Friday, April 25, 2003

Anatomy of a Lie

Former managing editor says owner faked stories at the Tri-State Defender.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 25, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Plagiarism at the Tri-State Defender was much more extensive and, at times, malicious than we reported last week, according to additional research and interviews with former staff members. And the former managing editor, Virginia Porter, said it was carried out by the African-American newspaper's current owner, Tom Picou, using the aliases Larry Reeves and Reginold Bundy.

Picou, who lives in Chicago, is the nephew of the late John Sengstacke, founder of the Tri-State Defender and the Chicago Defender and other newspapers that serve the black community. Picou is the CEO of Real Times, which bought the Tri-State Defender and three other newspapers in Detroit, Chicago, and Pittsburgh earlier this year for a reported $11 million.

Picou told the Flyer last week that Larry Reeves was an unpaid freelance writer whom he never met in person although Reeves authored 142 articles in the Tri-State Defender. Picou said he believes Reeves was an elderly white man who has since moved to Arkansas. He declined to speak to the Flyer this week. Asked if he is Reginold Bundy and Larry Reeves, he said, "Absolutely not. I'm finished with this issue and that's the end of it," before hanging up the phone.

Like "Larry Reeves," "Reginold Bundy" was a prolific plagiarist, changing datelines and place-names to relocate stories to Memphis or other cities in the Mid-South. By doing a computer search, the Flyer was able to conclusively establish that several stories were stolen. We offered to show the evidence to Tri-State Defender publisher/editor Marzie Thomas at her office. She declined three times.

· In 1995, Bundy stole parts of a story about crimes of passion in Miami from Miami New Times and transposed it to Memphis, changing real Hispanic people to fictional African Americans and editorializing about violence in the black community.

· In 1995, he stole parts of a story, "Open Hearts," about an autistic child, from the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

· In 2001, he stole parts of "Who's Sorry Now?," about the Rev. Jesse Jackson's mistress, from The Village Voice.

But "Reginold Bundy" was a much more creative and complex persona than "Larry Reeves." Reeves was a space-filler, "author" of long, front-page stories that were lifted nearly verbatim from other weekly newspapers far enough away that the actual reporters probably would not notice the theft. Bundy had an agenda. In 54 stories found in our computer search, he often editorialized about actual politicians and events in Memphis or West Tennessee and apparently constructed passages of dialogue to embellish his creative efforts.

For example, in 1995 Bundy stole part of a feature story about donating cheap cameras to the homeless in Miami from Miami New Times. But he transposed the story to Memphis, inventing tourists and locals who crassly shot pictures of a homeless man in Court Square "who goes by the name Tattoo George."

"Tattoo George" speaks to "Reginold Bundy" in a pathetic parody of black dialect, saying, "It's like dey got nothin' else to shoot. So day shoot us."

In a 1996 story, Bundy writes about the burning of four black churches in rural West Tennessee: "In fact, in many rural counties in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, the TSD learned, the state of social conditions haven't really changed over the past 40 years despite changing laws and national mandates. To target Black churches in the wake of exceeding racial intolerance is no more of a novelty than the alleged continued lynchings in the Mississippi Delta region."

Sources include "the FBI's Hate Division," "documents released in 1968 by the Congress of Racial Equality," and "an official who preferred not to be identified."

A 1,415-word 1995 Bundy story attacking state Sen. John Ford includes no sources other than "a close friend" and "one unidentified man in a local restaurant."

Porter, 62, told the Flyer she was managing editor at the Tri-State Defender from 1995 until 2002, when she was laid off. She now lives in Kankakee, Illinois. She formerly worked as a copy editor for The Sacramento Bee and other newspapers.

She said "I would stake my life on it" that Picou is Reeves and Bundy. She said anyone who questioned procedures at the Tri-State Defender "was abruptly let go."

"He [Picou] was the big boss," she said. "Why fight with him over his product?"

She said the make-up work for the Tri-State Defender's front page, page three, and jump page (where front-page stories are continued) was done in Chicago and sent to Memphis.

"I used to tell him [Picou] all the time, 'One day you're going to get the Tri-State Defender sued because I know this stuff is either made up or ridiculous,'" she said.

The Chicago Reader, a weekly newspaper that has written about Picou, describes him as going to work for the Chicago Defender as a teenager and rising from baseball writer to editor to president of Sengstacke Enterprises before leaving the company in 1984 "because he couldn't put up with the boss."

Marzie Thomas has been advertising director of the Tri-State Defender since 1991 and was named editor/publisher this year. In a Commercial Appeal profile in February, Thomas, 50, says, "Our mission has always been to tell the truth. We have no other purpose but to make sure the truth gets out."

In an editorial last week, Thomas wrote that "a free-lance reporter may well have plagiarized stories" and that the Defender "was not the culprit, but rather the victim."

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