Monday, November 22, 2010

No Questions Asked

Three Case Studies in Terrible Reporting
by the Times
On the Siegelman Case
           This is the third of the series, "Three Case Studies in Terrible Reporting by the New York Times. The three examples of bad -- as in lazy and/or biased reporting -- are by no means the greatest sins in the paper's coverage of the Siegelman case. Each, though, struck me for what they revealed about the paper's treatment of the prosecution of Alabama's former governor.
              With one exception -- "Oops, We Caught the Wrong Bass" -- the faults are of the sort that a regular reader would be unable to recognize. The "Bass Brother" mistake might have caught the eye of anyone who knows much about Texas (the Basses are famous there), or of those who read the Times' corrections.
              The errors on the "Bass Brother" example required the Times to print not one, but two corrections.
              I call the three case studies:
              "Oops, We Caught the Wrong Bass"
              "The Missing Identifier"
And, today's entry:   "No Questions Asked"

Richard Scrushy, center left, and, far right, Birmingham pastor Charles Winston, a member of Scrushy's Kingdom Builders religious organization.

Below, a portion of the affidavit drafted by Charles Winston, almost entirely in hisown words, and signed by "Juror 5," whose words they most assuredly were not.
               "Other jurors have said that they felt pressured by the judge to reach a decision in order to go home and that some jury members read about the case on the Internet during the trial." == From, "A New Twist in the Prosecution of a Former Governor of Alabama," by the Times' Adam Nossiter.
              I could spend an hour, easy, deconstructing a story written by Adam Nossiter and published Nov. 22, 2008, in the Times and purportedly reporting a "new twist" in the Siegelman case.
              Instead, I'll stick with one small detail that supports one of my general arguments -- that the Times  reporting on the Siegelman case was based on materials frequently given the paper by Siegelman and/or his people. In many cases, the reporters (especially Nossiter) apparently made no effort to question the records or research their context, even when doing so would have incurred no more than a few easy computer searches.
                 The quote above -- about jurors saying they felt pressured to reach a verdict about Internet materials being introduced in the deliberations -- is supported with a link the Times provided readers to an affidavit by "Juror 5."
                 This affidavit -- done about 6 weeks after trials' end -- had been presented to the court by Siegelman's lawyers as part of their scorched-earth effort to win a new trial.
                Mark Fuller, the judge who presided over the trial, reluctantly called a hearing, summoning Juror 5 and the lawyers and pastors involved in securing his affidavit. Juror 5 (Charlie Stanford) testified that his wife and the pastor of the church she attended badgered him repeatedly to go to the church and meet with a pastor who'd made the long drive from Birmingham to Oxford.
              Other testimony showed that the pastor, Charles Winston -- one of many black pastors Scrushy befriended after he got into trouble -- had learned of Charlie's existence through the Oxford pastor. Winston denied, if not convincingly, that he was acting on Scrushy's behalf. Winston acknowledged in his testimony that the juror showed "real hostility" about coming to the church.
              Here, from, "The Governor of Goat Hill," is a passage related to the court hearing. Because Juror 5 had difficulty reading, he and Pastor Winston testified that prior to the signing of the affidavit, Winston read Juror 5 the affidavit that the pastor had himself fashioned:

               Juror 5 didn’t like what he heard, (Pastor) Winston acknowledged to (Judge) Fuller. “He basically said, ‘This is not me. It doesn’t sound like me … Man, I don’t talk like that.’”
              Winston’s testimony eliminated the affidavit’s gravest accusation – that being Stanford’s supposed assertion that some jurors brought Internet material into the courthouse, pulled it out of files, and considered it along with the evidence presented at trial.
        When Winston read that part back to Stanford, the juror told him it was “not accurate” because he wasn’t sure any of his fellow jurors brought anything from the Internet.
             Winston admitted that he didn’t change the affidavit to address Stanford’s concerns. And why not? It was late at night. So he printed it, and Juror 5 “agreed to sign it anyway,” the pastor testified.

         The above was part of the court record, and available to Nossiter on his computer and in stories published in the Alabama media.
              Instead, he -- and the Times -- just printed what they'd been handed them, no questions asked.
              I'm sure the folks (almost surely Siegelman or people acting on his behalf) who gave the Times the affidavit and a host of other faulty records knew the truth about the affidavit.
               If I were the Times, I'd be angry at those sources; though the reporters and editors at the paper, for failing to double-check records given them by sources with much to gain, have only themselves to blame.

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