Friday, November 8, 2002
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Publication date: 05/24/2002
Shocker: Tab rags wrong
BY JEFFREY SCOTT SHAPIRO
Special To The Examiner
TWO WEEKS AGO, the Globe supermarket tabloid published a
cover story that said Rep. Gary Condit conspired with a former
presidential candidate and the governor of a large state to murder
Chandra Levy. The tabloid claimed the three political officials had
Levy kidnapped, murdered and disposed of in the Baltimore Harbor.
That scenario proved false Wednesday when Levy's remains and
her jogging outfit were discovered in Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek
The Globe allegation is the latest in a string of stories published
by the tabloids which have dropped a number of so-called bombshells
since the 24-year-old intern went missing.
It's hard to imagine that anyone would take anything the tabloids
say seriously, but the fact is that they do -- and I should know.
When I was 23 years old, I was recruited by the Globe tabloid as
their lead investigator on the JonBenet Ramsey case in Boulder,
Colo. Within weeks I was trading information with a number of
mainstream journalists, police officers and prosecutors.
Sometimes I wondered if the authorities were setting the tone for
our stories or if our stories were setting the pace for their
Nonetheless, I quickly became aware of how much power my
editors had when they were able to publish stories that accused
people of murder. Within weeks, almost no one thought it was
possible the Ramseys were innocent and that was partially because
my editors were able to attribute their stories to sources who
Often times, police officers and federal agents were hesitant to
trust a tabloid, so my editors hired intermediaries to try and get the
information for them instead.
Former police officers, prosecutors and FBI agents were among
those who were enlisted and paid to use their professional contacts
as a means of getting information about ongoing criminal cases.
These informants were often protected with confidentiality. Other
times they were paid extra to go on the record.
None of these tabloid informants had any official connection to the
Ramsey case, but my editors would often refer to them as a "top
expert familiar with the case," or "source close to the investigation."
In the tabloid world, many of the headlines are written before the
stories, and the stories are written before any sources are
interviewed. Instead, sources are paid to accept attribution for
fabricated quotes and headlines.
The Globe's most recent story is attributed solely to Jim
Robinson, a Seattle-based attorney who represented a flight
attendant who told the FBI she had romantic relations with Condit.
Robinson, referred to as a "top attorney" who has "extremely close
ties to the case," based his accusations on a series of meetings he
claims to have had with the Washington Metro Police, FBI and
officials in the Department of Justice.
From what I was told by "sources close to the investigation,"
Robinson was paid for his participation in the article. Sometimes,
lawyers are granted what's called a "qualifying privilege" which makes
them immune from being sued for libel -- a legality which makes
lawyers attractive sources for supermarket tabloids.
It may be legal, but I don't think it's ethical for a practicing
attorney, former police officer or federal agent to profit from making
public accusations of murder against someone who hasn't been
formally charged by the police.
It is generally assumed that most people don't take tabloids
seriously. However, on many occasions, the mainstream media have
actually re-reported their baseless accusations.
Most recently, the national press followed up on an allegation the
National Enquirer made against Carolyn Condit, which falsely
accused her of attacking Levy the day before she disappeared.
Despite the fact the Washington Metro Police denied the rumor 11
days before the Enquirer published its story, the headline somehow
made mainstream national news. Condit has since filed a $10 million
libel suit against the tabloid.
The national press followed a similar story during the JonBenet
Ramsey case when the Star wrote a false story that accused the
Ramseys' 11-year-old son of killing his little sister. That rumor was
also debunked by police before the Star went to press, but they
published it anyway.
If in fact, Gary Condit is innocent, he has suffered an incredible
Throughout the past few years, the tabloids and their professional
"sources" have profited from accusing people of rape, pedophilia and
murder -- and that's no laughing matter. The fact is that the tabloids
are engaging in the business of accusation for hire.
When people buy a supermarket tabloid, they are helping to fund
a dangerous and unscrupulous process that began during the Salem
witch trials and was inherited by one Sen. Joseph McCarthy when he
began falsely accusing his congressional peers of treason. Each time
a person buys a tabloid, he's supporting a culture of fear.
Like the state-controlled press in many dictatorships across the
globe, supermarket tabloids try to set the tone for who's guilty before
they get a fair trial with an impartial jury.
In this country, we have a tremendous gift known as freedom of
speech. It is a sacred right that should be protected and safeguarded.
But the sanctity of that liberty is tainted when it is abused by
journalists who care more about sensational headlines than the truth
-- or the life of a human being.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro worked for the Globe from 1997 to '99. He
left the tabloids after he reported his employers to the FBI for
criminal actions and has since been a frequent critic of their
methods. He now works as a freelance reporter.
I think I missed this when it was new....