Tracy Breton on the ProJo and 40 Years of Covering RI Courts

Oct 16, 2013

Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Tracy Breton, who covered courts and legal issues at the Providence Journal for 40 years, says an ongoing series of buyouts and layoffs on Fountain Street will make it increasingly difficult for the paper to offer investigative reporting and in-depth journalism.

"One of the reasons I left is because I felt like with all these buyouts and layoffs that the staff was getting really thin, and just from my perspective I was afraid that I wasn't going to be able to continue to do the stories that I still want to write for the rest of my life," Breton says in an interview broadcast Wednesday morning on RIPR.

Breton adds, "That said, there are some wonderful people, and good reporters and editors that are still left there. The question is what kind of resources we're going to have to be able to do much beyond covering the tip of the news."

The ProJo's series this week on the cost of gun violence, by Bill Malinowski and Amanda Milkovits, shows how the paper still has the ability to go deep. Katherine Gregg, the Journal's longtime Statehouse bureau chief, remains one of the state's premier journalistic treasures, offering probing public-service reporting on a regular basis.

Yet with the departure of Breton, and earlier this year, Mike Stanton, the Journal has lost half of its former investigative team. When Breton worked her last day on Fountain Street last Friday, she was a big chunk of almost 150 years of institutional experience that walked out the door. Potential layoffs still loom at the ProJo after modest interest in the latest buyout offer.

Breton was recruited out of Syracuse University; she started at the Journal in 1973. Her lengthy tenure on Fountain Street coincided with a string of significant legal events in Rhode Island, including the murder trial of Newport socialite Claus von Bulow, who was ultimately acquitted on charges of killing his wife, Sunny. There was also the resignation of not one, but two Rhode Island Supreme Court chief justices, Joseph Bevilacqua, and Thomas Fay, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Breton recalls the von Bulow case as the first trial that was covered gavel-to-gavel by CNN.

"It attracted an international media crowd," she says, "and it had all of the elements that would attract public interest; I mean, there was tremendous wealth. There was an unusual alleged method of attempted murder, by insulin. Some of the biggest socialites and most well-known people in Newport were coming to testify, either for and against, and some of the best lawyers in the country [including Alan Dershowitz, author of the related book Reversal of Fortune] were involved in prosecuting and defending that case."

Breton believes the selection of judges in Rhode Island remains highly politicized, despite attempts to lessen that influence.

"I don't see that there's really any less political influence that goes into selecting the judges." she says. "So while there's this merit selection thing and the public is allowed to come in and ask questions and see this in this very sort of transparent way, I don't think the system has changed at all."

Breton plans to continue teaching journalism at Brown University, where her students have included Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, who could one day become publisher of the New York Times. She says she plans to pursue freelance writing and is developing a book proposal based on her ProJo story on Joe Kinan, the most severely burned Station fire survivor, who received a new hand through a donation from a man who had died.

As an investigative and court reporter, Breton was known for her terrific array of sources. I asked her how she was able to cultivate those contacts.

Breton says that when she began on the job in 1973, she realized lawyers and judges "talk in this foreign language" that needed to be decoded. Outside of court, she approached some of those she respected and asked for their help. At the same time, Breton was picking up the court beat, she says, from two older male Journal reporters who had curried favor with the bar and didn't write particularly critical stories.

"Then I came on and a lot of the old-time lawyers didn't like me because I started ruffling feathers," Breton says, "but I think people in the court system realized that I was trying to sort of uncover the real story there, whether it was good or bad, and that the chips would fall where they may. And I think I built respect over the years. I mean, of all the years I spent at the Providence Journal, I probably lived half of my life in that courthouse over on Benefit Street."

Breton says she took seriously her role in serving as a voice for the powerless. She says she loved talking with the victims of crime and people who felt they hadn't gotten a fair shake, perhaps even more than than speaking with lawyers and judges. "The courthouse is the place where the drama of everyday life plays out every single day," she says, "so to me that was the best beat of all."