She’s Done Worse

Some say you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Seeking satisfaction from a Long Island weekly, the Tribune’s Maurice Possley went balsamic. The subject line of his e-mail read “Fisher columns are ripped off.” The message was just as acidic.

“As best as I can tell,” Possley wrote, “Ms. Fisher’s two columns on Cameron Todd Willingham are based on virtually no new reporting. . . . It appears Ms. Fisher did go to the Texas website and find out Willingham’s last meal. The rest is stolen without attribution. It was written by myself and reporter Steve Mills. This is blatant plagiarism. And I insist that you publicly correct this. You can contact me by phone or email.”

Possley addressed his October 20 e-mail to the Long Island Press’s editor in chief, Robbie Woliver. For good measure, he also addressed it to the deputy editor, the two copublishers, and a senior editor responsible for music coverage–guaranteeing that he’d get the apology he wanted when hell froze over.

Life is war to reporters in Possley’s line of work. For the past several years he and a few colleagues have churned out investigations of prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions. These series have yet to win the Tribune the Pulitzer they deserve, and they’ve offended just about every prosecutor in America. Earlier this year Possley sat in the dock for weeks as a jury decided a defamation suit brought by one of them, Du Page County’s Thomas Knight. Possley prevailed, but Knight’s appealing.

The two columns in the Long Island Press said last month what Possley and Mills had said last December–a Texas man was convicted of murder and executed on the basis of discredited evidence. “The main reason I was exercised,” Possley e-mailed me, “was because the story of Cameron Todd Willingham was a remarkable story. I think we came as close as anyone has yet–absent DNA–to showing that an innocent man may have been executed. Steve Mills and I found that case, we re-investigated it and we wrote the story. . . . This isn’t like reporting just on the execution, which was a quasi public event, widely reported. Without our story, none of those other stories that came later would have been written.”

Press columnist Amy Fisher is partial to crime stories. She began writing her column in 2003, four years after finishing a seven-year prison term for attempted murder. On May 19, 1992, she rang the doorbell of Mary Jo Buttafuoco, the wife of her boyfriend, Joey Buttafuoco. The two women talked a while, then Fisher shot Buttafuoco in the face. Fisher’s first column assured readers she’d “come a long way from the 16-year-old girl who made worldwide news with one reckless, regrettable and indefensible act.”

Woliver, who helped Fisher write her 2004 memoir, If I Knew Then . . ., tells me she’s a serious journalist who’s won awards. He figures Possley picked on her because she’s an easy target. More likely it was because she screwed up.

Willingham was convicted of the murder of his three daughters, who’d died in a 1991 fire in their home in Corsicana, Texas. He insisted to his last breath that he was innocent. Fisher explained why the evidence that the fire was arson was no longer believable, but she didn’t mention the Tribune, though it was Possley and Mills who’d pieced that case together. So Possley had reason to complain. How he did it is another matter.

Woliver says that after reading Possley’s e-mail he contacted the Press’s lawyers and started going through Fisher’s list of sources and the other reporting on the Willingham case he found online. He also called around to find out who Possley was–he figured anyone so hotheaded had to be a kid starting out. “I was actually surprised to see he had a lot of work under his belt,” Woliver tells me. “I heard from several people he’s very combative.”

On November 1 Woliver responded to Possley by e-mail. “You are correct,” he wrote. “Ms. Fisher’s two columns are not based on ‘new reporting,’ because they are just that–columns. . . . What Ms. Fisher did was read and research scores of news stories, commentaries, other opinion pieces, court documents, various state and anti-death penalty websites. . . . There are over 100 versions of this story available, and all of them are similar if not identical to your report and to each other. As you probably know, it isn’t possible for you to claim a copyright in facts.”

But the Press was willing to be gallant: “We would be happy to include a statement at the beginning of Ms. Fisher’s two columns [online] that says something like ‘in a story first reported by the Chicago Tribune by Maurice Possley and Steve Mills.’ I hope this will mollify any offense you have felt.”

A couple of hours went by and Woliver got his reply. “I would like to see a list of the ‘scores’ of news stories, commentaries, etc. I believe that list is non-existent,” Possley e-mailed. “I doubt that Ms. Fisher and you or anyone else can come up with such a list.

“Next, tell me that Ms. Fisher tracked down and talked to Ed Cheever. Another piece of fiction. Here is the sentence from her column: ‘At the time of the Corsicana fire, we were still testifying to things that aren’t accurate today,’ said Edward Cheever, one of the state deputy fire marshals who had worked on the initial investigation of the Willingham inferno. That, Mr. Woliver, is a direct lift from our story. In fact, I was standing in Mr. Cheever’s front yard when he said those words.

“I will be consulting with our lawyers.”

Soon Woliver’s phone rang. It was a gossip columnist. Possley had consulted with the New York Daily News.

The next day that paper’s “Daily Dish” wondered if the “Long Island Lolita” had turned into the “new Jayson Blair.” It quoted Possley: “I don’t know much about Ms. Fisher’s journalism training, so it may be that taking someone else’s work, putting it through a word processor and lifting quotes are acceptable practices to her.” It quoted Woliver: “Plagiarism does not include telling the same story over again, especially when it is done for the purpose of adding commentary.”

Woliver didn’t actually say this. He tells me he wouldn’t talk to the “Daily Dish.” Instead the quote was lifted from his e-mail to Possley a few hours earlier. Woliver says the line wasn’t even his–a lawyer wrote it.

The Press posted a statement on its Web site announcing that Fisher and a Daily News gossip columnist were the means by which a Chicago Tribune reporter “attempted to gain his 15 minutes of fame. The facts: Ms. Fisher wrote her commentary based on the public record, which included scores of sources–including other newspapers such as the Daily Texan and reporters from organizations such as Amnesty International–many of which preceded the Chicago Tribune story.”

The Press picked two bad examples. Amnesty issued an “urgent action” alert a few days before Willingham’s February 2004 execution because it opposes the death penalty. It made no mention of forensic evidence. Four days after Possley and Mills published their article Amnesty issued a statement citing it. The Daily Texan lifted quotes from the Tribune story, but it also cited the Tribune as a source.

Calling the unnamed Tribune reporter a “glory hound who has no case,” the Press statement concludes on a note of complete defiance: “Ms. Fisher’s story is fine, it’s the Tribune reporter’s exploitive and potentially defamatory approach that is suspect.”

“It’s not worth a comment,” Possley e-mailed me. “I am not responding to them.”

I asked why he’d sicced the Daily News on Woliver, guaranteeing the matter would end badly.

“I thought they might find it newsworthy,” he said.

Fisher’s story wasn’t fine. I won’t go so far as to call it plagiarism, but the unwritten code that governs journalists obliged the Press to give the Tribune credit. If only Possley had simply asked.

News Bites

“The worm has turned,” writes Joseph Nocera in the November 5 New York Times. “Instead of embracing Wal-Mart, many communities now fight to keep the company out.” Nocera recites the usual reasons to hate the company–“low wages . . . stingy benefits”–and called a new documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, a “polemic intended to enrage viewers.”

The film isn’t out there by its lonesome. In These Times, the Nation, the American Prospect, and have joined in what one publisher called “an unprecedented journalistic collaboration”: to herald the 6,000-some screenings of the documentary scheduled for next week in theaters, churches, and other places, they’ve posted their own stories about Wal-Mart on their Web sites. These stories savage the company.

But Nocera has his doubts about how much the chain’s opponents can accomplish. He compares Wal-Mart to the old A&P, which the Times in 1930 described as the “world’s greatest retailing machine”–keeping wages low to keep prices low, driving mom-and-pop groceries out of business, and generally infuriating everyone except the shoppers who flocked to its doors. “The desire for low prices trumped all other considerations,” Nocera writes. “In America, unlike, say, Europe, it always does.”

Operating licenses of commercial TV stations are routinely renewed when they expire, but two grassroots organizations want the Federal Communications Commission to think twice. Chicago Media Action just petitioned the FCC to deny new licenses to nine local stations–WBBM (Channel 2), WMAQ (5), WLS (7), WGN (9), WCIU (26), WFLD (32), WCPX (38), WSNS (44), and WPWR (50)–because they’ve “failed to meet the needs of their community.” CMA says that in the month before last November’s elections, less than 1 percent of their news coverage dealt with state and local races.

And Third Coast Press asked the FCC to hold hearings on the “deliberate and repeated omission and marginalization” of minorities by 18 stations. Among them are all the above stations (except WPWR) and two public stations: WTTW (11) and WYCC (20).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/AP Photo/Richard Drew; Chris Walker.