Dennis Lehane On 'Messing With The Wrong City'

Apr 19, 2013
Originally published on April 19, 2013 10:41 pm



This is FRESH AIR and we're talking about what's happening in Boston. With me now is our TV critic David Bianculli. And David, usually when there's breaking news like this you're watching, like, a lot of TVs at a time.


GROSS: Trying to see how different networks are covering it. And you've done this for years. You've done this through many different crises. So how does this past week compare to other crises that you've monitored in the media in terms of the coverage?

BIANCULLI: It's so weird that the thing that I think about is that it's not even I covered professionally but it's one within my lifetime. I think, although it's certainly smaller scale, this reminds me of the Kennedy assassination. You know, we had four days in November. This is already, you know, five days in April. And you have the same sort of thing. It's a crime that took place at a predetermined event along a predetermined route.

And then there was the identification of a suspect, the search for a suspect, a policeman who was killed during the, you know, the search for the suspect. And then we already have, you know, one suspect killed and this story is still going on. There are lots of parallels there.

GROSS: But there's been so much change in the technology since the Kennedy assassination.

BIANCULLI: You're right. You're right. I mean, that's absolutely true. I mean in 1963 with John Kennedy you had Abraham Zapruder who was the one guy who had a little camera that took silent footage and was the only specific record. This time we had authorities asking everybody around the finish line to please send in their images. And you had security cameras which led to the apprehension. And then - or it led to the breaks in the case.

Where once they threw it on television and used television to say here are our two suspects, within 12 hours, you know, look at what happened and what's still happening as we're speaking.

GROSS: So what's some of the best and worst that you've seen of live coverage?

BIANCULLI: The worst is kind of apparent. It's CNN. And you don't have to have, you know, Jon Stewart to make fun of it if you were watching it itself. Anybody can make mistakes in terms of breaking news coverage like this because you are basically doing unfiltered reporting and in the best cases you don't do that.

The biggest problem with news organizations, and CNN was very guilty of this this time, is when you make a mistake is not to admit it immediately, not to back down from it, and not to correct it. There was a long silence after they said that, you know, the wrong, you know, they misidentified a suspect and that he had been apprehended.

And then just sort of let it sit for a long time. There were other news organizations that were pulled into the same thing but CNN, I think, was the most egregious and probably lost the most this time. And then on the other hide, excuse me, on the other sand - on the other side when you have somebody like Pete Williams of MSNBC who is saying no, that's not true, what you're hearing on other places and that turns out to be credible, that helps that individual in that organization.

GROSS: You know, MSNBC is related to NBC and has access to some of NBC's reporters.


GROSS: And NBC, of course, has MSNBC to constantly be giving the news and take advantage of some of its reporters. CBS and ABC don't have an equivalent.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. Well, they sort of made the mistake of giving up real estate in the cable game when they could've gotten it. CBS had CBS Cable early on and could've built it into a news organization. They didn't see the value of that. And ABC tried and really didn't do the same sort of thing. MSNBC was the one that said, no, I think this is something and we'll fight CNN. And that's been going on ever since.

But thinking about the Kennedy assassination, again, that was the introduction to American television of 24 hour news coverage. It had never been done before. And now we expect it. And it sort of - people still, even in the Internet age, we still tune to TV and radio to keep watching things even when there's nothing being advanced.

GROSS: You know, my sense is, because I've been just tuning in. And I just wanted - I want to be there when there is news.


GROSS: I want to have it tuned in when there is news. And I also just like the feeling of feeling connected to people who are thinking about the story and are trying to express, not only what's happening in the news, but how people are feeling.

BIANCULLI: It's soothing and it's reassuring just to be in that community. We're losing the overall TV community, but that's a big part of it. And you do get to see things. Like when the uncle was just speaking within an hour or so of when we're speaking right now, you know, you learn things live.

GROSS: So your obsession and your area of expertise is television. You've been a TV critic your whole adult life. Do you follow the news on Twitter too? Or other social media?

BIANCULLI: I try to go to other social media but I'm not as good at Twitter as I should be in terms of letting these things know. I mean in terms of leading me to another source. I'm still old school enough that I'm looking at a lot of images...

GROSS: What...

BIANCULLI: the same time.

GROSS: And what about on your website? What are you doing?

BIANCULLI: On my website I have people that are doing better things than that for me. You know, we have social media people who can do that sort of thing. But I'll be writing about this on the website later on. But right now it's just the power of television all over again.

GROSS: Well, David, I want to thank you. Before I allow you to go...


GROSS: ...any final thoughts you want to leave us with?

BIANCULLI: Just that I think that even when networks are stupid or reporters are stupid, these days viewers are so smart that they know when to reject bad reporting and to switch to another network. And I just hope you keep doing that. And I hope you're not doing that with me right now.

GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. Thank you, David, for joining us.

BIANCULLI: All right. Thanks for this.

GROSS: I want to play a little bit of music here. Somebody who's been a favorite at FRESH AIR is the late pianist Dave McKenna, famous for his stride piano playing, his incredible left hand. And for years he was an institution at the Copley Hotel in Boston where he played at the piano bar. And the Copley is right where the bombs went off right near the finish line.

It's an area - I love Boston. I've spent a lot of parts of my summers in Boston staying at all the hotels in that area, including the Copley. So Boston, here's another salute to you from the late - you know, the music of the late Dave McKenna.


GROSS: We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're following the events in Boston. Dennis Lehane has set many of his novels in his hometown Boston, including "Gone, Baby, Gone" and "Mystic River." Earlier this week he wrote about what it feels like to be a Bostonian in the light of the Boston Marathon bombings. His piece was published in the New York Times.

This morning we called him at his home. Dennis Lehane, thank you for joining us. So first just describe - tell us where you are right now in Boston without giving us the address of your home.

DENNIS LEHANE: Sure. I mean, we're in this place where Boston Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston and Brookline meet. So essentially right near Boston University. And directly across the river from MIT.

GROSS: So you're in shutdown right now. You're locked down.


GROSS: Just tell me what's been going through your mind today as you're trapped at home and Bostonians have no idea what to expect.

LEHANE: Well, I mean, there's that. You know, absolutely there's a sense of this, you know, very dangerous loose cannon out there and that's giving everybody pause. The streets are empty. Nobody's leaving their home. Everybody's taking this very seriously. You know, that's been a big thing that's going through my head. I probably know some of the members of law enforcement involved right now and that's given me a little pause.

GROSS: You mean because you're worried about them?

LEHANE: Yeah. Yeah. That sense of, jeez, I hope, you know, I hope nobody I know steps into the line of fire. It's a very selfish thought but of course that's what we think of. We think of the people we know first and then we, you know, extrapolate from there. So. And then, you know, just in general this sense of something that we're all just processing.

I mean, you say, well, I'm not panicking. Well, are you not panicking because you're in shock or you're not panicking because you're processing? Or you're not panicking because panic wouldn't help? What are you going to do? Just do the best you can. You watch the news reports. You hope for the best and keep an eye on your kids.

GROSS: So what are you doing? Are you just, like, reading Twitter feeds and watching the news or listening to the radio?

LEHANE: I'm going back and forth. My daughter, because they keep playing - my daughter seems to be blissfully ignorant of what's going on until they start replaying the tape of the gunfight in Watertown last night. And so when she hears the gunfire she says, Daddy, that movie scares me. So we've been either turning it off, we've been checking our computers. Or, you know, we've been kind of catch as catch can on it.

GROSS: How old is she?

LEHANE: She's almost four.

GROSS: How are you describing all of this to her?

LEHANE: So far so good. So far she hasn't engaged it except to say it's a scary movie. So she doesn't quite understand that this is going on.

GROSS: Where were you Monday?

LEHANE: I was here. I was at my home. And then I noticed that my cell service went down. My wife got through on a landline and then said there's a rumor that there was some sort of explosion at the marathon. And then I turned on the TV. It was within, I think, 10 minutes. I turned on the TV and there was the beginning of it.

And you knew immediately once you saw the second one. And then I went and walked out on the street and I walked over to the marathon route. And, you know, just looked at people. The things that I'll never forget were that, you know, everyone was hugging and everyone was checking their phones over and over because they couldn't get service. So just looking at them over and over and over again and, you know, pounding with their fingers.

GROSS: You strike me as somebody who wants to be where the action is when you can, wants to know about it. When you heard about the attack at the Boston Marathon you walked to where the marathon finish line was, as close as you could get.

LEHANE: Not to the finish line, no.

GROSS: As close as you could get.

LEHANE: I did not go to the finish line.

GROSS: Yeah.

LEHANE: I'm a father.

GROSS: No, I mean nobody could.

LEHANE: Right.

GROSS: Nobody could. But now, like, except for the police, no one can get to where anything is. Like, you have no choice but to stay home.

LEHANE: Right.

GROSS: And so I guess I'm wondering what that feels like, knowing, like, you have no choice to stay home and neither does anybody else and in that sense there's, like, no action going on except for what the police know about and what the police are trying to do.

LEHANE: If it were another city I might feel different. I have such a somewhat proprietary bond toward this city. I have such an embracement of it that I feel like, you know, my friends in blue are out there doing their job. And so, you know, we'll just hang on until they tell us it's all clear. It feels personal in the best possible way.

GROSS: Well, Dennis Lehane, I really want to thank you for talking with us. I wish you the best. I wish your city the best. I hope this ends soon in a positive way. And thank you for your books, thank you for your time today. And I spent a fair amount of time in your city. I love your city and I wish it good things.

LEHANE: Thank you. Thank you very much, Terry. I hope for the same thing.

GROSS: Dennis Lehane, recorded this morning from his home. Two of his novels set in his hometown of Boston are "Gone, Baby, Gone" and "Mystic River." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.