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Monday, November 21, 2005

How the Chicago Tribune Swept a Fabricator Under the Rug

UPDATE UPDATE: Sirott called. He said *gulp* Miner had it right. He talked to Perkins, in person. "Ken had talked to me," Sirott says. "I think he even came to my office. But there were these innocuous, bizarre quotes that made me look like an idiot. I called [former Tribune TV critic and Sirott pal Rick] Kogan and said, 'I never even said this.' I had never experienced anything like it before or since. Ken had actually recorded the conversation--that was why this was so baffling. I remember people being very upset when it turned out that tape wasn't around. As I recall, that started to cost Ken a little blood."

UPDATE: Contrary to what is posted below (and what a source told me), Perkins did in fact interview Bob Sirott. He just, according to Sirott, made up quotes. Here's a contemporaneous item from *gulp* Mike Miner, helpfully e-mailed to me by a reader, that discusses the flap. (The Chicago Reader's archives are behind a paywall, so no link).
Ken Parish Perkins, the Tribune's new TV critic, watched two weeks of tapes of Fox Thing in the Morning, then published his judgment of the show's host, Bob Sirott.

"Call me too new and too naive," wrote Perkins, "but I like the guy."

Sirott was touched, but not speechless. He responded on camera with a lecture wrapped in the cheery, steely smile that names in this town get to inflict on newcomers who aren't names.

"I appreciate the fact that in today's Tribune the new TV critic, Ken Parish Perkins, writing in Tempo, likes me. And I do appreciate that. But Ken, I'd rather have you dislike me than misquote me."

Sirott's audience, as Perkins's article pointed out, is a small one. But among his viewers that morning were Rick Kogan, the editor of Tempo and Perkins's predecessor as TV critic, and Karen Olson, the Tribune's TV editor. This was not pleasant to see.

"There's a line here"--Sirott was maneuvering the morning paper now--"let me find it, that I didn't say. I didn't say this, and I never have said this. And you know the guy had a tape recorder, and it was on--I saw the red light. But for some reason this line is in Ken's piece."

Sirott read the line. "But we also try and remember [that] this is a conversation conducted through the airwaves. We like to make people laugh one minute and cry the next."

Sirott looked Chicago square in the eye. "And I never said that. Are you crying? I don't really want to make you cry. I really don't." Then he was speaking to Perkins again. "But if you don't print accurately what I say, then I think we should use the two hours to devote to your column."

And he laughed. A Tribune editor might call the laugh chilling.
As I note below, two folks who were Tribune editors at the time told me that Perkins refused to hand over the tape.

ORIGINAL POST: Ken Parish Perkins, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram's television critic, resigned Friday after an internal investigation found that he had plagiarized from Entertainment Weekly and other publications.

It isn't the first time Perkins has been bounced from a job after allegations that he cooked stories. He was briefly the Chicago Tribune’s TV critic in 1994. And according to my sources there, he was let go in part for allegedly inventing quotes, including running an interview the subject of which insisted never took place. The Tribune let him go quietly, without alerting readers or, apparently, his next employer that he had a history of fabricating stories.

In April of 1993, just weeks after he'd been hired, Perkins filed a story on Bob Sirott, at the time a morning-show host on Chicago's Fox affiliate. Sirott apparently liked the story, which included several quotes attributed to him. But he said that he'd never spoken to Perkins. "This is a real nice column, but I never talked to the guy," Sirott told editors at the paper, according to a souce at the Tribune. (Sirott didn't return my phone calls.)

When Tribune editors confronted Perkins, he said that he'd spoken to Sirott at a group function of some sort, and that he had a tape. After repeated inquiries, Perkins never produced the tape. The story was eventually corrected, though not to reflect Sirott's contention that he'd never even been interviewed: "Some comments by Bob Sirott in a review of his new 'Fox Thing in the Morning' in Wednesday's Tempo section were reported incorrectly. A statement about making people laugh or cry was a paraphrase of comments made during the interview and appeared out of context. The Tribune regrets the error."

In July of that year, Perkins wrote a story on Court TV's coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial featuring several quotes from--wait for it--then-Court TV chief and future failed press watchdog (and boss to me and my wife) Steve Brill.

"He did a story about me--a very positive, complimentary column," recalls Brill. "I called Jim Warren"--a friend of Brill's, and now the deputy managing editor for features--"and said, 'I am not complaining, but I never said the stuff he has me saying.' I remember Warren saying, 'That's interesting, because we've been wondering about that.'"

The Court TV story was never corrected.

Perkins was removed from the critic job in December of 1994, ostensibly to get more reporting experience in Metro. He declined the demotion and left the Tribune shortly thereafter. His editor at the time was Gary Dretzka, now an L.A.-based freelanceer. Via e-mail, Dretzka says he can't legally discuss Parish's tenure at the Tribune, saying only, "He wasn't a good fit."

More than ten years later, evidently, Perkins is still having trouble fitting in. If the Tribune had been forthright about his shortcomings as an honest journalist back then, they may have gotten him whatever help he needed to rehabilitate himself. At the very least, they would have saved the editors, and readers, of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram a big headache.