There are at least two reasons not to write a letter-to-the-editor about an article that may be inaccurate or unfair. Typically, I've found, the publication compounds the offense by heavily editing the letter and by providing space below it to give the article writer the last word.
But there was another reason why I chose not to respond publicly to the first of Michael Miner's mean-spirited Hot Type columns about the dispute over credit and movie rights in the case of the Ford Heights Four, men who recently were freed from prison after being wrongly incarcerated for 18 years ("Ford Heights: Justice and a Piece of the Action," November 15). To quote from my personal letter to Miner on November 18: "I don't plan to dignify the nastiness with a letter-to-the-editor [because that will] only divert attention from the loftier lessons that can be learned from this inspiring case."
The clear purpose of the letter was to share with Miner--who I've known for years--my thoughts on where he got it wrong and to encourage him to interview sources who could set the record straight. I also made the letter available to a handful of people who asked me if Miner's allegations were true, and to several of Miner's colleagues, hoping they might prod him to do his job.
Imagine my surprise when I picked up the November 29 Reader and found that my letter to Miner had been extensively quoted without my permission in a follow-up column, "Protess Protests," and worse, that Miner had repeatedly interrupted the narrative of the letter to defend his original thesis and escalate his name-calling.
Miner also didn't extend the customary journalistic courtesy of allowing me to respond to "new testimony" he claims to have developed. If he had, he might have avoided additional mistakes.
Here's one of the more egregious errors: Miner now reports that it was former Ford Heights lieutenant George Nance who "wrote the street file that gathered dust until this year, when it helped to clear the names of the Ford Heights Four." In fact, this pivotal document was not written by Nance; to the contrary, it was penned by a Cook County sheriff, David Capelli. The public record reveals that Nance's notes have never surfaced since he supposedly wrote them in 1978. But instead of checking the facts Miner simply accepted what Nance told him on the phone.
Regarding the Nances' claim about movie casting, my coauthor Rob Warden's verbatim notes of the dinner interview indicate the subject wasn't discussed, and I certainly didn't suggest that Denzel Washington would play George Nance, a retired police officer who was off the case after May 17, 1978. True to form, Miner failed to give either Warden or me a chance to respond to this ludicrous assertion.
We'll save for the book other important details that Miner misses in his columns: Why investigator Rene Brown was forced to play a circumscribed role in the case; the reason that my students balked at taking a return trip to Ford Heights with Brown, and were alone with him only once after their first encounter; the story of the rift between the students and the four men they helped free, which sadly has widened because the young women now have devoted more months negotiating their movie deal than they spent doing their class project on the case (the men haven't spoken to them since September 16, two days before the women taped Oprah), and so on. What's particularly troubling is that Miner had this information before his second column and chose not to use it.
There are lessons here about how journalists make such mistakes. Miner first adopted a single source's (Rene Brown's) version of events. Then when I pointed out the errors in that position he said he "took one of [Protess's] complaints to heart and conducted several more interviews"--which, of course, he should have done prior to writing the first column. But before Miner conducted the new interviews, he told the Daily Northwestern on November 19 (the day he got my letter) that he "stands by [his] story"--a sure sign that he didn't seriously intend to check his facts.
Another lesson is that journalists should be careful not to let intense personal biases cloud their vision. Yet Miner peppers his column with epithets such as "arrogance," "infuriating," "preposterous," and--my personal favorite--"overweening certitude." Then, in a revealing closing paragraph, he expresses "envy" for my "success."
Miner, an accomplished journalist, has no cause for envy. But if he feels that way, I hope he'll deal with it by joining journalists who investigate the problems of the criminal justice system and reserve his venom for those who inflict injustice--rather than attack those who expose it.
Professor of Journalism
Medill School of Journalism
Michael Miner replies:
I misunderstood the private nature of David Protess's sharing. A collective audience comprising the editors, publisher, and other "colleagues" to whom Protess also sent his letter--in hopes they'd pound some sense into my skull--as well as that somewhat mysterious "handful of people" (which includes at last one newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, and who knows who else) who discovered the letter was theirs for the asking, plus anyone this first group might have passed the letter on to, struck me as large and general enough to require a public response.
I misrepresented George Nance. "The street file is mine," Nance told me, but he didn't say he "penned" it. He merely brought it into being. He and Capelli and another Cook County officer were all present at the interrogation of Marvin Simpson, which provided the basis for the file. Nance says he and Capelli both took notes. He turned his notes in at the police station and they disappeared; Capelli's eventually resurfaced. But Simpson was Nance's informant. Nance produced the witness who provided the information that should have solved the Ford Heights case 18 years ago.