In 1947 the great dramatists Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill sat down at their respective kitchen tables and each wrote a play called A Streetcar Named Desire. When they compared notes they discovered that not only were their titles identical, so were their plays. They flipped a coin, Williams won, and the O'Neill manuscript was tossed into the fireplace.
Actually, that didn't happen. But here's something just as unlikely that did.
On June 25, 1999, the Reader's John Conroy, who has been writing about police abuses in Chicago for many years, published an article headlined "Poison in the System." It began:
"Next month, in Cook County Circuit Court, Darrell Cannon will take the witness stand and swear that three Chicago police officers pinned him to the backseat of a police car, pulled his pants and undershorts down to his ankles, and then used a cattle prod on his testicles and penis and in his mouth."
On July 7, 1999, the weekly Tri-State Defender in Memphis published an article headlined "Poison in the System." It was written by a Larry Reeves, and it began:
"Next month, in a central Tennessee circuit court, Francis Jones will take the witness stand and swear that three Knox County sheriff's deputies pinned him to the backseat of a sheriff's car, pulled his pants and undershorts down to his ankles, and then used a cattle prod on his testicles, his penis and in his mouth."
The astonishing similarities between the two articles go on and on and on. At one point reporter Reeves even acknowledged the parallels. He told his Memphis readers, "A Chicago man, Darrell Cannon, has filed a similar claim against three Chicago police officers."
Larry Reeves specialized in writing articles for the Tri-State Defender that were virtually identical to articles that had appeared in other papers in far-off cities about a week earlier. Not only were the stories the same but so, frequently, were the headlines--which normally are composed by editors, not by reporters. The Tri-State Defender is a Sengstacke paper, a sister to the storied Chicago Defender, and the editor overseeing the Memphis paper during the years when Reeves was at the top of his game was John Sengstacke's nephew, Tom Picou. Today Picou controls the entire company. And today he's back on his heels. Some of those other papers have found out that the Tri-State Defender was ripping them off and demanded to know what the hell was going on.
"We have never denied that this guy may well have plagiarized," says Picou, speaking of the mysterious Reeves. "We ran an editorial and explained that."
But "plagiarized" barely hints at Reeves's performance. John Branston of the Memphis Flyer, another local weekly, put the matter bluntly in a recent column. He called the Defender "a thief," the Larry Reeves stories "fraud." A week later Branston reported that a second Tri-State Defender byline, "Reginold Bundy," was also fraudulent. And he'd located a former managing editor of the Tri-State Defender willing to say that the probable source of the bogus stories was Picou himself.
My own LexisNexis search found about 140 "Larry Reeves" stories (and 60 "Reginold Bundy" stories) in the Tri-State Defender going back to 1994, when LexisNexis began tracking that newspaper. Branston traced a dozen Tri-State Defender stories to other papers but he didn't pretend that his list was complete. One story he missed was John Conroy's. Here's another that got by him, most likely because the Tri-State Defender carried it without a byline.
On May 24, 2001, the Phoenix New Times had published a feature called "AIDS and Abetting." It told the story of a "homeless hooker" with AIDS whom police and the courts kept returning to the streets. It began: "Prostitutes often frequent the parking lot of the Tempe Bowl on Apache Boulevard, so police keep a close eye on the area."
On June 6, 2001, the Tri-State Defender ran a shortened version of the same article under an identical headline. "Prostitutes often frequent the area around Millbranch and Brooks Rd., so police keep a close eye on the area," this "AIDS and Abetting" began. Other changes were so minimal that even the name of the prostitute remained the same. At the end of its article (which it copyrighted), the Defender slyly commented: "Editor's note: The subject of this story, the woman we refer to as Danielle Adair, moved out of Memphis sometime in early March to a destination unknown."
Last November 6, California's East Bay Express ran a piece on Fly Vern, an aspiring hip-hop artist sent to prison after being set up by rogue cops known as the Oakland Riders. A few days later Larry Reeves told the same story in the Tri-State Defender. Oakland became Nashville, but the Riders were still the Riders, their individual names unchanged, and a "San Leandro brothel" was still a San Leandro brothel. San Leandro is about 10 miles from Oakland, about 2,300 miles from Nashville.
Virginia Porter, the paper's managing editor until she was laid off last year, says Picou, working from Chicago and communicating by phone, was responsible each week for creating pages one and three--the Tri-State Defender's main news and features pages. When she'd ask about the prolific Larry Reeves, "he never really had a reply, but it was as though it was him." She said Picou would call from Chicago for local detail--for example "a certain locality in Memphis for the prostitutes"--that would then show up in a story, like Brooks Road did in the tale of Danielle Adair.
"My question to Tommy," says Porter, "was 'Don't you think the police and health departments here could be in jeopardy with a person like this that, you know, they kept letting go?' He had his answers for me. 'She slipped through the cracks.' Or 'Stop being an old fuddy-duddy.' So you make a joke and say, 'Someday they're going to sue the pants off of this paper.'"
That day never came. Though Larry Reeves was a chronicler of sensational and racially charged events that never happened, even simple complaints about inaccuracies were few and far between. The Knox County sheriff's department, whom Larry Reeves accused of interrogating suspects with a cattle prod, remained oblivious to that story until I faxed it there this week. Says Porter, "We just assumed that possibly people weren't reading us."
Maybe they weren't. Though publisher and editor Marzie Thomas said her last press run was 26,400, Memphis Offset Printing, which printed the Defender until this January, tells me it never ran more than 7,500.
But this spring Will Harper, who'd written the East Bay Express story on Fly Vern, happened to run a computer search on one of the cops mentioned in it. Harper came across the Defender story, and he wrote an April 9 column about it in a tone that affected as much amusement as annoyance.
The Memphis Flyer's Branston spotted Harper's column and followed it up with a couple of his own. Picou told Branston that Reeves was "a white guy, probably about 80 years old now," who submitted stories electronically, didn't get paid for them (hence no payroll records), and hadn't talked to Picou since 1996. Branston said he asked why Reeves would write so prolifically for nothing, and Picou explained, "Some people just like to write."
Then a Memphis daily, the Commercial Appeal, picked up the story. The way it looked to the Commercial Appeal, Larry Reeves's articles tended to fall apart wherever they were poked. "Reeves quoted Little Rock attorney Jason Jackson in a 2000 story on racial profiling. But no attorney named Jason Jackson has been listed in the Arkansas Supreme Court database. He quoted Kent State University sociology professor Helen B. Trent in a 1995 story about white people's misperceptions of black people. Kent State checked records back 20 years and could find no such professor."
Perhaps Reeves had confused the professor with the radio soap opera heroine who from 1933 to 1960 in 7,222 episodes of The Romance of Helen Trent demonstrated that "because a woman is 35, or older, romance in life need not be over."
John Sengstacke's death in 1997 put the future of Sengstacke Enterprises up for grabs. Picou had once been president of Sengstacke Enterprises, but John Sengstacke was a difficult man to work for, and in 1984 Picou left the company and moved to Florida. In 1996 John Sengstacke brought him back into the fold, and Picou became a consultant to the company's three weeklies: the Tri-State Defender, the New Pittsburgh Courier, and the Michigan Courier in Detroit.
Sengstacke's death left the papers in trust and in limbo, and when Picou decided to bid on them, he and I began having occasional conversations that I always enjoyed. Picou was smart and open and had no illusions about the sorry state of the company's flagship, the down-at-the-heels Chicago Defender. Picou rounded up investors, formed a management team, and last January finally took control of the four Sengstacke papers. As the Chicago Defender would now be run by a member of the Sengstacke family with brains, experience, and a few fresh ideas, I thought that maybe it had a future after all.
Who's the Defender's new editor? I asked him then.
"I am," said Picou. "President, chairman, CEO, and I'm the editor."
When we talked again the other day, Picou reminded me of our relationship and assured me that this Larry Reeves thing was "all bullshit. I wasn't involved in it at all." He pointed out that Larry Reeves stories had run in the Tri-State Defender before 1997, when "I wasn't even there." He said that when he created the key news and features pages each week, "I just laid out what they gave me."
Did he write the headlines?
"They always wrote the headlines and I made them fit. The thing I was concerned about was giving them a professional type of product. I redesigned the whole paper from front to back. I put in the computers. I did the marketing with Marzie. But I was not the editor. I did not go over the copy."
Picou didn't deny that the Tri-State Defender had practiced reprehensible journalism. But when he took over the company, one of his "mandates" was for reporting "on a level that we should have been on." He said, "We've gotten rid of the problem. We've set up checks and balances. There have to be three sources for everything. We don't take anything for granted."
He said Larry Reeves was a mystery to him too. He'd told the Memphis Flyer he might be an 80-year-old white guy--"but only because I was told some time ago, and I don't remember when, they had a freelance guy who was this old white guy." Maybe he was someone else. "For all I know, he could have been a friend of my uncle." Reginold Bundy, however, was "another situation. Reginold Bundy never plagiarized anybody," Picou said. "He was a ghost name several writers used."
Sadly, the woman with all the answers, former editor and publisher Audrey McGhee, had a stroke late last year. By every account, she can no longer communicate. Display advertising manager Marzie Thomas succeeded her. "When I first started," said Picou, "I asked Audrey 'Who is doing what?' They had people from reputable newspapers writing for them under different names. But I wasn't."
Those papers that Reeves swiped articles from are papers he doesn't even read, Picou insisted. "I do look at yours," he promptly added. "Forgive me. I get it at home." But steal from it? "That would have been very stupid of me."
Picou blamed the accusations against him on bitter ex-employees, and he said he's been talking to his lawyers. Do what you have to do with this story, he told me, but "if you address it you'd better be objective. I will not hesitate to come after you."
Picou faxed me the Tri-State Defender editorial of April 19 in which the paper supposedly apologized. The editorial was less an apology than a counterattack. It declared that the Flyer's reporting "reeks of sensationalism and a strong sense of disregard for a newspaper that has represented a stable influence in Memphis for some 52 years. Moreover, it saddens the new owners to discover that while a free-lance reporter may well have plagiarized stories, the overall contribution of the Tri-State Defender to the Memphis community was not acknowledged in its scathing and hateful reporting. It was not simply an attack on the Tri-State Defender, but an attack on the city's entire African American community."
"We apologized and moved on," says Marzie Thomas.
The editorial struck Virginia Porter as all wrong. The paper had played the race card when it wasn't appropriate. "You're standing on a lie and trying to say somebody else is wronging us. You can't take two wrongs and make a right of it. The paper was wrong straight up, and if they're wrong they're going to be destroyed anyway."
Porter says Picou didn't limit himself to layout. "We would send him up stories," she says, "but it was his decision what went on the front page, and often he would bump the stories he didn't want there to get his stories in. That was his modus operandi. He was the boss."
Myron Hudson, the former classified advertising manager, worked for the Tri-State Defender for 12 years before leaving last year. (He was fired for insubordination, says Marzie Thomas.) Hudson says flatly, "Tom Picou is Larry Reeves and Reginold Bundy, and the current editor knows that and everybody who ever worked for the paper knows that.
"He had the option to do the main story on the front page, and he would call me quite frequently when the paper came from the plant and ask me what did I think of his story." Hudson frequently couldn't say. "Oftentimes I just didn't read it because to me it was a bunch of nonsense and it tended to make fun of black folks. To intelligent black folks it wasn't appealing, the type of story that he was doing."
As disgraceful as it is for a newspaper to have stolen other papers' articles, it's not much better to have published those articles without noticing they were stolen. One Larry Reeves story in the Tri-State Defender was so outrageous on its face that inattention is no excuse at all. Its source was a March 21, 2000, report by Peter Noel in the Village Voice headlined "Portraits in Racial Profiling." Noel's focus was on police behavior in the various neighborhoods of New York City. Stories "by" Reeves and Bundy occasionally appeared in the New Pittsburgh Courier as well as the Tri-State Defender, and this was one of those stories. In these two Sengstacke papers New York vanished, to be replaced by Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans, Little Rock, and Jackson, Mississippi. Noel had reported that in 1997 and 1998, New York's street crime unit stopped and searched 45,000 men, making more than 9,000 arrests. Reeves reported that more than 45,000 men had been stopped and searched and more than 9,000 arrested in New Orleans, a city one-fifteenth New York's size.
This wasn't any old article Larry Reeves turned in. This was a major investigation. "'Racial profiling is a reality,' an undercover cop in Memphis, Tenn., told Sengstacke News Service." Therefore, "in an effort to substantiate the officer's claim, Sengstacke News traveled to five Southern cities to see if other officers agreed."
So here was a freelance writer nobody knew who worked for nothing and might have been pushing 80, and he was claiming to have toured the south on his own dime to carry out a grandiose study of law enforcement attitudes. Does Picou ask us to believe that without exchanging a single word with Larry Reeves he decided to publish his findings and put the company name behind them?
He asks us to believe he didn't pay any attention to what Reeves was writing about. He says he didn't read the Tri-State Defender. He didn't read the articles they sent him from Memphis. "No, no, I didn't have time," he said. "They'd send me 8 or 10 or 12 stories and I just laid them out. And that was my job. I didn't have anything to do with editorial."