A great many readers of the Providence Journal were dismayed to learn that Mike Stanton, the Pulitzer Prizewinner, was leaving the newspaper. We can think of a couple of politicians, ex-cons and known miscreants who were not. As a chief investigative reporter, he has entertained you or annoyed you for almost 30 years as he dug into stories and came up with some inconvenient facts about our political leaders.
Since 1985, when the much younger Stanton came to Providence to cover Providence basketball in the Rick Pitino era, he has built a reputation as a steady, fair and unafraid reporter who ruthlessly followed a story no matter who the subject was. When the subject was Buddy Cianci, he followed it all the way to jail and beyond.
A case in point: 10 years after “The Prince of Providence” was published, Buddy Cianci told readers of the New York Times Magazine Stanton had unfairly credited Cianci with a rape while he was in college, charges that were never proven in court. Stanton reminded Times readers that Cianci and the victim took lie detector tests and the woman passed and Cianci did not. But, in spite of Buddy Cianci always turning up Stanton’s world, it’s not a subject Stanton wants to dwell on.
“I’m not doing another book on him [Cianci]. I don’t think there’s enough material for that,” said Stanton. “What I would like to do is a book about Rocky Marciano. I’m fascinated with that era in boxing, the fighters and the world they lived in. Marciano really isn’t from Providence or Rhode Island, but most of his earlier fights took place here, so Providence is relevant to his story.”
Talk like that reminds you that Stanton, who started his career as a sportswriter for the Associated Press, considers sports an equally honorable branch of journalism, even if sportswriters have a much better time at work. Sitting through a nail-biter at the Dunk is a lot more fun than listening to the closing arguments in a complicated white-collar trial.
But even interviewing Rick Pitino was an education in politics of a sort for the young reporter, when he learned that public perception becomes more important to people than the truth.
“We were in a dorm room at Providence College and talking to him before he was settled in,” said Stanton. “It had no decorations and was not furnished at the time. He didn’t want us to take pictures because he was afraid the surroundings looked shabby.”
Stanton went from sports to general assignment and then into investigative reporting. He was good at it. By 1994, he was part of a team of reporters who shared a Pulitzer Prize for exposing corruption in Rhode Island Supreme Court.
But it was the phoenix-like career of Buddy Cianci that became the definitive story of Stanton’s career in Providence. Everybody in Rhode Island had stories about Cianci, some true, some not so true. It became Stanton’s job to sort through all of the folklore of Cianci and write only what he could verify. His work was enough to gain a provincial city’s colorful mayor a degree of media attention far beyond anything the young Buddy Cianci may have dreamed of. By the time the “Prince of Providence,” the unauthorized biography of the mayor came out in 2003, Cianci was in jail and Stanton found himself optioning the movie rights for the book. Although the movie has not yet been filmed, Stanton expects that never attending the premiere of the movie won’t make much difference to him. He’s moving into the next stage of his career.
Stanton said friends in the newsroom have been warning him that teaching is not reporting and that he will miss the news environment and he’s curious to see if they are right.
“They said it would be like having a phantom limb [as amputees describe residual feeling in a missing limb], but I have always been a mentor for the younger reporters in the newsroom and I expect I will do the same for my students.”
Stanton said journalism has changed a great deal since he started and the variety of outlets may have expanded, but there is still a place for the old virtues of honest and fair and accurate in journalism. He cited a newly published book, “This Town” by Mark Leibovich, about Washington.
“He wrote, ‘Punditry has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling,’” said Stanton. “I’d like to help kids get an idea of what reporting really is.”
He said example is the best teacher and he hopes that he can inspire his students the way Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein inspired him.
“It is impossible not to be inspired or influenced by reporters like them,” he sad.
Although Stanton is forsaking the world of daily deadlines, he’ll be sweating the old “publish or perish” requirement for academics.
“A lot of people are telling me that teachers get the summer off, but that just isn’t true,” he said. “I will have to do research and writing in the summer. The difference will be that I have to set my own deadlines and motivate myself.”
Stanton will be teaching the elements of journalism to a relatively small group of undergraduate students at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. They have no graduate school for journalists. Stanton is familiar with the campus from his own undergraduate days, although he admits he’s amazed at how much better funded U-Conn is compared to URI.
“When I started there, you drove by a dairy farm on a hill that was part of the campus. The coach Lou Holtz once joked, ‘There used to be one town and they called it Storr – then they built another one and it became Storrs.’”
But the University of Connecticut is rarely the butt of such jokes anymore. It has become a basketball giant, which many account for its growth. Stanton said there are 20,000 to 30,000 students at the school, of which only 270 are there to study journalism. Stanton said Connecticut has been much more generous to their schools than Rhode Island.
“I pulled out the college ratings books and learned that U-Conn is in the top 30 of all public and private colleges in America,” said Stanton. “I did my homework before I decided to take the job.”
Stanton grew up in Windsor Locks in Connecticut, so going back to Storrs would be a homecoming of sorts, except that Stanton intends to stay right here in Rhode Island, Cranston specifically, with his wife, Susan Hodgin, his daughter Emma, 18, and 11-year-old Henry. He doesn’t consider the commute particularly onerous.
“I have to get used to going from a five-minute commute to an hour-commute,” he said, “but lots of people have long commutes, some even longer, that they get used to. I’ll get myself a lot of audio books and use the time for research.”