The Tri-State Defender, the oldest and most prominent African-American newspaper in Memphis, is a thief.
For several years, the weekly newspaper that calls itself "The Mid-South's Best Alternative Newspaper" on its editorial-page masthead has been ripping off other weekly newspapers' stories, changing the datelines and place-names, and running them as its own "lead story" under the byline of Larry Reeves.
What its readers were led to believe was hard-hitting reporting about crime or civil rights violations in Nashville, Jackson, the Mississippi Delta, or other Mid-South locales was in fact the work of reporters in such faraway cities as Cleveland, Los Angeles, or New York. The actual reporters were never credited and, until this week, were not aware that they were being plagiarized.
Reeves is something of a mystery, and it is by no means certain that he actually exists. Although his byline appeared on over 140 stories between 1995 and 2002, no one at the newspaper can recall meeting him in person or knows where he is today.
"I've never met him," said publisher/editor Marzie Thomas, editor since January 2003 and formerly advertising director since 1991. "If he ever shows up here he cannot work for me."
Asked if Reeves exists, she said, "I don't know," and hastily referred questions to Tom Picou, the president and CEO of Real Times, which bought the Tri-State Defender and four other black community newspapers for $11 million in January from the Sengstacke trust.
Reached in Los Angeles, Picou said he too had never met Reeves face-to-face.
"He's a white guy, probably about 80 years old now," Picou said. "I have not talked to him since 1996." He amended that to say he assumed Reeves was white by the sound of his voice.
Picou, the nephew of the late Tri-State Defender founder John Sengstacke, said Reeves "did some research pieces for us" but was never paid. He submitted his stories electronically, Picou said. He believes Reeves moved to Little Rock or Hot Springs. He said he told Thomas she was not to use him any more when she took over this year.
Asked why Reeves would write so many stories for free, Picou said, "Writers are a dime a dozen, and I don't mean to be facetious. But we had a lot of people who wanted to write for the Tri-State Defender. Some people just like to write."
Longtime Tri-State Defender editor Audrey McGhee suffered a stroke last year and is unable to do interviews.
The fraud was discovered last week by the East Bay Express, a weekly newspaper in Oakland, California. One of its reporters found that a long Express story on police corruption published last November appeared the very next week in the Tri-State Defender almost verbatim but under the byline of Larry Reeves.
When the Flyer learned about that incident, we did our own computer search of other Tri-State Defender stories supposedly by Reeves. Within a few hours we had found more stolen goods, with newspapers from California to New York being victimized in the same manner.
Most of the stories are gritty enterprise features about black people getting a raw deal. The East Bay Express story was headlined: "Bum Rap: Vernon Joseph wanted to be a force in hip-hop. Then he met Frank Vazquez. His story changed dramatically."
Even that was plagiarized by the Tri-State Defender , which added a large front-page color illustration and a "lead story" tag line above the story, which ran in November 2002. All Reeves did was change references to Oakland to Nashville and eliminate references to Alameda County. The Metro Nashville Police Department, according to the East Bay Express, was "pissed off" when informed of the fraud.
Subsequently, the Flyer discovered the same thinly veiled deception in other stories, all of which were also lengthy pieces.
¥ In "Family Woes," the Tri-State Defender copied a story called "Family Cries" that was reported by the Cleveland Scene in August 2001. Cuyahoga County was changed to West Memphis, an indication, perhaps, of how few read the Tri-State Defender .
¥ In "Unfortunate Son," a tale of a 13-year-old boy charged with killing his father, references to Shaker Heights and Cuyahoga County were changed to "Jackson." Once again, the victim was the Cleveland Scene, which published the story in November 2001. The Tri-State Defender lifted it two weeks later.
¥ In "Rape of Innocence," a story by New Times Los Angeles in May 2000 about a sexually abused 13-year-old girl, the Tri-State Defender changed references to Los Angeles to "the Delta" and "Mississippi" and ran it two weeks later. For good measure, it even had the audacity to add a tag line, "Article copyright Tri-State Defender Publishing, Inc."
¥ In "Scandal in the Mosque," the Tri-State Defender ripped off The Village Voice's September 2000 story "The Shame of Mosque No. 7" about Louis Farrakhan. The Tri-State Defender put Reeves' byline on the story but generously gave the Village Voice credit in a tag line that read, "Excerpts of this story from the Village Voice." In fact, the whole story was from the Village Voice.
¥ In "Mommy dearest, what have you done?" the victim was Seattle Weekly and reporter Rick Anderson, who authored a story in January 2002 called "Little Girls Lost" about a 14-year-old girl accused of murder. The Tri-State Defender reran it under the Larry Reeves byline two weeks later, with an interesting touch.
In an "editor's note" at the beginning of the story, the newspaper solemnly wrote, "The following is a true story. It took place somewhere in the Mid-South, but its true location is being withheld because of the uniqueness of the case. The names of the characters have also been changed so as not to influence the case's outcome."
The victimized newspapers are, like the Flyer, members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Member newspapers often reprint one another's stories if they are of local interest. The newspaper and reporter that produced the story are fully credited and compensated. The Tri-State Defender is not an AAN member.
Pete Kotz, editor of Cleveland Scene, was more amused than outraged when the Flyer told him about the plagiarism.
"You can't get that mad because the whole operation is like amateur night," he said. "It's so bad it's amusing. It's bad for America that we've fallen so low that we can't even steal properly. Whether the paper knew about it or not, they've gotta be run by huge morons."
Kotz said it would be up to his parent company, New Times, to take legal action.
A Flyer computer search found the Larry Reeves byline on 142 Tri-State Defender stories from 1995 to 2002. Often he would write the lead story on the front page of the newspaper. Other times he wrote commentary or analysis, usually quoting anonymous sources such as "a Baptist minister" or "a local health-care official."
Thomas, the editor, said she was unaware that Reeves had so many bylines or that he was in the newspaper nearly every week in 1995.
The self-described "Mid-South's Best Alternative Newspaper" claims to have won several journalism prizes. It has respectable feature sections and a professional layout and is supported by local and national advertisers including Kroger, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Nissan, and Union Planters Bank. It is, however, lightly regarded by Memphis journalists as a news product because its coverage is so thin, it has no full-time news reporters, and its sourcing is often nonexistent. If it were not so little read it could not have gotten away with its serial plagiarism for so long.
Still, it carries a measure of clout by virtue of being the largest and oldest black newspaper in a city of 650,000 people which is majority black while other print media, including this newspaper, are predominately white. A former contributor is Gale Jones Carson, who is executive assistant and media spokesperson for Mayor Willie Herenton and head of the Shelby County Democratic Party. Carson said she, too, never met the mysterious Larry Reeves.
Told that the Flyer was doing a story, Picou asked, "Why would you want to do that?"
He then said he would try to make amends.
"The only thing I can do is call these people and apologize," he said.
As if matters weren't bad enough, the Village Voice and the New Times chain are run by some of the most competent and competitive editors and publishers in the weekly newspaper business.
In its story, the East Bay Express made a puerile crack about Memphis as "that little hillbilly town over there on the other side of the country."
The grown-ups at New Times, Inc., owners of the East Bay Express, presumably know where Memphis is and may take more serious action when they learn how widespread the theft was.