Dept. of Media

Court of Public Opinion

Every so often, the Washington Post comes up with a story that fires public disgust with the District government. There was the classic piece about rotting corpses at the city morgue, for instance, and the series about gross mistreatment of mentally retarded people in municipal care.

But those two had nothing on the story of the judge so mean he ignored a man gasping for breath in front of his bench. In April 2001, Post reporter Neely Tucker wrote about the horrific scene in the courtroom of D.C. Superior Court Senior Judge Tim Murphy. In the Post account, Murphy was doing his normal jurisprudential routine when 54-year-old defendant Robert Waters collapsed in front of the defense table and screamed, "I need air!"

Murphy called for nurses but otherwise carried on with courtroom business, the paper reported. "He was being attended to. There wasn't anything else we could have done," Murphy told the Post.

Waters, meanwhile, was escorted to the court's cellblock, where he was later found unconscious. His handlers had apparently thought he was faking his affliction. He was pronounced dead later that day at Howard University Hospital.

This past Sunday—almost two-and-a-half years later—the Post issued some amendments to the story: "It was incorrectly reported on April 27, 2001, and in six subsequent articles, one editorial and one column that Judge Murphy kept calling other cases as Waters was lying on the floor of his courtroom." The correction stated that no other cases were called and that Murphy didn't conduct other court business until Waters left.

The Post also recanted the claim that Judge Murphy had resigned as a result of the Waters case. "We did make mistakes," says Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao. "Some of those mistakes were because we weren't careful. I regret them."

Along with the egg-on-its-face correction, the Post published a letter from Judge Murphy's lawyer: "The spotless reputation enjoyed by Senior Judge Tim Murphy of the D.C. Superior Court came to an abrupt end when The Washington Post published an inaccurate article titled 'Dying Man's Shouts Went Unheeded'..." wrote attorney Dwight D. Murray in the Aug. 10 Post. "But no amount of correction can convey Judge Murphy's humanity and his profound sadness over Mr. Waters's death."

The one-two punch of the correction and letter left an unmistakable impression: The paper had slammed a longtime jurist on the basis of flimsy evidence, then taken more than two years to get its facts straight and 'fess up.

But if the original coverage seemed unduly sensational under examination, so does the follow-up. As a rule, newspapers try to word their mea culpas to minimize their own embarrassment; in this case, the Post seems to be wallowing in it.

Key parts of Tucker's account remain intact, after all. In the initial story, Murphy did all but admit to plowing through his docket in the aftermath of Waters' troubles. "We had something like 150 cases that afternoon, and if you stop the court, it can get chaotic," said the judge in that piece. "He kept yelling for air. I finally leaned over and told him, 'Well, if you'd quit yelling, maybe you could get some air.'" The correction does not retract Murphy's remarks.

The court transcript indicates that the judge said, "Keep calling the other cases."

And if the judge was really wronged by the Post's version of events, it took him longer than your average libel victim to vent his rage. According to Armao, the paper received its first notice of Murphy's complaints on Oct. 25, 2002, a year and a half after the Post's original story. "I do wish the judge had contacted us sooner," says Armao.

When asked why it took the judge so long to air his grievances, Murray says that Murphy wanted to review a report of the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure relating to the incident before "attacking the inaccuracies in the Post." That report found that Murphy's conduct in the Waters case "eroded public confidence in the judiciary"—a point included in the Post's correction. Rebukes notwithstanding, Murphy was reappointed to his post as senior judge.

Still confused as to whether Murphy is a callous curmudgeon or a victim of media recklessness? If so, just blame the Post. The local paper of record printed some definitive stories about a notorious incident. Years later, it has published a correction and letter that appear to discredit its account. Bamboozled readers are left with a choice between guessing at the truth or paying $2.95 per story in the Post archives to decipher it.

When a similar chain of events called the Post's Jessica Lynch piece into question, the paper printed a new story that placed discredited old reporting alongside a more sober version of events. The Post took some flak for failing to reveal the agendas of the sources who drove the original, flawed version of the Lynch drama. But at least readers didn't have to perform their own side-by-side analysis of the competing accounts.

Armao says the Post didn't consider a more comprehensive look-back. "In this case, much of our reporting and many of our stories were correct," she says.

The Murphy camp has to be delighted with the outcome—despite his clearly insensitive remarks, the judge got a generous rehab in the pages of the Post. Murray says that he never raised the specter of a libel suit. "I didn't threaten anyone," he says.

Red Letter

Last week's debut of the Washington Post Co.'s Express tabloid changed the landscape of area Metro stations, upped the volume of trash in subway receptacles, and moved USA Today one notch up the food chain.

It also introduced Washingtonians to a new genre: the genero-letter to the editor.

Careful Express readers know just what the genero-letter is—through Tuesday, 11 of Express' 16 published letters fit this mold. Here's a sample from the paper's Aug. 5 edition:

Where have you been all my life? Express is great. Usually if an article drains onto another page buried in the paper, I will never finish reading it. The short and to-the-point articles in Express are perfect for Metro-riding.

I also like the layout. I can't stand fumbling around with an oversized newspaper, but Express is like reading a magazine—much easier than a regular newspaper.

—Vanessa Bilanceri, Washington, D.C.

Sound like something that came right off the desk of an ad rep at Express? In the paper's first week, Dept. of Media received entreaties from three readers calling for an investigation of Express' letters page, on the hunch that the paper was orchestrating the positive feedback.

The verdict: not guilty.

According to the people who wrote it, the correspondence is genuine. Letter-writer Bilanceri, for instance, told Dept. of Media, "People are always quick to send criticism. Since I had something positive to say, I just wanted to let them know."

Managing Editor Dan Caccavaro says the mix reflects the paper's in-box. "Ninety-plus percent have been raving, and that's the honest-to-God's truth," he says. "I have always believed letters criticizing you get top priority." In due time, says Caccavaro, the letters page will develop into a forum for debate among readers.

So far, though, the debate has been about the paper's concept and format. A couple of readers have lamented that "there's virtually no original writing" or that the paper reads like "McPost"; most have enthused about the "easy-to-handle" approach. But either way, three-quarters of the published missives have completely ignored the paper's actual content.

That's not surprising. The challenge for the editors is to get people excited about, well, nothing. For those who haven't been handed an issue: Express consists of straight-ahead wire stories that inform but hardly provoke. Here's a quick excerpt from the front page of this Tuesday's edition:

Kaczynski Tells Feds He Wants His Bomb Back

Sacramento, Calif. Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, has asked the government to return his personal papers and other materials, including a bomb seized by the FBI....

Four sentences follow.

Now, just what sort of letter would this story draw? "Dear Express: You nailed that Unabomber piece!" Or maybe: "Dear Express: Your five-sentence piece on the Unabomber shamefully slandered the federal government and law-abiding citizens everywhere." Caccavaro says that Express is planning columns and other original content that should stir some opinions.

Joe Knowles, co-editor of the Chicago Tribune's daily tabloid, RedEye, says just laying out wire copy for readers produces a predictable style of letter: "'Gee, you're great,' or 'Gee, you suck,'" is how he characterizes the genre. RedEye gets better results, says Knowles, when it asks readers a specific question about a piece. In a package last week about lakefront development in Chicago, for instance, the tabloid inserted a question box: "Do you think the lakefront projects are a smart investment for Chicago?" Knowles says the query netted a few letters scheduled to run this week. —Erik Wemple

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