Credit Where It's Due? | Bleader

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Credit Where It's Due?

Posted By on 09.01.09 at 12:38 PM

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The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Long Island Lolita — the same rules apply to them all.

In October of 2005, the notorious Amy Fisher, two years into her brief career as a newspaper columnist for the weekly Long Island Press, addressed the apparent miscarriage of justice that claimed the life of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed by lethal injection by the state of Texas on February 17, 2004. Insisting to the end on his innocence, he'd been convicted of setting a fire that took the lives of his three young daughters 13 years earlier.

Fisher sorted through the materials at hand and wrote two columns telling Willingham's story. Having herself spent seven years in prison for assault — in 1992, when she was 16, she'd rung the doorbell of the wife of her boyfriend, Joey Buttafuoco, in Massapequa, New York, and then shot her in the face — she was understandably sympathetic to her subject. Nevertheless, the reasons she gave to believe in Willingham's innocence were impressive.

They were also familiar. Investigative reporters Maurice Possley and Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune had spent weeks investigating Willingham's case and the previous December published a long report on it, a report Fisher failed to mention. Her editor soon heard from Possley, who called the columns "blatant plagiarism," declaring that everything in them except the details of Willingham's last meal had been "stolen without attribution."

Editor Robbie Wolliver replied that the Tribune could not claim "a copyright in facts."

I wrote a column about the incident, sympathizing with Possley but wishing he hadn't lost his temper. In retrospect, I was wrong. Investigative reporting is grueling work, and "Credit where it's due" ought to be its golden rule. Possley was letting Wolliver know how the game is played in the big leagues.

Except it isn't. Cameron Todd Willingham is back in the news. A state commission on forensics is now reviewing the evidence that led to Willingham's conviction, and an expert witness with a national reputation just tore that evidence apart. Craig Beyler of Hughes Associates told the commission that the fire marshal who handled the case "seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are reported" and came up with findings that were "nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation."

Cameron Todd Willingham no longer seems to be the Tribune's sort of story (too far away, too much trouble to get, and too distant from the lives and concerns of the Tribune's readership). But Steve Mills got a copy of Beyler's report and he wrote about it in the paper on August 25. (Possley left the Tribune some time ago.) Other media followed suit.

Here's the New York Times editorial, which doesn't mention the Tribune. Here's the Associated Press story, which doesn't either. And here's the 16,000-word story on Cameron Todd Willingham that appears in this week's New Yorker. Reporter David Grann gives Mills and Possley the credit they deserve, writing that with their article "questions about the scientific evidence in the Willingham case began to surface." But because he tells the story chronologically (the obvious way to tell it, and probably the best), Mills and Possley don't show up until the third-to-last paragraph.

Tuesday's New York Times carries an angry column by Bob Herbert, "Innocent But Dead," that scrupulously gives credit where it's due: Herbert cites the New Yorker article in the very first sentence. There's no mention of what Mills and Possley wrote five years ago. And there's none by Barry Scheck, codirector of the Innocence Project, blogging on HuffPo.

I assume that to the extent anyone running the Tribune these days remembers it, they're proud of the work Mills and Possley did in 2004; it would be nice if they felt a twinge of obligation to emulate it. (Mills's latest, published Sunday, concerned accusations of design flaws in a backyard play set.)

Outside the Tribune, it would be nice if journalists felt a twinge of obligation to acknowledge it.

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