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Sins of Omission / Libel Watch



By Michael Miner

Sins of Omission

Newspaper errors always matter to someone. Last week the Tribune made an obscure mistake because it put too much trust in a press release. As a result, George Langford, ombudsman of the Tribune, caught it from the campaign manager of a congressional candidate whose name was left out of the paper.

The trivial item ran February 18 in "Chicagoland this week," a roundup of coming events that appears in the Sunday Metro section:

"The seven announced candidates for the 7th Congressional District seat being vacated by the retiring Cardiss Collins will take part in a debate. They are: Danny Davis, Bobbie Steele, Percy Giles, Dorothy Tillman, Greg Winbush, Ed Smith and Sam Mendenhall. The debate is free and open to the public."

That was the entire article, save for four lines at the end saying when and where: Tuesday afternoon, February 20, at the Circle Center of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

But the item was wrong. The seven candidates named weren't the only ones running for the office in next month's primaries, and they weren't the only ones who'd be debating. The Tribune had been misled by the press release from UIC announcing the event.

The release said, "The seven announced candidates...have confirmed that they will take part in a debate." When Tribune reporter Carlos Morales diligently called UIC publicist Tom Ryan on Wednesday, February 14, to find out who those seven were, Ryan read him the names on a memo dated January 30 that had been prepared by the undergraduate political science club. The memo was all he had, and it was incomplete; there were candidates the club wasn't aware of.

That same day the UIC political science department got a call from the Austin Voice, a community paper, letting it know that if only seven candidates had been invited then the school had overlooked several others. (At least 12 candidates, including write-ins, are in the race.)

Teaching assistant Connie Mixon tells me she had a terrible time trying to pin down the rest of the candidates because various petitions were being challenged and the board of election commissioners wouldn't fax over an official list. But she eventually got other names from Bobbie Steele, and by Thursday evening two more candidates had accepted invitations to the debate. On Friday Tom Ryan's office was supposed to send an updated list of participants to the Tribune. But Ryan was out that day, and the revised list apparently didn't make it to the paper. It certainly didn't reach Morales.

So the Tribune wound up carrying a story that was incorrect.

But what of it? It's preposterous to suggest that an election might hinge on who one lowly squib mentioned. The omission could matter to only one kind of person: a frustrated candidate who hadn't been able to cross the first and lowest of thresholds to public office--success in simply getting his or her name in the paper.

Someone like Joan Sullivan.

Sullivan has been a systems analyst for Cook County, a city planner, executive director of housing for the National Association for Social Workers, and a board member of the League of Women Voters. Two years ago she ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner from the county's Ninth District, and the Tribune, which endorsed her, predicted she'd bring "energy, zest and new ideas to the job."

But when she filed for Congress last December along with high-profile candidates such as county commissioners Davis and Steele and aldermen Tillman, Smith, and Giles, all she was to the Tribune was "Joan Sullivan of Oak Park." She hasn't been mentioned since.

"We're having a hell of a time just getting our name in print," said campaign manager Garry Cooper. "Rightly or wrongly, once your name is announced as a candidate in the media you get a certain legitimacy in people's eyes. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the people don't think you're legitimate they don't vote for you."

The afternoon of the debate, Cooper called George Langford and complained. "I made sure he understood the mistake wasn't that they said there'd be seven candidates at the forum, but that there were seven announced candidates in the district. To me that's an important difference."

Cooper asked Langford for a correction. "He said, 'Well, we're aware of the problem now. We'll be having an article on the debate.' And he said he'd correct the error in the article. I don't know if he specifically said Joan's name would be mentioned or not, but I certainly got that impression."

Cooper may have heard what he wanted to hear. Langford told me he would never have made any guarantee about debate coverage. "I can't control that," he said. "I had no idea if we were covering it or not."

Langford wasn't unresponsive. He asked Morales to look into Cooper's beef, and Morales called UIC and established that Sullivan hadn't added her name to the debate until the previous Friday, the day after Morales's deadline (though he still could have changed the item if he'd been informed it was wrong). "It would have been better," Morales acknowledges, "to make it clear that as of our deadline these were the seven confirmed for the debate."

But Langford decided against running a correction or even a clarification. "It was one that could have gone either way. What I decided was that since the debate was over at the time he called me, and the information we provided was what we had at that point, it technically wasn't an error. It was more important we fix our database, so any further reference to the election primary would make certain we had all the candidates."

When Langford said that to Cooper, he left Cooper under the impression that the Tribune's coverage of the debate the next morning would give Sullivan her due. But as so often happens, the coverage was tailored to suit the Tribune's purposes, not the candidates'. The lead Metro story the next morning concerned the Gangster Disciples trial in federal court. Testimony had linked the gang to 21st Century VOTE, and when this voter-registration movement became an issue in the Seventh District debate--Ed Smith denounced the organization, while Danny Davis stood by it--the debate became a four-paragraph insert in the trial story.

No other issue brought up at the debate concerned the Tribune. And no other candidate was named.

Libel Watch

Kevin Trudeau called last week a day after deadline, much too late for me to give him the space he deserved in Hot Type. I was writing about his $10 million libel suit against New City, and Trudeau wanted me to know that despite what that paper said about him, he's an honest, open, aboveboard guy.

"I have openly talked about the problems I have in my past in seminars, on tapes--as a matter of fact it's part of my presentations. So obviously it's an open subject. It's never been hidden. It's never been secret."

Reporter Murray Coffey had written in New City that a videotape sent to prospective members of the Trudeau Marketing Group doesn't mention Trudeau's criminal past: in 1990 he pleaded guilty to larceny charges and in '91 to credit card fraud. "Maybe it is on other tapes," says Coffey, "but this is the tape he was sending out to people who were inquiring for the very first time into the Trudeau Marketing Group."

Trudeau's firm distributes Nutrition for Life health products, but Coffey suggested it might also be a pyramid scheme. "Sometimes, crooks dress up pyramid schemes as multi-level marketing firms designed to sell products," he wrote, words Trudeau cited as actionable in his lawsuit.

"Share with me the crooks you know who have dressed up pyramid schemes. And how do you define 'crooks'?" Trudeau wanted to know. "We have outstanding products. We treat our customers extremely well."

Trudeau wanted me to be clear about several things. "I've fully admitted things I did in the past were wrong. I've fully paid for my mistakes. The fraudulent check was actually an overdraft. I pleaded guilty. The other one was felonious credit card fraud, providing false information on my credit card application. These were mistakes I made. I don't think there's anyone out there who can say they put everything accurately on their credit card application. How long did you live at your address. Five years? Or was it two?

"There are other things I've done. I've taken two papers out of a box. I even ripped off the tag of a mattress. You know, it says 'under penalty of law.' I even reproduced a ball game 'without the express written consent.' Of course I'm being facetious."

For his credit card "mistakes," Trudeau was ordered to pay more than $127,000 in restitution and sentenced to prison for two years.

He wanted it understood that "when you say something that is blatantly and flagrantly untrue about me, you're going to get sued." A few days before suing New City he'd sued a former associate, Greg Caton of Lake Charles, Louisiana, for $40 million. Trudeau's suit alleges that Caton's book MLM Fraud (MLM stands for "multilevel marketing") libeled him with language such as this: "Trudeau's long line of criminal activity is so extensive that he gets his own chapter." He also alleges that Caton has libeled him on the Internet with language such as this: "The current ad campaign of Kevin Trudeau and Nutrition for Life is so fraudulent and deceptive as to almost invoke humor." (In each case the language is taken verbatim from the lawsuit.)

Trudeau also wanted it understood that Coffey wildly misreported his relationship with the office of the attorney general of Michigan. Coffey wrote that last August the attorney general had issued a "Notice of Intended Action and Opportunity to Cease and Desist" to Trudeau and the Trudeau Marketing Group alleging that the company was "engaged in the promotion of an illegal Pyramid," and had given it ten days to shut down or face possible prosecution.

All routine, said Trudeau. "Here's the rationale. If the company's illegitimate they'll run and hide. If the company's legitimate they'll send you the facts and figures....We're still operating up there, aren't we? Their response was, once they reviewed our material, we're in full compliance."

I called the attorney general of Michigan. I told director of communications Chris De Witt that Trudeau maintained everything was now hunky-dory. "Boy, is he going to be in for a surprise," De Witt said. "I don't believe anything has been resolved. They have not been cooperative. No settlement has been reached at this point. We still contend that they're an illegal pyramid."

I asked Trudeau if it was true that, as Coffey wrote, he hadn't given Coffey an interview. Trudeau wanted me to understand that Coffey had made a token attempt to get one. "At a quarter to five he tried to call me and said he had a deadline. I happened to be out of town when the message came in."

"Horseshit," says Coffey. "For about a month we played cat and mouse with his publicity people. First his publicity people in Chicago. Then I had about a two-minute conversation with Trudeau himself, and he wanted to talk to his Hollywood publicity people. Finally I called up his people in LA and I said, 'I've been playing telephone tag and hide-and-seek--now it's going on three weeks. I have a deadline Monday, and I need to get this done.' They didn't get back to me until an hour before my deadline."

Coffey's not the only journalist to write about Trudeau lately. John Emshwiller of the Wall Street Journal reported last month that Nutrition for Life has granted Trudeau options to purchase half a million shares of the volatile stock--worth $35 a share at the time he wrote, and $18.25 early this week--for $12.50 a share. Emshwiller delved into Trudeau's criminal history but observed that "there isn't any evidence that Mr. Trudeau has committed wrongdoing with Nutrition for Life."

Trudeau told me enigmatically that Emshwiller's benefited in the past from the shorting of stock and "as far as I know he's being investigated by the SEC."

Later I sent Trudeau a fax reminding him of this remark and telling him that if he stood by it I'd like more information so that I could follow it up. He didn't respond.

I asked Emshwiller if he was under investigation by anybody. "Not that I know of," he said.

News Bites

A headline we admire:



At a Glance

From the sidebar to a Sun-Times account of an upcoming expedition to find the birthplace of Genghis Khan.

One more thing Joseph McCarthy and Patrick Buchanan have in common: reporters like them. They don't have any of that icky sanctimony that's so irritating in, say, Hillary Clinton.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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