Some of our colleagues in the Memphis media seem to be more interested in the sideshows than the main event when it comes to the story of serial plagiarism at the Tri-State Defender.
On Tuesday, The Commercial Appeal published a front-page story about a former Defender employee, Myron Hudson, being charged with trying to extort $50,000 from the Defender in April. The CA story reinforced the erroneous idea, first put forth by the Defender in an editorial, that the Defender is an innocent "victim" of a serial plagiarist and, now, an extortion scheme.
That is not the case. The plagiarism was first discovered by a weekly newspaper in California which had a story stolen almost verbatim by the Defender under the byline of Larry Reeves. An investigation by the Flyer uncovered several more stolen stories under the bylines of Larry Reeves and Reginold Bundy, whose combined output was nearly 200 stories and commentaries. Our charge of plagiarism, which has not been disputed, was based 100 percent on the evidence of clumsily disguised stories in the Defender that matched up against nearly identical stories published earlier in weekly newspapers across the country. Whatever the facts of the extortion allegation against Hudson, they do nothing to change that.
The owner of the Defender, Tom Picou, and editor Marzie Thomas declined to go over the evidence with us. They contend Larry Reeves is a freelance writer who was not paid for writing more than 140 articles, never came to the office, and whose whereabouts cannot be determined. A former managing editor of the Defender, Virginia Porter, told the Flyer, The Commercial Appeal, and other publications that she believes Tom Picou is Larry Reeves and Reginold Bundy, who was also a serial plagiarist.
Three weeks after the Flyer published two articles about plagiarism at the Defender, Hudson contacted us to corroborate Porter's claim. We gave him two paragraphs in the middle of a 900-word story about plagiarism at The New York Times.
By no stretch of the imagination was Myron Hudson the whistle-blower in this story, nor does it stand or fall on his credibility, as readers of the CA might think based on the page-one headline "Newspaper accuser arrested." Television reporter Stephanie Scurlock of WREG-TV Channel 3, the CA's media partner, asked us two weeks ago if we were aware that Hudson possibly has a criminal record.
For the record, neither the CA nor Channel 3 had anything to say about fraud at the Defender until the Flyer broke the story locally. We offered to provide our evidence, a "road map" to how we found it, or both to the CA, Scurlock, WMC-TV Channel 5, the Chicago Reader (a weekly in Picou's home town), The Columbia Journalism Review, the Association of Alternative News Weeklies, and the Defender. Several news organizations have picked up the story, some more accurately than others.
In case any of our readers have the same question as Scurlock, the answer is no. This reporter and this newspaper do not do criminal background checks on the people we interview unless there is a compelling reason to do so. But we do check our sources, and in the current media climate it may be worth saying a little more about that. Hudson, like Porter, spoke on the record with no restrictions. Both produced satisfactory evidence, verified by other employees, that they had indeed worked at the Defender in the jobs they claimed to have held.
Most important, of course, was the overwhelming evidence of serial plagiarism and manipulation of stories and the absence of a credible official explanation. Both Porter and Hudson were in positions to know Tom Picou, Larry Reeves, and Reginold Bundy. If you believe the Defender's owner and editor, two unscrupulous serial plagiarists remain at large, possibly ready to strike again at some unsuspecting newspaper. No charge, of course, for the first 200 stories.
As Porter and others have noted, the victims of the Defender's fraud included not only the reporters whose work was stolen and the organizations like the Nashville Metro Police Department, which was smeared by having crimes and official misconduct transposed to its staff and jurisdictions. The victims were also the Defender's honest employees, its readers, and the African-American community it serves. "Larry Reeves" and "Reginold Bundy" treated them like gullible dupes unable to distinguish fact from fiction and easily inflamed by outrageous stories and poorly sourced claims.
Memphis deserves better. There is a profitable and important niche for an African-American newspaper. Hopefully, the epidemic of "can-do spirit" that the CA loves to write about will spread to publishing, and a group of Memphians will start one. That's the real continuing story and the only way to put a happy ending on this sorry saga.