As a high school student, Thomas Farragher ’77 was riveted by the Watergate story. Now his investigative reporting has earned him journalism’s top prize.
Pulitzer Prize Winner
By Jamie Turcotte ’04 Photo(s) By Nora Lewis
As a high school student, Thomas Farragher was riveted by the Watergate story playing out on the national news. The White House had engaged in dirty tricks, and President Nixon was up for impeachment. Ultimately, on August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign. Meanwhile, Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the team of Washington Post investigative reporters who broke the Watergate story, received a Pulitzer Prize
For Farragher, these events turned his interest in journalism into a career choice. “Watergate was everywhere,” he said. “That swept me up and carried me away. I knew journalism was a ring-side seat in history, and that was sort of formative for me.”
He could not have guessed, however, that his career would follow a similar path to that of Woodward and Bernstein. On April 7, 2003, Farragher ’77, a Boston Globe reporter received one of journalism’s most coveted awards, the Pulitzer Prize.
Farragher and seven other reporters and editors working for The Globe’s Spotlight Team, the paper’s investigative unit, were honored for their coverage of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, which broke in August 2001.
It was a long road that took the inspired teen-ager from Clinton, Mass., to the top rung of his chosen profession. After spending countless hours in his high school’s guidance office considering different colleges, Farragher felt that URI might offer him the most. But it was only after visiting the campus with a friend that he fell in love with the school and decided it would be the best place for him. And, according to Farragher, URI did not disappoint him. “I thought it lived up to its standards. I feel very well-educated.”
At URI, Farragher fell under the influence of Professors Wilbur Doctor and Jack Thompson. “They were former newspaper guys, which was very appealing,” Farragher said. “They taught me how much fun you could have and what a difference you could make. They taught you how to get into a newsroom and do the job.”
During his sophomore year, Farragher saw his first byline in the student newspaper, The Good 5 ¢ Cigar, where he would work as a news editor for two years. During the summer of 1976, he worked as an intern at his hometown paper, The Clinton Daily Item. In the winter of 1976 he traveled to New Hampshire with a group of fellow URI students to cover the New Hampshire presidential primary. This would be the beginning of his long history of political coverage.
After graduating from URI, Farragher returned to The Clinton Daily Item where he became a news editor in 1979. One year later, he moved to Connecticut to work for The Day in New London where he stayed for eight years. “I loved living there,” he said. “The Day was a good quality paper. I really had to force myself to leave, but I knew I needed to go.”
Farragher sent his résumé with a cover letter to 65 newspapers around the country. Twenty responded, 15 of which were rejections. The San Jose Mercury News in California told Farragher to keep in touch. So while visiting a friend in California, Farragher visited the newspaper and joined the staff in 1988.
He covered politics in city hall and in the state capitol of Sacramento and was part of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning staff that covered the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In 1994 he became the paper’s Washington correspondent and covered the California delegation. “I’m glad to have done it, but I was glad to leave,“ he said. “Working with 800 other reporters is not my idea of journalism.”
Farragher applied to The Boston Globe for the second time in 1997 (he was turned down the first time he applied), and this time, he was hired. He typically works on long-term stories set to run in a series. In the winter of 2002 Farragher was asked by the Spotlight team editor, Walter Robinson, if he was interested in working on the church sex abuse scandal story.
Farragher, who still attends church on Sundays but describes himself as “an absent member” of his local parish council, was raised in an Irish Catholic family and had served as an altar boy as a child. So when he was given the opportunity to work on the story, he decided to keep his faith from interfering. “I didn’t care. It was such an obviously disgusting story of criminal conduct,” he said. “It didn’t trouble me as a Catholic. I’m glad I had a part of it. It was gratifying to see the victims’ stories being told.”
Farragher, who is married and the father of three, explained that the story was troubling from a parental point of view. “As a father it really bothered me,” he said, describing how respected priests were when he was a child. But Farragher and his team worked nonstop on the story, examining scores of once-sealed church documents and contacting victims through their lawyers to get as many stories as they could.
Although the team’s hard work paid off in the end, working on the story wasn’t always easy. “There were never any high-fives in the office about what we were writing about,” he said. “The story was harmful to the abused and painful for the church. It wasn’t something we could pat each other on the back for and then go out for beers after work.”
Farragher has also co-authored a book about the scandal titled Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church that was published in 2002. The book includes chapters on the victims, on Cardinal Bernard Law, and on what the scandal means for the future of the Catholic Church. “We were in the middle of a big story, and I’m thinking ‘how can we do this?’ But we did it and I’m proud of the book,” he said.
In addition to the Pulitzer, Farragher and his colleagues have won many other awards, including the Associated Press Managing Editors Freedom of Information Award, the Worth Bingham Award for Investigative Reporting, and the George Polk Award for National Reporting.
“I think every serious journalist hopes they can be there when the Pulitzers are announced and they are the winners,” Farragher said. “It’s the most coveted award in our business. I’m proud of the people in the office.” •
Now in her senior year at URI, Jamie Turcotte first covered the Farragher story for The Good 5¢ Cigar where she is a news editor.
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