Taricani remembered as fierce advocate of First Amendment, press freedom

South County

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – “We’re off the record, right?”

U.S. District Chief Judge William Smith made the comment jokingly Thursday to a church full of journalists, who joined family and friends in paying tribute to the life and career of legendary reporter Jim Taricani. He died last week at age 69, after a period of declining health.

“Jim was so passionate about the role of the press and the First Amendment protection of press freedom,” Smith said as he eulogized Taricani, a friend since they were next-door neighbors in the 1980s.

The longtime Rhode Island investigative reporter, who spent most of his career with WJAR-TV, was honored at Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in the Kingston village of South Kingstown. More than 40 journalists, including multiple Pulitzer Prize winners, served in an Honor Guard to pay their respects as Taricani’s casket arrived and departed.

“I was always competing against Jim Taricani,” said Dan Barry, a longtime reporter for The New York Times, recalling his years at The Providence Journal.

“I remember living in mortal terror every night at 6 o’clock to see what the hell Taricani had come up with,” Barry added with a smile.

Taricani, who is survived by his wife Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, was a champion of journalism and a fierce advocate of the First Amendment.

He famously served a federal sentence for refusing to reveal a confidential source who gave him FBI surveillance tape showing a top lieutenant to then-Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. accepting a cash bribe. He later became a national advocate urging a federal shield law for professional journalists, testifying before Congress in 2007.

Taricani spent more than three decades investigating politicians, law enforcement and the mob. New England crime boss Raymond Patriarca’s son famously handed Taricani a rose while leaving his father’s funeral.

“He respected people who were honest and truthful,” said Providence Police Chief Col. Hugh Clements Jr., who dispatched the horses of the city’s Mounted Command to the funeral. “Those who were trying to skirt the issues, he would go after them.”  

Clements served as a pallbearer along with others including Taricani’s longtime colleague Dyana Koelsch and WPRI 12 chief investigative reporter Tim White. (Taricani was also close to White’s late father, Pulitzer-winning WPRI investigative reporter Jack White.) Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, former Republican Gov. Don Carcieri and former First Lady Margherite Garrahy were among the dignitaries in attendance.

Taricani was honored throughout his career with numerous national, regional and local awards. He earned the Freedom of the Press Award from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with five regional Emmy Awards, an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Yankee Quill Award.

The Rev. Jared Costanza, who celebrated the funeral Mass, delivered a stirring homily about the importance of journalism.

“People have a right to the truth, and it’s a journalist’s obligation to find and report it,” Costanza said. “We take that for granted sometimes, even here at home where we see them belittled, demeaned, dismissed and targeted by those who power is threatened by honesty and transparency. ‘Keep digging,’ Jim would say.”

Costanza detailed how Taricani – who suffered two heart attacks in the 1980s before undergoing a successful heart transplant in 1996 – was grateful for his life and the donor who helped extend it.

Taricani made sure his life was worth saving, Costanza said.

Beyond journalism, Taricani was remembered as a supportive husband, a talented chef and a lover of music – especially rock and roll. The service closed with a rendition of “Let It Be,” a nod to Taricani’s love of The Beatles.

To honor his legacy, the University of Rhode Island is establishing the Taricani Lecture Series on First Amendment Rights. Smith said he’s been in touch with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer winner, about serving as the first speaker.

Taricani was buried immediately following the service at Quidnessett Memorial Cemetery in North Kingstown.

“Jim had no fear. He wasn’t afraid of the mob, he wasn’t afraid of the feds, he wasn’t afraid of judges or prisons, he wasn’t afraid of all the sacrifices,” Costanza said. “And in the end, he wasn’t even afraid of dying.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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