The Two Jakes

1191595798The drama over the deaths of firefighters Warren Payne and Paul Cahill continued this week with the news that Cahill had a blood alcohol content of .27 and Payne had traces of marijuana and cocaine in his bloodstream, while the two were fighting the fire that killed them. If that weren’t enough, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Merita Hopkins ruled WHDH could not broadcast the autopsy results, which whipped the media into a First Amendment frenzy.

On Wednesday, WHDH wanted to air the results of the autopsies. The Boston Firefighters 718 took the station to court to block the story, and succeeded. Yesterday, Appeals Court Judge Andrew Grainger reversed Judge Hopkins’ decision, verbally explaining that every other news outlet had covered the story, so the ban was pointless. WHDH now has its coverage, but the damage was already done. Media bloggers were livid with the initial decision. Dan Kennedy wrote yesterday:

The courts — right up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court — have consistently ruled that when a confidential document ends up in the hands of the media, there’s nothing that can be done about it. The legal responsibility is on the keepers of those documents not to release them; the media, by contrast, have no legal obligation not to report on them.

Adam Reilly wondered if Hopkins should have heard the case at all, since she was once employed by the City of Boston. Hopkins’ dubious decision now has the stale odor of a cover-up attached to it.

. . . Hopkins was corporation counsel for the City of Boston. The Boston Fire Department, of course, is a city agency. All of which means that, when Hopkins kept a lid (briefly and ineffectually) on this story yesterday, she was basically aiding her former employer in a moment of duress.

The Herald’s editorial staff also checked in and got to the heart of the matter:

There is no more sacred corollary to the First Amendment than the prohibition against prior restraint – something which apparently eluded Judge Hopkins. The news media are perfectly willing to take our lumps after the fact – fines, civil suits, even getting thrown in jail for refusal to name sources. . . . The deaths of these two men now cry out for further investigation – of who knew what and when at that firehouse – and of firehouse procedures generally.

Which is exactly what Mayor Tom Menino called for yesterday after the story broke.

“I’m angry and disappointed,” Menino told the Herald. “We have a strong and competent Fire Department, and the people of this city need to know that. But I am very concerned about what happened that night.”

The fire department may be “strong and competent,” but the Globe found that about 10 percent of Boston’s firefighters were ordered to get substance abuse treatment by supervisors during the last three years. While the Firefighter’s 718 focused on the leaked autopsy, pressure from the press and citizens may create a mandatory drug testing program similar to the ones found in other cities.

All the finger-pointing and side issues have threatened to send the story spiraling out of control. With the harsh lights of the media looking into every dark corner of the Fire Department’s closet, the mayor’s review will be under tremendous scrutiny to be transparent and produce tangible results. Restoring trust in what has seemed a model public safety unit will be one of Menino’s biggest challenges.