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The Way It Was

John S. Carroll, the former Los Angeles Times editor, had to give a little speech before a Q & A session at Harvard's Walter Lippmann House yesterday, so he talked about the glory days at Philadelphia Inquirer. The story -- how anonymous sources helped a team of young reporters show how police intimidated witnesses in criminal cases -- I'd heard before, a great one that began with the firebombing of a Hispanic family's rowhouse, and the arrest of the wrong man.

The Way It Was

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John S. Carroll, the former Los Angeles Times editor, had to give a little speech before a Q & A session at Harvard's Walter Lippmann House yesterday, so he talked about the glory days at Philadelphia Inquirer. The story -- how anonymous sources helped a team of young reporters show how police intimidated witnesses in criminal cases -- I'd heard before, a great one that began with the firebombing of a Hispanic family's rowhouse, and the arrest of the wrong man.

What was news to me was Carroll, who was once the Inky's metropolitan editor, saying that the main reason the paper got so good in the 1970s was that corruption was so deep and widespread that officials didn't even to bother to hide their scams.

When Carroll arrived in 1972, the Inquirer's lead investigative reporter - Harry Karafin - was in jail for extortion. People used to pay Harry not to write things, Carroll explained. And reporters needing a little help with in-state tuition for their children were hooked up with Sen. Henry J. "Buddy" Cianfrani, who pulled the necessary strings for scholarships -- even at Penn, which gets some state money. This, of course, before Buddy did a little state time himself for corruption.

Which brings us another fresh tale about the late senator.

Buddy Ex-broadcast reporter Sally Swift has a post up on her Daily Sally blog about the time she was serving as an election judge in the city, and found herself the target of some political dirty trick.

This was Primary Day, 1976. She was working for the governor then. She headlines her piece, "The Day Buddy Cianfrani Kept Me Out of Jail."

Some highlights:

He was the essence of an oldtime Philly pol. Big, bald, ham-fisted, cigar-chomping, gravel-voiced, steely-eyed. A true backroom kingpin ... and king maker.

And:

I jumped when the phone rang. A familiar gruff voice said, "Hey, Doll, you okay?" The Senator. I said I was fine, just worried. "Lemme talk to da cop. And don't say nuttin."

Wordlessly I proffered the phone to the patrolman. "I don't want to talk to nobody," he said.

"This isn't nobody," I whispered.

Susie from Philly
Posted 05/17/2006 09:57:35 AM
Thanks for the Daily Sally post. What a story!
Sally Swift
Posted 05/17/2006 01:06:42 PM
Coming from you, Susie, a real compliment.  It was easy -- the really good stories are the true ones, don't you think? I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried. They just don't make 'em like Buddy any more.
Taking on Goliath
Posted 05/17/2006 03:35:21 PM
What, no mention of Gene Roberts?
Judy
Posted 05/17/2006 09:48:16 PM
Name-dropper!
Alex Kline
Posted 05/18/2006 02:49:05 PM
John Carroll has a well-deserved fine reputation as a journalist and editor.  Unfortunately, in the name of defending the LA Times when it was sued for defamation by a Holocaust survivor and WWII hero, he went too far in defending his employer, and repeated a libel his paper had first published several years before.  In February 2004 when he was interviewed at Berkeley, I confronted him with a question from the audience about the case, which had by then been over for more than a year.  Carroll responded at length with comments indicating he had a poor understanding of the facts of the case, and, far worse, said he took pride in reporter Roy Rivenburg's April 15, 2001 profile of Mr. Michel Thomas, which portrayed Thomas as a fraud and a charlatan who had fabricated or exaggerated his WWII record, (see http://www.offkilter.org/mtlat.html).

Three months later, then aged 90, Thomas was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery fighting with American troops in France in 1944.  The medal was pinned on him by former Senator Bob Dole and Senator John Warner, in the shadow of the Atlantic Wall of the newly-opened WWII Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC.  The Ambassador of France was also present, as were two of Thomas' WWII comrades, both of whom had petitioned the US Army to give Thomas the medal in part because they were outraged at how the LA Times had portrayed him. (See http://www.defendamerica.mil/profiles/may2004/pr052804b.html and http://edition.cnn.com/2004/US/05/31/hero.decorated/index.html).

The LA Times pointedly declined to cover the story, although they were informed of the event in advance.

For several years, beginning in 2001, Carroll was bombarded with evidence that his paper got the story wrong, but he either never read it, did not understand it, or chose to ignore it.  See, e.g. http://www.michelthomas.org, a web site that was published in July 2002.

When Thomas died in January 2005, the reporter, Mr. Rivenburg, pounced, and published another nasty smear on his personal web site at http://www.offkilter.org/thomas.html.  Mr. Rivenburg has been the subject of criticism for his work as a faculty member of the Christian fundamentalist group the World Journalism Institute, where he has taught courses like "The Mechanics of Biblical Journalism." (See: http://www.signorile.com/articles/nyp117.html and http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/123/51.0.html.)

While Carroll was still editor at the LA Times, I and more than 500 others wrote to him -- including many prominent persons, and more than 130 members of Thomas's regimental association -- imploring him to review this matter, but Carroll ignored all these entreaties, and never gave any indication he understood the facts of the story, and why his paper got it wrong.

So, when I read encomia for Mr. Carroll such as yours, I shake my head that this highly-regarded titan of the journalistic world could never be bothered to correct the shameful record of his newspaper in the matter of Michel Thomas, and in fact went out of his way to repeat the insult, when he should have known better.
Roy Rivenburg
Posted 02/14/2007 04:50:19 AM
John Carroll definitely understood the facts of the Michel Thomas case, and the evidence backing up the L.A. Times story. That's why he publicly referred to Thomas' World War II tales as "preposterous." 

www.offkilter.org/thomas.html has more documentation on Thomas' bogus claims.
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Daniel Rubin Inquirer Columnist
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Blinq is a news commentary blog featuring contributions from Inquirer Metro columnists Karen Heller, Kevin Riordan and Daniel Rubin.

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