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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Why Won't the Tribune Correct Its Mistakes?

Eric Zorn gives himself and his Chicago Tribune colleagues a big wet one for winning a libel trial last week.

The suit was filed by Thomas Knight, a former DuPage County prosecutor--one of the "DuPage 7" accused of framing death row inmate Rolando Cruz for the murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. Knight charged Tribune reporters Maurice Possley and Ken Armstrong of defaming him in a 1999 story.

It is well and good that the jury found for the Tribune. The specifics of Knight's case are too complicated to get into here, but suffice it to say that it was groundless.

But Zorn seems to think that being found by a jury not to have libeled someone is the same as being found to be a super-awsome newspaper that everyone should read--"I couldn't think of a time I was prouder to be on the staff of the Chicago Tribune," he wrote.

So here you go, Eric: Three things that emerged during the trial--gleaned from the Tribune's and the Sun-Times's coverage--that you shouldn't be proud of. And that the Tribune should be ashamed of.

1) The Tribune refused to correct a very big error. And your boss Ann Marie Lipinski got on the stand at trial to defend the paper's apparent policy of correcting errors of fact only when it is convenient for the paper.

Possley and Armstrong's story was essentially a summary of thousands of pages of grand jury testimony from a special prosecutor's investigation into Knight and six other prosecutors and sheriff's deputies, all of whom were indicted for framing Cruz (they were later acquitted). The story reported that an evidence expert named John Gorajczyk told the grand jury that Knight had told him to keep quiet about potentially exculpatory evidence--a shoe print at the crime scene that didn't match any of the suspects.

"Gorajczyk told the DuPage grand jury that Knight told him to keep his mouth shut about his conclusion," Possley and Armstrong wrote.

That's not true. Gorajczyk never testified before the grand jury. The testimony came from a private investigator named Steven Kirby, who claimed that Gorajczyk told him about the conversation with Armstrong.

That's not libel, but it is a substantial error. I have no doubt that it was an innocent and stupid mistake, and nothing more. Possley and Armstrong initially sourced the account in the version they filed as "Gorajczyk later recalled"--a rather sleazy attribution, considering that it implies that they talked to Gorajczyk, but technically accurate--and an editor unwittingly changed it to make it wrong, as editors often will.

Whatever. Point is, the Tribune published an error of fact. When newspapers publish errors of fact--and every newspaper does, almost every day, and there's nothing wrong with that when it's done in good faith--they print corrections. It's not just about acknowledging error, it's about correcting the record for future researchers, and maintaining your principles as a news organization that always strives for total accuracy, even after the fact. It's just the right thing to do, and it's an exceedingly easy thing to do. I'll give you an example: "A Tribune story in January 1999 inaccurately reported that evidence expert John Gorajczyk testified before the grand jury investigating the DuPage 7 case. Gorajczyk did not testify; an anecdote about a conversation between Gorajczyk and prosecutor Thomas Knight came from the testimony of investigator Steven Kirby, who told the grand jury that Gorajczyk told him about the conversation. The Tribune regrets the error." See? That wasn't so hard.

The Tribune just didn't do it in this case. Why? I don't know. According to the Trib coverage of the trial, Knight suggested that it's because the Trib had Pulitzer hopes for its coverage of the Cruz debacle, and flagging an error on one of those stories with a correction would hurt its chances.

Whatever the reason, it's indefensible.

Here's Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski trying to defend it anyway, from the Trib's trial coverage:
On Friday, Knight, who is representing himself, asked Lipinski if the Tribune has a policy of correcting mistakes.

"If there's an inaccuracy, we respond to that," she testified. But she explained that a response might not take the form of a printed correction. She cited the paper's publication of an edited version of the letter that Knight's attorney sent the Tribune. But Knight has said that the published letter did not contain the key complaint about the attribution that his attorney had included in the original version.
I can't find the above-referenced letter in Nexis; but even if Knight's wrong and the letter did include the complaint about attribution, that's no way to go about correcting the record. There's one way, at the very least, to respond to an inaccuracy--it's to print a correction.

2) Possley and Armstrong didn't even bother to try and call Gorajczyk to ask if the testimony about what he said was true. They relied on Kirby's account to the grand jury about what Gorajczyk was supposed to have said without contacting Gorajczyk directly. That's sloppy and lazy. Was Kirby lying? Didn't Possley and Armstrong want to find out if what he said was true? Again, from the Trib's account of the trial:
In his second day of testimony in a libel case brought by former DuPage County prosecutor Thomas Knight, Tribune reporter Maurice Possley said he did not think it was necessary to contact the expert because the "story was about what the grand jury heard," not about who testified before the panel.
The story should have been about what actually happened. I've had my share of stories where I didn't make every call I should have. And I've been called out for it. Possley and Armstrong deserve to be called out for it in this instance. As it happens, Gorajczyk was called to testify at the libel trial, and told the jury that Kirby's grand jury testimony was inaccurate. Possley and Armstrong should have asked him back in 1999.

3) The Trib published two stories based exclusively on the 5,000-or-so pages of grand jury testimony. They came to opposite conclusions. Ironically, it was Knight's lawyer, Terry Ekl, who first leaked the grand jury testimony to the Tribune, hoping for a sympathetic story. He got it. In June 1997, Ted Gregory wrote a 2,200-word story, headlined "Transcripts Reveal Cruz Case Bungling," that painted a picture of prosecutorial incompetence, but not misconduct. Here's Gregory:
Critics of the prosecution over the years have theorized that law enforcement and prosecutors cooperated to convict Cruz wrongly. But while virtually all the players in the troubled case testified before the grand jury, no conspiracy to railroad Cruz appears to emerge. And in the grand jury transcripts, no witness implicates another in wrongdoing.
Flash forward two years, to another story--about, according to its lead reporter, "what the grand jury heard"--and you get a different take. Here's Possley and Armstrong:
But thousands of pages of testimony from the DuPage 7 grand jury and court documents paint a picture of a prosecution that was constructed with lies and half-truths, buttressed with distorted evidence and, according to the indictment, stitched together with criminal misconduct.
So which is it?

None of the above amounts to libel. Every reporter makes mistakes, and precious few make every phone call they should and track down every lead they should. But the only way to become a better newspaper is to acknowledge errors, correct them, and vow to do better next time. The Trib didn't do that here, and even if there's nothing particularly atrocious about the flubs recounted above, they're nothing to be proud of.

(The Trib should, however, be proud of Ameet Sachdev's coverage of the trial. Covering your bosses' testimony in a libel trial against your paper is probably the toughest assignment this side of Baghdad, and Sachdev's coverage was fair and relatively fearless.)