RENO, Nev. — Public corruption that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, courtroom drama and human tragedy all added up to one helluva story for the Detroit Free Press this year, and the paper’s editor is telling it himself to national audiences.
Free Press editor Paul Anger appeared here this week to speak to judges, journalists and court officials about the scandal, saying the paper took no pleasure in chronicling the downfall of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty.
“We’re proud of our journalism, but this was a nightmare for our city,” he said.
Anger was the dinner speaker Monday at a national workshop about technology’s impact on the courts and media at the University of Nevada-Reno, sponsored by the Reynolds School of Journalism and the National Judicial College.
He shared a few lessons from the reporting and legal wrangling over a case that began when three veteran police officers sued the city, saying they were fired because Kilpatrick and Beatty needed to cover up their affair. Two settled their cases, and one went to trial.
After the Free Press published text messages that supported the officers and showed Kilpatrick and Beatty lied under oath at the trial, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy brought charges against them.
Taking a plea deal, Kilpatrick is currently serving a 120-day sentence in Wayne County Jail after admitting to perjury in one of the cop’s trials, and Beatty is scheduled for trial next year.
In his speech Monday evening (which concluded with a standing ovation), Anger debunked some of the assertions made at the conference about the demise of traditional print journalism due to the overwhelming use of the Internet to deliver immediate news.
“Journalism is alive and well on the Web,” he said, noting the 4 million hits the paper’s site had the day of Kilpatrick’s plea. “We know from our experience in Detroit, people will find and read great journalism on the Web.”
Anger also used the platform to publicly support shield laws protecting journalists from having to reveal anonymous sources who disclose compelling information. “Our sources in the mayor’s case would never have come forward if they could not count on anonymity,” Anger said.
And he asserted that the story held up because the paper’s ethics and accuracy in reporting it were unassailable. “We were determined never to have to apologize for anything,” Anger said.
Free Press reporters, like many other people, learned of the existence of the text messages during one of the cop’s trials when the judge subpoenaed them. They never appeared. “Everyone basically lost track of them,” Anger said. After the trial, the newspaper filed a FOIA with the city for the settlement document as the parties negotiated legal fees, and the settlement for all three officers grew to $8.4 million.
Told by the city no documents existed, the newspaper used two strategies to pursue the information: their own lawsuit for the messages, contending they were public records subject to disclosure through the state’s Freedom of Information Act, and sources, Anger said.
The latter paid off first, and reporters obtained copies of messages sent from Beatty’s pager.
“We got them from people who believed the whole story should come out. We haven’t identified them and we never will,” Anger said.
Reading the messages made Anger, Freepers and company attorneys blush.
“We were stunned,” he said.
But they were also saddled with responsibility.
“The Detroit Free Press was sitting on the story that could tear the community apart. We weren’t going to go public until we got it right,” Anger said.
Reporters decoded the messages and worked to authenticate them, matching dates and times with city calendars, for example. When the first story was published Jan. 24, the journalists focused on the discrepancies between what the texts showed and what Kilpatrick and Beatty said at Brown’s trial.
“It was not going to be about sex,” Anger said.
And unlike the normal news process, they wrote the headline first: Mayor lied under oath, text messages show. “We wrote the exact words we wanted in the headlines and we developed our story around that,” Anger said.
As the story unfolded throughout the year with lurid details of Beatty-Kilpatrick communications, the community learned about Kilpatrick’s attempts to keep the texts secret that continued as the city fought the newspaper’s lawsuit to obtain more messages.
“It may have worked, except for the Free Press investigative reporters Jim Schaefer, M.L. Elrick, Jennifer Dixon and some others,” Anger said, “And some judges who ordered the documents released.”
The newspaper is currently negotiating with the city to recoup some of its legal fees from pursuing public records in the case. “We’re thinking about donating a good portion of them to charity,” Anger said.