A professor of journalism and co-director of an investigative reporting clinic at Boston University, Dick Lehr, an attorney, also works for the Boston Globe where he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting. Lehr co-authored the New York Times bestseller, Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI, and a Devil’s Deal, which won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime book. A film based on the book, directed by Jim Sheridan [In America, In the Name of the Father] is currently in production.
Lehr is also co-author of Judgment Ridge: the True Story of the Dartmouth Murders, which was a finalist in the 2003 Edgar Awards for Best Fact Crime book, and The Underboss: The Rise and Fall of a Mafia Family.
Title: The Fence
Author: Dick Lehr
Release Date: June 23, 2009
The Fence, Lehr’s most recent book, is about a police cover up along racial divides and among its own ranks. In 1995, Michael Cox, an African American plainclothes officer, was brutally beaten by his fellow police officers after he was mistaken for a murder suspect. During the attack on Cox, Kenny Conley—an Irish American officer from South Boston—was chasing down the actual murder suspect. After the incident, Cox waited weeks for reparation from the Boston Police Department and federal authorities. Instead he faced lies and road blocks. Lehr exhaustively delved into the issue, interviewing Michael Cox, Kenny Conley, and others involved at the time.
Steele: Massachusetts is known as the bluest of the blue states. How can Boston be so racially divided?
Lehr: Boston is not exempt from the same historical racial divisions that are part of American life, in US cities everywhere, but especially in older cities like Boston where neighborhood and ethnic identities run so deep.
Steele: How did you become interested in this story?
Lehr: As a reporter at the Boston Globe, I began writing about the Cox case in connection with a year-long investigative series about corruption in the Boston Police Department.
Steele: Why did you decide to write this book?
Lehr: For many reasons. The drama of the police chase, the horror of the beating, and the fact cops left one of their own bleeding on the ground were jaw-dropping. Being fascinated with the blue wall of silence and a police culture of cover-up of wrongdoing, I saw this quintessential case through which to examine those issue – which, by the way, are hardly unique to Boston but are part of policing everywhere.
Steele: Are you particularly interested in Irish-Catholic Boston [Black Mass] or is that just a coincidence?
Lehr: Coincidence. I’m interested in Boston, present and past.
Steele: How does being an attorney influence your investigative journalism?
Lehr: It’s helped in terms of research, knowing my way around the courts and with legal procedure.
Steele: You write about very sensitive topics. What is the biggest challenge in investigating the stories? How do you get people to talk to you?
Lehr: The biggest challenge? Getting the information – the documentation – to tell the story in a dramatic narrative, which is my goal, to write the story so that it reads like a novel even though it’s fact-based, as a the best way to get at the underlying issues and themes. There’s no one way to get people talking. Sometimes it’s a call; other times it is having someone call in your behalf, as a sponsor of sorts; sometimes it’s a letter; sometimes it’s a knock on the door; and sometimes nothing works.
Steele: When was the investigative reporting clinic at BU established? Can you give me more details about it? [I attended the University of Maryland from 1993-1994 and took a computer-assisted-reporting class [with Bill Dedman] which was considered cutting-edge. Then I finished my master’s degree at Boston University in 1995.]
Lehr: With a colleague, I started the clinic my first year of teaching at BU, in 2003-2004. It’s a graduate-level course where students work on real stories, or at least investigate tips, and if they pan out then we see it through to publication. Our stories have run in the Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix.
More recently, the Journalism Department is now home base for the new New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR). People can find out about through the Journalism Department’s website.
Steele: What do you tell your journalism students now as newspapers are dissolving and the face of reporting is rapidly changing?
Lehr: We’re in the midst of a huge paradigm, and it’s not clear how it’s going to look when it’s over, but I believe there will always a be a need and demand for trained journalists – people who know how to report, validate and write and tell a compelling account of events unfolding in the world around us.
Steele: I look forward to meeting you in person on Monday night.
Lehr: Sounds great.
Dick Lehr will be speaking on the Conversations About Race panel– Monday, October 26 at 7:30 p.m. as part of The Concord Festival of Authors.