Boston television reporter Dan Rea has crossed the line between journalism and advocacy, he's the first to admit. But in doing so, he helped free a man wrongly convicted of a mob murder and helped unravel a still escalating case of FBI corruption.
"The line hasn't moved," says the Emmy-winning WBZ-TV veteran. "I, as a reporter, moved. I looked at this case in terms of whether justice was done, and it became clear that it hadn't."
For Rea, that led to a three-year investigation, much of it on his own time between political and international assignments. In more than 30 reports, he built a case for the innocence of Joseph L. Salvati, convicted with three others for a 1965 killing.
Rea knew from experience about false claims of convicts. But while poring through documents, he began to doubt whether Salvati had received a fair trial.
He used police contacts to locate a report in which an eyewitness to the murder didn't mention Salvati's name.
After that, Rea was committed to seeing justice done. He spent more than two months on the story before airing his first piece. During the next three years, his efforts-along with those of attorney Victor Garo, who spent thousands of unpaid hours on the case-led to Salvati's release after 30 years in jail.
Last month, after years of publicly questioning Rea's professionalism and denying any miscarriage of justice, the Suffolk County district attorney dropped the case.
But the story is hardly over. Two of Salvati's co-defendants died in jail, but another was freed after 33 years. Attorneys for the families of the four men now plan a multimilliondollar civil-rights suit against the FBI, alleging that it concealed proof of their innocence. That claim has become intertwined with a major federal trial involving two Boston mob leaders and the FBI agents who allegedly protected them. "It's a mind-boggling frame-up," says Rea. "I'd like to think people took note of what we did."
They've done more than take note. Law-enforcement officials, competitors and even some at Rea's CBS owned-and-operated station took shots at his journalistic integrity for pursuing the story, for pushing WBZ to editorialize on behalf of Salvati's innocence and for Rea's continuing to cover the case even after he became an integral part of it.
Rea doesn't care. "There are not that many stories in a career like that. I have a very powerful tool-television-and the responsibility not to use that tool irresponsibly. I put my reputation on the line. If I was wrong, my credibility was forever lost."
Not surprisingly, as a result of the Salvati story, he says he has received about 100 letters and calls asserting that other convicts are innocent, too. He's looking into two of them.
What can other reporters learn from this? "Take a chance; pursue a story," he says. "Don't be discouraged by the pack journalism we all fall into. Be prepared to stand out there on your own and realize that people are laughing behind your back. Too many of us fear that other stations' having a different lead means that you have the wrong lead. It may be that they
have the wrong lead."