Story by Aviva Luttrell
Photo by Stan Grossfeld / Boston Globe
Kevin Cullen, class of ’81, was sleeping through the early hours of June 23, 2011, when his phone rang and woke him up. A friend in Ireland couldn't wait to tell Cullen what he'd just heard on the news. Notorious gangster James "Whitey" Bulger had been captured in California after almost 20 years on the run.
“A very large part of my professional life was spent chasing that guy and exposing him for what he was, and exposing the government for what it did,” said Cullen. “I immediately called Tommy Donahue, the son of one of Whitey’s murder victims, the family of which I’m pretty close to.”
“There was a lot of sort of closure satisfaction,” he said.
Cullen lived in South Boston during the 1980s when Bulger was at the height of his power. “He was the biggest criminal on the scene, and I couldn’t figure out when I was younger why he was not being taken off the street,” he said. “Everybody knew he was a bad guy and he killed people.”
Soon after joining the Boston Globe in 1985, Cullen began reporting on Bulger. In 1988, he was part of the Globe’s investigative team that exposed Bulger as an FBI informant. Recently, he co-authored a book along with fellow journalist Shelley Murphy titled, “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice.”
Cullen also spent more than 20 years covering the conflict in Northern Ireland. In 1997, he served as the Globe’s Dublin bureau chief, and after a year, moved with his family to London to serve as the paper’s chief European correspondent. He returned to the United States in 2001.
In 2003, he was part of the Globe’s investigative team which won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests.
“We didn’t have to get a Pulitzer to show that that was really important journalism, that we really changed things,” Cullen said, “and more than anything, we were a voice for the victims that had been ignored for so long.”
Cullen said he drew many parallels between the FBI and the Catholic hierarchy. Both, he said, value the institution over individuals. “The FBI looked the other way when Whitey was murdering people … and the Catholic Church was looking the other way protecting rapists,” he said. “To me, both of those stories were about exposing institutional corruption.”
In 2007, Cullen was promoted to metro columnist at the Boston Globe. His favorite stories to write, he said, are about ordinary people in extraordinary situations—the kind of story he sees losing its place in most newsrooms.
“I have a contrary view on a lot of things,” Cullen said. “I’m not as intrigued with talking to the richest guy or the smartest guy or the most famous person. I’m much more interested in ordinary people,” he said. “If Heidi Klum came in tomorrow and somebody said they’d give me an exclusive interview with her, I’d say ‘no thanks.’”
Cullen graduated from UMass with a dual degree in Journalism and Political Science and attended Trinity College in Ireland during his junior year. “Northern Ireland would not have become my beat, for lack of a better term, if I had not spent my junior year at UMass abroad,” he said.
During his senior year, Cullen worked as a stringer for wire services such as the Associated Press, and upon graduating UMass, got a job at the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram. From there, he took a job at the Boston Herald, and then moved from there to the Boston Globe.
Cullen said the late Howard Ziff, founder of the UMass Journalism program, was a huge influence on him throughout his college career and beyond. Cullen took his first college journalism class with Ziff.
“He told great stories about what it was like to be a street reporter, in his case, Chicago. I was just entranced by the whole thing. It just sounded like a romantic way to make a living,” said Cullen.
At the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, most of the stories Cullen covered were about people living in poverty. Giving a voice to the poor, he said, is something every newspaper has an obligation to do.
“It’s important for news organizations like the Globe, who have the resources, to stand up for the marginalized and say we will not allow the government to ignore these people,” he said. “I think that holding government accountable is probably the most important thing that journalism does.”