian bemoaned the financial downturn the journalism industry has faced in recent years, observing that while local reporting is the most vital to people’s lives, the Globe could not sustain its foreign bureaus for financial reasons.

He reassured the audience that the Globe is committed to addressing issues surrounding racial justice, and he believes that the Black Lives Matter movement will bring positive change to Boston.

“I talked to my conservative friends, and they say, Black Lives Matter is going to be the only thing that saves us because Black Lives Matter has credibility in the inner city. Nothing else does,” Kurkjian said.

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