By Michael Miner
Not by chance, cover articles on boxing promoter Don King showed up last month in both the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday magazine and the black newsmagazine Emerge. Each was written by the Tribune’s Jerry Thomas, and when Tribune editors picked up the new Emerge and found out what Thomas had been doing on the side, they fired him.
Ovie Carter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Tribune photographer who illustrated Thomas’s Tribune piece and contributed a photo to Emerge, was suspended for a month.
The Tribune doesn’t want its people aiding the competition, but Emerge isn’t remotely that. It’s a slick monthly published in Washington with a national circulation of under 200,000. Before going to Emerge in 1993, editor George Curry freelanced for it while he worked in the Tribune’s Washington bureau. These days the Tribune’s Nathaniel Sheppard Jr. writes a technology column for Curry. Articles freelanced by reporters from prominent newspapers are common at Emerge, and under ordinary circumstances Thomas’s might not have troubled the Tribune.
Circumstances weren’t ordinary for two big reasons. One is that Thomas and Carter didn’t tell anyone at the Tribune what they were up to. The other is that the Emerge article came out first.
“I think what we both did was to stick our necks out a little bit, trusting the publication [Emerge] to publish the article when it said it would,” Carter told me. “The results were we scooped ourselves.”
“The whole truth is simple,” said Thomas. Describing himself to me as “pretty much the premier reporter who focused on the African-American community,” he explained that last fall he lined up a piece on King for the Tribune sports section. “Sports needed a quick hit,” he said, to coincide with a critical docudrama on King scheduled for HBO.
So Thomas hit the road, following King to Las Vegas, New York, Newark, and to his estate in rural Ohio. He came home–as reporters often do–with a lot more material than he could squeeze into the article he’d been assigned to write. The sports piece ran in November, “the rest of the stuff sat in my notebook going nowhere,” and this spring he suggested a much longer article to the Chicago Tribune Magazine. “I had access to Don King that no writer has ever had,” said Thomas.
There’s disagreement as to what happened next. Curry says Thomas called him and proposed a story on King for Emerge. Thomas says that while he was polishing the Tribune Magazine piece Curry called and asked him to write about King for Emerge. How did Curry know what you were working on? I asked Thomas. “People know,” he explained. “It’s a small world. I’m one of the few African-Americans who do these stories nationwide.”
Each of Thomas’s pieces was timed to the same news peg–King’s ongoing federal trial in New York on a charge of insurance fraud. And when they appeared, it turned out that Thomas had let some of his reporting do double duty: a handful of quotes appeared in both articles. In the Tribune Thomas offered a long general profile of King, while Emerge had asked Thomas to focus on his black philanthropies and pursue the question of whether King was buying political cover. But inevitably the articles resembled each other. And the Emerge piece was the better written (or at least the more assiduously edited).
“I was excited,” said Thomas. “Emerge is a magazine that profiles writers–writers from the Washington Post, the New York Times. It’s a platform for prominent African-American writers. I thought it was a privilege to do it. I saw it as an opportunity to promote the Tribune. My profile [on the contributors page] says Chicago Tribune reporter. I didn’t know I was in violation of policy. The last time I freelanced was five years ago. I went to the editors, and they were very cavalier about it, as long as it wasn’t a competitor of the Tribune. So I thought that still stood. And it was not like this was the first story [on King]. This was extra material in the notebook.
“But here comes the major problem. I told Emerge this story should not appear until after the Tribune’s piece. They said no problem. We won’t be out that early. Basically, they said no problem.”
Emerge’s newsstand date was June 23; the Tribune Magazine with Thomas’s article hit the streets on Saturday, June 20. But Emerge’s shipper had begun mailing the issue to subscribers in early June–“way, way too early,” according to Curry. Thomas and Carter didn’t just scoop themselves; they scooped themselves by more than a week. By the time his Tribune piece appeared, Thomas was out of a job.
I’ve talked to Thomas and Carter, but it’s not clear to me what they were thinking. They may not know themselves. Both seemed to have convinced themselves that they were dealing with material that hadn’t been fresh since November, and that once they recycled it for the Tribune Magazine their bosses wouldn’t care if they recycled it again in Emerge a few days later. But however many times it was recycled, it remained Tribune material gathered on Tribune time.
“I have no animosity in my heart. I’m moving on,” Thomas told me. “You make a mistake, and you have no control over how people will respond to it. What can you do when people feel that way? You don’t fight. You can’t fight when people feel that blatant about something. You accept it and move on.”
Carter, who goes back to work July 13, also took his lumps gallantly. “I don’t necessarily feel that I had an argument against their position,” he told me. “I’m not authorized to sell Tribune property, but I took it upon myself to help facilitate that process, more or less as a favor for Emerge. I knew once our Tribune article was published it wouldn’t be a problem. We sell photographs all the time.”
The Tribune rarely discusses personnel matters, and no one I could reach in management was willing to talk about this one. The opposite was true at Emerge. Freelancers such as Thomas are the magazine’s lifeblood, and to see one fired over an Emerge article–with a broken promise by the magazine in the foreground–anguished the staff. Curry considers Thomas’s punishment extreme. “Suspend him. Reprimand him. To fire him over something like this is going overboard.” And senior editor Marcia Davis, a former Washington Post reporter who joined Emerge a year ago and edited Thomas’s article, sounded traumatized by his fall.
“I haven’t stopped thinking about this,” Davis told me. “It’s the worst thing I’ve seen. I hate that it’s happened. I’m concerned why it’s happened. I understand Mr. Carter was not fired. That seems duplicitous to me. How do you measure justice in that way? If rules are rules, then how do you decide that they affect one person to a lesser degree than another person? Jerry called me and told me there was this problem. When he called me again he used the term ‘separation.’ I was stunned. I was just stunned.”
In fact, Carter’s role was limited to providing Emerge with a negative of a picture that the Tribune had already decided not to use. Besides, there are times when a worker stands on his career. Carter’s has been long and exemplary, the Pulitzer coming in 1975 for his coverage with reporter William Mullen of a devastating drought in Africa. Yet it is true that both Carter and Thomas decided to mention their Emerge project to the Tribune later rather than sooner.
On June 9 Davis wrote on Thomas’s behalf to his boss, Paul Weingarten, associate managing editor of metropolitan news. Davis assured Weingarten that Thomas “was concerned our story not appear before the Tribune article” and that he “made it absolutely clear that his first responsibility was to his employer.” Emerge was “looking into” the reasons why some subscribers had already received the new issue, Davis went on, for “under no circumstances would we try to undermine the credibility of the Chicago Tribune or Mr. Thomas.”
Among Davis’s regrets was that three weeks later she’d received no reply to this letter.
Pat on the Back, Slap in the Face
From last Friday’s Tribune, “New case alleges a plot to kill roommate,” on page six of the Metro section:
“A 70-year-old Deerfield man who was implicated in the 1996 murder of his former lover in Highland Park has been charged with plotting to kill his roommate, authorities said Thursday.
“Lake County prosecutors said Rudy Zink of 1228 Woodruff Ave. hatched a plan to shoot his roommate at a pet cemetery in unincorporated Lake County while making it appear like a robbery…
“In 1996, Zink was implicated, though never charged, in the murder of his one-time lover, Christy Shervanian, 69, a retired professor of speech pathology at Northeastern Illinois University. On Dec. 1, 1996, Shervanian was gagged, bludgeoned and strangled, and his Highland Park home was burned down…
“Police arrested Louis Rozo and charged him with the murder. According to testimony, Zink had a relationship with both Rozo and Shervanian….Rozo proclaimed his innocence during the trial and has maintained that stance since his conviction and sentence.
“On Thursday, Rozo’s attorney, David Weinstein, renewed claims that Zink framed Rozo and was responsible for the professor’s death….’It’s been our position all along that Zink was the sole perpetrator of the 1996 murder,’ Weinstein said. ‘His subsequent arrest for solicitation to commit murder lends a whole lot of credibility to Rozo’s claim.'”
Also from last Friday’s Tribune, “Crime lab’s successes in evidence,” on page seven of the Metro section:
“A fingerprint found inside a latex glove plus the seasoned eye of Booker Washington, senior fingerprint examiner from the Northern Illinois Police Crime Laboratory, helped identify Louis Rozo as a murder suspect.
“Combined with some fine detective work by Highland Park police, prosecutors were able to convict Rozo, 31, for the 1996 murder of Dr. Christy Shervanian, 69, a psychology professor at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Rozo was subsequently sentenced to 75 years in prison.
“‘The crime lab helped us crack the case,’ said Lake County State’s Atty. Michael Waller. ‘The lab is responsive and works hand in hand with local police departments. It makes our job easier.’ The Rozo work was just one case in three decades of successes for the crime lab.”
The two stories ran on facing pages. John Gorman, assistant bureau chief in Lake County, described the “juxtaposition” as “happenstance.” He told me one story was a feature slotted to run and the other a breaking news story that had to. He considered adding an insert to one of the stories referring readers to the other, but there didn’t seem to be any comfortable way of doing that.
He was right. The feature hailed a suburban crime lab, singling out the brilliant piece of forensic detective work that cracked a 1996 murder. The breaking story raised the possibility that the brilliant detective work had convicted an innocent man. The two stories got along like Abbott and Costello.
It’s been brought to my attention that I libeled the Tribune last week. I dismissed as “vapid” that paper’s Bulls championship banner, “VICTORY,” but failed to notice that the first two letters had been printed in dark red ink, the rest of the headline in black. What’s more, the VI received the same treatment two more times on the same page, in the Bernie Lincicome headline “INVINCIBLE” and in the Skip Bayless headline “VINDICATION.”
“Did Mr. Miner miss it, or was he simply unimpressed?” wondered a Hot Type reader. The Hot Type scrivener has the visual acuity of an earthworm. The Tribune motif lifted the page into the exclusive realm of the really, really neat.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jerry Thomas photo uncredited.