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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

The Columnist Vs. the Cop   

By Jon Marcus
Jon Marcus, a frequent contributor to AJR, is executive editor of Boston Magazine. He once worked for the AP.     

Massachusetts State Police Trooper Paul McCarthy didn't immediately recognize Joe Fitzgerald as a Boston Herald columnist when he pulled Fitzgerald over one night more than two years ago.

But Fitzgerald wouldn't forget McCarthy.

Even though the traffic stop for driving in a highway breakdown lane has been upheld in court, Fitzgerald has published six personal attacks on the trooper, calling him a "boldfaced liar."

It's about justice, Fitzgerald says, not payback. But McCarthy and his superiors say payback is what Fitzgerald is after, and they want him to apologize--and stop vilifying McCarthy in his column. The Herald printed letters to the editor from McCarthy and a state police superintendent in April, both complaining that Fitzgerald had abused his power.

"I've got a column, but he's got a badge and a gun. Who's got more power?" Fitzgerald responds. "He says I'm a lousy columnist, and I say he's a bad cop. What can I say? It depends who you believe."

Both sides agree Fitzgerald was pulled over by McCarthy just before midnight on March 15, 1997, on state Route 128 near Boston. McCarthy says the Herald columnist swerved from the center lane across the right travel lane and into the breakdown lane. He says Fitzgerald was belligerent, yelling at him before he had walked as far as the trunk of the car. Fitzgerald was charged with speeding, failing to signal for a lane change, driving in the breakdown lane and failing to stay within marked lanes.

The citations were upheld in district court; Fitzgerald says he opted not to appeal because of the $100 filing fee. He was fined $275 and forced to take an eight-hour safe-driving course that cost him $90.

The case was closed, but the invective had already started flying. Three days after he was stopped, Fitzgerald called the trooper, in print, "a disgrace to that uniform"--though he did not identify McCarthy as the cop in question because, he wrote, "it would be an unfair use of [my] column." Such equivocation had evaporated by June 4, 1997, when Fitzgerald attacked McCarthy by name in a piece contending that the charges were "a total fabrication." That November, in a tribute to an officer who had died, Fitzgerald repeated that McCarthy "fabricated charges." In a column criticizing former Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughan's acquittal on drunk driving charges the following March, Fitzgerald paused to mention that McCarthy, who had testified against Vaughan, was "a boldfaced liar." Less than two weeks later came a column about his safe-driving course. "While the McCarthys out there can hurt us badly in terms of time and money, the worst thing they could ever take from us would be our faith in the system they represent," Fitzgerald wrote.

In a column April 5, Fitzgerald came out against a proposed "road rage" bill allowing officers to cite aggressive drivers, and took another shot at McCarthy.

McCarthy was at first advised by his superiors to let Fitzgerald's anger run its course, he says. Now he is demanding an apology. "Enough is enough," McCarthy says. "Certainly there's freedom of the press, but this is definitely abuse of his column."

Fitzgerald won't apologize, saying his run-in with McCarthy is germane to many of the topics he addresses.

McCarthy, who has been a police officer for 12 years, says he's heard some colleagues say they'd hesitate to cite a journalist out of concern they would become a public target. As for him, he says, "I wouldn't change a thing. Just because he might write a slanted article, it's not going to deter me from doing my job."