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In age of disinformation, newspaper political endorsements should be embraced, not abandoned

In early October, Alden Global Capital instructed the newspapers it owns to stop endorsing for major political offices after this year.  “Unfortunately, as the public discourse has become increasingly acrimonious, common ground has become a no man’s land between the clashing forces of the culture wars,” the company confirmed to the New York Times.

Alden bought the Chicago Tribune last year. It also owns The Denver Post, the St.Paul Pioneer Press, the Boston Herald, The Mercury News of San Jose, the East Bay Times, The Orange County Register, and the Orlando Sentinel.

In the age of scarcity and polarization, newspaper groups far and wide are abandoning the endorsement tradition, arguing that they are irrelevant in today’s world, that they create confusion about whether opinion-page bias extends to news articles, and (insert genuine reason here) that they offend subscribers.

(Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr)

Eric Zorn, a former Chicago Tribune columnist whom I greatly respect, used his Picayune Sentinel blog to cheer on this apparent change in tradition, among other things questioning who self-important editorial boards speak for in the first place.  What follows, with minor editing, is the reply I sent him.

In 2004, the Daily Herald (where I worked) endorsed John Kerry for president, arguing that George W. Bush ceded his claim on the White House when he led the United States into the Iraq war under false pretenses.  A significant number of subscribers cancelled to protest that endorsement (In a spirit of damned-if-you-do; damned-if-you-don’t, the Tribune, I seem to recall, lost substantially more for endorsing Bush).

All of that sounds like it could be an argument for abandoning presidential endorsements. It is only if you think newspapers should never offend anyone.

The cancellations caused concern, to be sure. But the experience taught us how to better present controversial viewpoints in a way that enables critics to respond as part of a debate rather than as part of a protest. We aimed to be respectful without pulling punches. We highlighted opportunities to respond. Beyond the obvious business sense that inspired this approach, it more importantly, if coincidentally, created an inclusive atmosphere the Fourth Estate ought to foster as part of its role in a free society.

I am proud of that 2004 endorsement not simply for the position it took but also in the way we all take pride in acts that require some degree of well-reasoned courage, in the way I am proud of other editorial positions the paper has taken when it would have been easier to look the other way. Combined with the journalism we do, editorials and endorsements are an integral part of saying who we are.

They say who we are to our readers, to our community, to those with influence, to those who pass and enforce laws, to those who need a hand, to those who wish to prosper, to those who would subvert, to those who would seek our endorsement. Combined with the journalism we do, these positions say who we are.

As importantly, they say it also to ourselves.  Not just to the editorial writers or to the newsroom, but to every corner of the newspaper. It is not just a source of pride, but a reminder to all of us including the business side that there is a greater good, that this is who we are.

It is hard to pinpoint the cause of our era’s trend toward abandonment of endorsements and of editorials and opinion pages in general. Some of it, no doubt, is loss of resources. Some of it, no doubt, a fear of offending readers. 

I view it mainly and sadly as the latest slope in the long, terrible decline of mattering.

I suspect conglomerates — by nature of remote direction, Wall Street and perhaps-unavoidable cost-cutting – run a risk of losing sight of the communities where they publish. And if so, they lose sight of what newspapers really are and of the interconnectedness they always had with the communities they served.

We grew up hearing that the press is The Fourth Estate, perhaps without contemplating what that meant.  Here’s what it meant: We were not just a business. We were a part of what makes self-government work. We had access to the powerful and also had their ear. We were part of what knits a community together.  

We were an institution.

As an institution, a newspaper has both a relationship with its community and a stake in its health. We don’t just publish in it.  We don’t just report on it. We live in it.  We are part of the community and we care about it and the people in it. That is the point of the journalism a newspaper does. That is the point of engaging with the audience. That also is the point, even the obligation, to offer a forum for public debate, and the point, even the obligation, to offer thoughtful editorials and endorsements.

And while our readers may sometimes or even frequently disagree with our positions, most value our caring enough to offer them. One of the wonderful (and awful) things about the Web is we can measure readership and we can measure the path to subscriptions. Endorsements routinely measure high in both.  Readers value them. But beyond that, the reception they garner is a reflection of the trust a newspaper has built with its readership and the relationship between them. Readers appreciate that while our editorials and endorsements come with a point of view, they will  not come packed with the misinformation so heavily traveled by social media, ideological sites and political messaging.

Zorn asked, why aren’t endorsements bylined? While this probably is not true at every newspaper, at the one where I worked, the members of the Editorial Board are listed on the editorial page and on the website. He also asked, why can’t the benefits of endorsements be accomplished by columnists?  Some of those things are.  The more, as they say, the merrier. I say it too.  That said, the Tribune e-blasts opinion pieces at me seemingly all day. I see the headlines, pick them up assuming they represent the institution’s point of view, but frequently find many are op-ed pieces traveling under cover of Tribune darkness.  Perhaps it is only me, but when I discover that, the weight of what they have to say matters less. They can engage, they can be provocative, they can make me think – all wonderful things.  But they carry less weight.

I understand that some critics of endorsements may give ground when it comes to local races.  There, they concede, the reader may be seeking advice.  But what about the race for the White House?  The top of ticket races for governor or the Senate? I agree that when it comes to those races, most voters do not need an editorial to help them decide. But well-researched and well-crafted (as with anything, the devil is in the details), these endorsements do succeed in elevating perspectives. Once elected, the performance of those in high office still will be subject to review. The endorsements add to the body of that review.

And of course, they help readers better understand the newspaper that has gained their loyalty.

Beyond that, I am reminded of my long-ago days of running the marathon.  If you are giving that race your best, inevitably toward the end, you hit The Wall. When I first started running the marathon, I would hit The Wall and wonder, “What am I doing out here?”  But over time, I came to understand that it was The Wall itself that drew me out.  It is the reason a runner races 26.2 miles. It is the test.  Every runner needs to know: When you hit that Wall, do you respond as a repentant warrior or as a heroic champion?

The same is true of endorsements. We are not here for the morning jog.

 John Lampinen is a retired editor/senior vice president of the Daily Herald Media Group in suburban Chicago.




A tangled web of St. Louisans in the Jan. 6 insurrection

Many of the St. Louisans who played roles in fomenting the Jan. 6 insurrection had relationships with one another and with national figures in the chaos at the Capitol that have not been explored.  Many haven’t even been previously identified. What follows is an account of some of those roles and relationships.    

Jim Hoft, the Gateway Pundit

With the exception of The Riverfront Times, the St. Louis media have long mostly brushed off the man behind the Gateway Pundit, a right-wing conspiracy website founded in 2004.  But James (“Jim”) Hoft, who moved to St. Louis from Iowa in the late 1980s, has now built such a large following and achieved such impact that he cannot be ignored. 

Hoft’s role as a champion of “the big lie” that Trump won the election has been well-documented. By his own estimate – possibly an overestimate, but still revealing – he had published 3,000 to 4,000 stories just by last September (there have been many more since) – alleging fraud against Trump in Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and elsewhere.  Videos he posted proved his argument, he claimed. And he named the names and ran photographs of specific individuals whom he blamed for the fraud.      

(Photo via Flickr)

An aspect of Hoft’s activities that has received less attention, however, is his specific promotion of the Stop the Steal rally in Washington. The website began running stories with the words “Stop the Steal” even before the election, and then ran about a dozen more in late December and early January. In one piece, under his own by-line, Hoft announced he would speak at the “ENORMOUS rally” to be held Jan. 6, which, he wrote, in bold face type and in an echo of language Trump had used, “will be wild!” Roger Stone and Ali Alexander would also be speakers, he said. Alexander did speak Jan. 5, leading protesters in a chant of “Victory or death!,” and Stone spoke that day as well.  But the GJR found no evidence that Hoft or any of  the other speakers he promised actually spoke on Jan. 6. 

There is no indication that Hoft has been contacted by the authorities in connection with the day’s events. Hoft was interviewed by the GRJ last spring for a profile, but this past January he did not respond to a request for a new interview or to specific questions sent to his and his attorney’s email addresses.  

Hoft & Ali Alexander

Alexander, who was born Ali Abdul-Razaq Akbar, is a prominent alt-right-wing activist who was a key organizer of Stop the Steal in Washington and of rallies in other cities that preceded it. 

Hoft and Alexander had known each other since at least September 2019, when they met at the Marriott St. Louis Airport hotel for the annual conference of the Eagle Council, made up of supporters of the late Phyllis Schlafly.  The Gateway Pundit was one of four co-sponsors of the three-day meeting.  Alexander was a panelist. Among the speakers was Steve Bannon, the Trump adviser, Breitbart News executive, and old friend of Hoft’s; Bannon had stewarded the Gateway Pundit when Hoft was ill in 2013.  Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft was another speaker, as was Kris Kobach, who had recently left office as Kansas Secretary of State.     

group photo features Hoft and Alexander together at the hotel.  A group photo taken at the same meeting the year earlier, in 2018, also at the Marriott St. Louis Airport hotel, showed Hoft with Michael Flynn Sr., the former lieutenant general who served briefly as Trump’s National Security Adviser and who received an award at the 2018 gathering from former St. Louisan Edward “Ed” R. Martin Jr., who had taken over the Schlafly organization. Also in the photo is Michael Flynn Jr., who had earlier achieved notoriety as a purveyor of the theory that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex trafficking ring at a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. 

But Hoft and Alexander may have met earlier. Both  attended a July, 2019 “social media summit” at the White House, to which Trump invited various social media figures he favored. Also attending that event — and singled out for commendation there by the president — was Sen. Josh Hawley.

 And even before that, in 2016, Alexander had lived and worked in New York with Lucian Baxter Wintrich IV, who soon thereafter served as the Gateway Pundit’s White House correspondent. Hoft also published at least two stories in 2017 (here and here) featuring Wintrich and Alexander, still known then as Ali Akbar. So Hoft and Alexander appear to have known each other for years.

None of this is surprising. The universe of prominent alt-right conspiracy theorists to which Hoft, Alexander and Wintrich belong is not that large. It does, however, raise questions about whether Hoft and Alexander were in communication in the days and weeks before Jan. 6. 

Hoft, Alexander, Ed Martin & the Schlaflys

Meanwhile, both Hoft and Alexander had independently connected with Martin.

Martin had moved to St. Louis from New Jersey in the 1990s to earn his law degree at Saint Louis University. After serving as director of the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, he was appointed in 2005 as chairman of the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners by Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt. A year later, Blunt named Martin as his chief of staff.  In 2007, however, Martin resigned, having been found to have hidden personal and political emails from the public. The emails showed he had “turned the office into a political operation, using his position to galvanize special-interest groups on issues such as abortion and the judiciary,” the Post-Dispatch later reported

In 2010, Martin ran for Congress, with Hoft’s flattering support –  “Awful Liberals Turn Classy Ed Martin Into Vulgar Sexual Display.” When he lost, Hoft’s headline offered a foreshadowing of things to come:  “Tea Party Protesters Flock to St. Louis Board of Elections After St. Louis Dem Machine Dumps Suspect Ballots at Midnight to Steal Race from Ed Martin.”  

In 2012 Martin lost another race for political office, but the next year got elected as chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. His enthusiasm there for the Tea Party, however, may have cost the group donors; the Post-Dispatch reported that when Martin took the job, the organization had a surplus.  When he resigned, in 2015, it was in debt.  

But Martin landed on his feet.  He soon succeeded Phyllis Schlafly as president of the Eagle Forum. 

Commonly referred to in the media as an “Alton (Ill.) housewife,” Schlafly did indeed live in Alton for decades after she married. But her life was actually bracketed by her years in St. Louis and St. Louis County.  She grew up in the city, attending public and parochial schools as well as Washington University. And after her husband, Fred, died in 1993, she bought a home in Ladue, where she lived until her death in 2016.   

Her impact cannot be overstated, according to Harvard professor Jill Lepore.  

“If the wrenching polarization that would later bring the Republic to the brink of a second civil war has a leading engineer, that engineer was Schlafly,” Lepore wrote in her 2018 book, These Truths: a History of the United States. By turning the party against the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion, she transformed the once-moderate Republican Party into the image of her hero, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. In the end, she was “one of the most influential women in the history of American politics.”

For decades, it is worth noting, rumors abounded that Schlafly had been a member of the far-right John Birch Society. Richard Dudman of the Post-Dispatch wrote in 1965, for example, that Schlafly “denies that she is a member of the John Birch Society, although its founder and head, Robert Welch, called her ‘a very loyal member of the John Birch Society’ in the organization’s bulletin for March 1960.” In 2020, an independent researcher reported newly uncovered evidence that Schlafly had dropped her membership because she feared knowledge of her association would hurt Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign.   

In any case, Schlafly’s legacy lives on in the St. Louis area.  

After her death, a legal battle broke out between Schlafly’s adult children, centered in part on Martin’s influence over their mother in the months before her death. A schism ensued. One daughter, Annie Schlafly Cori, who opposed Martin, now runs the Alton-based Eagle Forum. Although it’s the namesake of the organization her mother ran, it appears to be only a shadow of what it once was, with little online presence and assets of only $1.1 million at the end of 2020.  

Three of Annie’s brothers, however – John, Bruce, and Andrew Schlafly – were loyal to Martin and are now officers or board members in at least three organizations that also lay claim to their mother’s name and legacy. These are the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, based in Alton, and the Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund and America’s Future, Inc, both based at 7800 Bonhomme Avenue in Clayton. The Clayton address is a two-story brick building which also houses other Schlafly-related operations and which the organization refers to as the Phyllis Schlafly Center. Serving as treasurer of all three organizations is John F. Schlafly, an attorney.  He and his brother Bruce, an orthopedic surgeon, both live in the St. Louis area. 

Martin, despite having moved to Virginia in 2016, is president of all three Schlafly entities.   

Under the umbrella of the Schlafly organizations, Martin started a podcast in 2018 that is now known as “The ProAmerica Report with Ed Martin.” On Dec. 23, 2020, he featured as his guest Ali Alexander. And as he did on many occasions in the weeks before Jan. 6, Alexander invoked violence: “We’ve got to punch the left in the nose and we’ve got to stop being nice about it,” Alexander told Martin’s audience.

Martin, however, was more than a platform for Alexander: He was a Jan. 6 player in his own right.  The House Select Committee investigating the events of Jan. 6 has identified the former St. Louisan as an “organizer, both individually and through your organization, the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, of the Stop the Steal (“STS”) movement.” 

Several of the Eagles’ staff people, including the Eagles’ directors of research and communications as well as the producer of Martin’s podcast, work at the 7800 Bonhomme Avenue location.  Ryan Hite, the communications director (and former communications director for the Senatorial campaign of Todd Akin), was listed as the contact on a Dec. 29 press release the Center issued promoting the Jan. 6 rally — a release that specifically identifies Martin as “co-founder of Stop the Steal 2020.” The release also said that John Schlafly would speak at the event. 

There is no evidence that he did. But John and his brother Andy did write in their Dec. 29, 2020 weekly column, that Vice President Mike Pence “has ample basis for declining to accept and open Electoral votes from contested states” and should do so. 

Like Martin, John Schlafly is no stranger to the publisher of the Gateway Pundit.  Hoft introduced Schlafly as a speaker at the Eagle Council meeting in 2018. Schlafly also spoke at a 2019 rally in Clayton organized by Hoft in support of Trump’s border wall. 

The GJR sent Hite a list of questions related to Martin and John Schlafly and the events of Jan. 6.  He did not respond. Separately, the GJR reached out to Schlafly. He also did not respond.

Hoft, in an interview with GJR last April, said he had attended the rally because he had been invited by Stop the Steal and wanted to hear Trump speak but left before the violence. He called that violence “outrageous” and “wrong.” Asked who he thought had been responsible for it, he said, “I do believe that some violence was Antifa,” but “I’m not the person who is going to tell you they did all the damage there. I don’t believe that.”  

Nonetheless, searches for Gateway Pundit stories about the violence turn up only pieces like this one, alleging government use of flash bombs and rubber bullets to provoke the “peaceful protesters,” and calling those arrested for the violence “political prisoners.”  Hoft has also set up a new website, AmericanGulag.org, “to provide sunshine and publicity to the scores of political prisoners wrongfully imprisoned as a result of the protest on January 6th.”  

In the months after Jan. 6, Hoft’s fortunes continued to boom.  Even in November, 2021,  a full year out from the election, his site had nearly 29 million visits, the analytics firm Similarweb reported.  That compared with 5.3 million for stltoday.com.

Similarweb estimated the Gateway Pundit’s annual revenues at $10 million to $15 million; an online advertising expert consulted by the GJR offered a slightly lower $8 million to $12 million. After expenses for buying his own advertising on other ad networks, Hoft, who is the Gateway Pundit’s sole owner, probably realizes annual earnings in the range of $1 million to $3 million, the expert said. This person asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals by readers of the Gateway Pundit.

Hoft’s legal woes, however, are apparently mounting.  

Across the country, 25 workers in the 2020 election had been targeted for violence by people who cited pieces they’d read about them on Hoft’s site, Reuters reported.  Some of them sued.  

One was Eric Coomer, the security chief for Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems.  Hesaid he’d received death threats and had had to go into hiding after Hoft wrote a story accusing him of having personally guaranteed Antifa members that Dominion election machines had been rigged to elect Biden. Hoft was deposed in that case last Sept. 17.  

During that deposition, one of Coomer’s attorneys asked Hoft: “You have no evidence that Dr. Coomer interfered with the 2020 presidential election; right?”

“Correct,” Hoft answered.  

Hoft also acknowledged to the attorney that he had not reached out to Coomer or his employer before accusing either. He said he’d based his initial pieces on a social media post by another far-right activist, Joe Ortmann, who is also a defendant in the suit Coomer filed, along with the Trump campaign, Giuliani, Sidney Powell, One America News and Newsmax, among others.  

This past Dec. 2, two Georgia election workers also sued Hoft and his identical twin brother, Joe, who contributes to his website from his home in Miami, in St. Louis Circuit Court. The two workers, a mother and daughter, also claimed defamation, and said they too had received death threats, as well as other forms of online and in-person harassment and abuse.  The suit was brought by a collaboration of attorneys including St. Louis-based Dowd Bennett, and signed by, among others, Dowd Bennett attorneys James Bennett, John Danforth and Matt Ampleman.

Postscripts:

Hoft is not the only figure in this story who may face legal jeopardy.  Here are some of the others.

Ed Martin got a subpoena from the Jan. 6 committee. On his very active Twitter account he has complained that the House investigation has been politicized and should itself be investigated.    

Ali Alexander also got a subpoena and has been deposed by the House Jan. 6 committee. He has not been charged with a crime in the case and has denied working with anyone to attack the Capitol, CNN has reported. In early April he said he had received another subpoena, this time to appear before the grand jury the Justice Department is using to investigate Jan. 6.

Steve Bannon got a subpoena from Congress but ignored it, leading to a charge of contempt of Congress. His daily podcast, “Bannon’s War Room,” became one of the main purveyors of the big lie, according to this and other reports. Hoft has been a frequent guest. Hawley appeared in May to discuss his book.    

Timmy Teepell, who describes himself in  the first line of his biography as “lead consultant” in Hawley’s successful 2018 race for Senate, remains a partner at the Alexandria, Va.-based political consulting firm of OnMessage Inc.  

Teepell’s connection with Hawley has renewed salience in part because last November, Giffords, the gun safety group founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, sued the Josh Hawley for Senate campaign in federal court in Washington, along with two affiliates of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and another defendant. 

The suit asserted that OnMessage had “evade(d) campaign finance regulations by using a series of shell corporations to illegally but surreptitiously coordinate advertising with at least seven candidates for federal office,” including Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, and Trump as well as Hawley. The suit said the scheme enabled OnMessage to funnel as much as $35 million from the NRA to these candidates since 2014.  Some of the Hawley advertising ran on KMOV-TV (Channel 4 in St. Louis), the complaint said.  

The complaint said an organization based in Alexandria, Va. used the name “OnMessage” when it developed ads and media strategy for the candidates, but “Starboard” when it did the same things for the NRA. And in placing those ads for the politicians and the NRA, it used two more names. But the suit said the leadership for all the organizations were the same people – and two of them were Teepell and Brad Todd, one of his partners at OnMessage and Starboard who had also been active in Hawley’s 2018 campaign.  

Neither Teepell, Todd nor OnMessage is named as a defendant. But in naming the Hawley campaign, it says: “In 2018, Josh Hawley for Senate accepted contributions of up to $973,411 from NRA-PVF (one of the NRA affiliates) in the form of coordinated expenditures ….” Both the acceptance of the funds and the failure to report them represented violations of federal election laws, the complaints said, for which Hawley and the other defendants should pay an “appropriate civil penalty.” 

The Hawley campaign filed Jan. 21 to have the case dismissed.  If that motion is rejected, however, the discovery phase could provide considerably more information, the Giffords lawyer said, because the complaint has been based to date entirely on public documents.  

Meanwhile, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, another Republican senate candidate,  hired OnMessage last summer to help her in her campaign for the Republican nomination for Missouri Senator.  The Washington Examiner reported that the OnMessage executives who would be working with her would include Teepell and Todd.  Hawley has endorsed Hartzler for senator.

Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent writer and communications consultant.




Police misconduct biggest single cause of 2,900 wrongful convictions

Police misconduct is a leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. Just over 2,900 people have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989 according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations. That amounts to 25,900 lost years for those stuck behind bars.

Over 37% of those cases involve police misconduct, and over half of all exonerations involve misconduct by prosecutors or police.

That means police and prosecutor misconduct is responsible for over a thousand documented wrongful convictions unearthed in the United States since 1989.

The police misconduct includes shoddy police work, coerced confessions, use of unreliable jailhouse informants, misleading lineups and photo arrays and a failure to turn over exculpatory evidence as required by law.

People of color represent over 64% of those wrongfully convicted nationally, and disproportionately experience police misconduct. 72% of all instances of police misconduct that lead to wrongful conviction in the U.S. imprison people of color, mostly Blacks.  

“There’s a problem with some police all over the country,” said Ken Otterbourg, researcher at the National Registry of Exonerations.  “The two most common types of police misconduct are probably misconduct during interrogations and also failing to disclose exculpatory evidence.”  He based that assessment on  the Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent report on the  National Registry of Exonerations website. 

Police and prosecutor misconduct high in Midwest

Police misconduct accounts for an even higher percentage of wrongful convictions in the Midwest than the rest of the country.

In Illinois 75% of all wrongful convictions since 1989 involved police misconduct. In Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska, the statewide rate of police misconduct among wrongful convictions is also high — Missouri (49%), Kansas (57.1%), Nebraska (66.7%). 

The Exoneration Project, based in Chicago, and the Midwest Innocence Project, based in Kansas City, Missouri, lead the efforts in those states to exonerate those wrongfully convicted.

In Missouri there were 15 total exonerations for murder where the cause of the wrongful conviction was official misconduct, according to the National Registry. That was half of the 31 murder exonerations. All told, there have been 51 exonerations on all charges in Missouri. 

Two wrongful convictions in Missouri have grabbed headlines in recent months – Kevin Strickland from Kansas City and Lamar Johnson from St. Louis. Strickland finally was released just before Thanksgiving after 43 years in prison, the longest period of wrongful imprisonment in Missouri history.

Lamar Johnson is not so lucky; he’s still incarcerated.  

Attorney General Eric Schmitt has tried to keep both men in prison even though the prosecutors’ offices that had convicted them had reviewed the evidence and concluded they were not guilty.

Kevin Strickland: police manipulate eyewitness

Strickland, wrongfully convicted in 1979, was released on November 23, 2021. From the beginning no physical evidence linked Strickland to the crime scene of a triple murder. Moreover a convicted gunman said Strickland was innocent and the only eyewitness recanted her identification.

Strickland, who is Black, was initially tried by a jury that included 11 whites and 1 Black. All 11 white jurors voted to convict, but the Black juror refused. The prosecutor reportedly told Strickland’s attorney he had been “careless” allowing a Black on the jury and wouldn’t make that “mistake” again. He  didn’t. The prosecutor used peremptory challenges to strike the last four Blacks from the jury pool in the second trial. The all-white jury took one hour to return a guilty verdict.

Kevin Strickland left prison in 2021 after 43 years, the longest wrongful imprisonment in Missouri history. Police manipulated a lineup and influenced a witness to identify Strickland . The witness recanted and a gunman convicted of the murder said Strickland was not involved. (Photo courtesy of Midwest Innocence Project)

The conviction resulted from a mistaken eyewitness identification by the key witness, Cynthia Douglas, who was shot and left for dead at the murder scene.

The night of the murder, Douglas said she could only identify two men, both of whom were convicted of the murders. Strickland wasn’t one of them. 

Douglas picked out Stickland from a lineup the next day. Douglas later recanted her testimony, explaining that police manipulated her into selecting Strickland from a lineup. 

Douglas’s friends and family said at a recent hearing that not long after Strickland was convicted, Douglas realized she had the wrong guy. For years she tried to get people to listen without success.

In 2009, she wrote an email to the Midwest Innocence Project saying, “I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused, this incident happened back in 1978. I was the only eyewitness and things were not clear back then, but now I know more and would like to help this person if I can.” 

Douglas died in 2015, but eventually Jackson County’s progressive prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker became convinced of Strickland’s innocence.

At a court hearing this fall, Douglas’ mother, Senoria Douglas, recalled her daughter saying,  “Mother, I picked the wrong guy!” 

Attorney General Schmitt’s office claimed in court that Douglas’ email might not have been authentic and that Strickland had spent 40 years “dodging” accountability for the murders. Strickland countered that he was not going to take accountability for murders he had not committed, even though the men who had pled guilty already had been released from prison. 

On November 23, presiding Judge James Welsh ruled that Douglas’s recantation was credible and the conviction could not stand. Strickland was released under a new law that made it possible for prosecutors to seek the release of prisoners their office had wrongfully convicted. 

Still, Strickland won’t receive any money from the state since Missouri only compensates those exonerated by DNA evidence.  

“Kevin’s case is just one example of how much the system values finality over fairness, and how, even when we change the system, the system fights back,” tweeted Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project. “But as hard as the fight is, it is worth it.” 

Lamar Johnson: police and prosecutor paid $4,000 to eyewitness

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has tried since 2019 to get Lamar Johnson a new trial after 26 years behind bars for the murder of Marcus Boyd. Two gunmen, wearing “Ninja” ski masks that showed only their eyes,  shot Boyd dead on his front porch in 1994. The shooters had accused Boyd of keeping more than his share of profits from drug deals. Greg Elking was the one witness to the shooting.  

Lamar Johnson is still in prison for a St. Louis murder he says he didn’t commit. St. Louis’ prosecutor, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, says he is innocent but Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has blocked his release. A police detective and prosecutor are accused of misconduct by Gardner. (Photo courtesy of Midwest Innocence Project)

Here is the police and prosecutor misconduct detailed in Gardner’s filings and briefs filed by the Midwest Innocence Project:

  • Elking at first said he could not identify either of the killers because of the masks. Later, the lead detective on the case, Joseph Nickerson, told Elkin that police knew Johnson was the killer and that the state could help Elking with moving expenses if he cooperated with the prosecution. Elking initially failed to identify Johnson in a series of lineups. Elking later said the failed lineup put Det. Nickerson in a “foul” mood and Elking felt like he had “let everyone down.” Elking and Nickerson got into an  elevator and Elking asked Nickerson to tell him the lineup position numbers of the men that Nickerson believed killed Boyd. Nickerson then told Elking the men were in position #3 and position #4. That implicated Johnson.
  • Det. Nickerson and Assistant Circuit Attorney Dwight Warren arranged to pay more than $4,000 to Elking but failed to disclose the payments to the defense. In a letter to the Rev. Larry Rice several years after the conviction, Elking wrote, “The detectives and me had a meeting with the Prosecutor Dwight Warren and convinced me, that they could help me financially and move me & my family out of our apartment & relocated use (sic) in the County out of harms (sic) way. They also convinced me who they said they knew murdered Marcus Boyd.”
  • Nickerson authored four different false police reports based on the statements of four different witnesses. Years later, all four witnesses reviewed the reports and swore under oath that they never said what Nickerson had attributed to them. 
  • The two actual killers have filed affidavits saying Johnson was not involved in the murder.
  • A jailhouse informant, William Mock, was essential to the conviction, but he lied in court about his criminal record, his motivations and whether he had ever before testified as a jailhouse informant. Prosecutors knew he was lying.

Mock testified that he had heard Johnson incriminate himself in a nearby cell in City Jail after he was arrested by police. But Mock left out important parts of his 60-page arrest record, left out the help he expected from prosecutor Warren, and failed to disclose he had given testimony as a jailhouse informant in a Kansas City murder case only two years earlier.  

Mock had written to prosecutor Warren in June 1994, “I don’t believe that anyone in the legal system will disagree with the value of my testimony in this trial as opposed to the conviction that I am now serving. I am willing to testify as long as I don’t have to return to the Department of Corrections once I testify. I can’t I won’t live in protective custody or any institution after I testify. I am serving a five year sentence for CCW, which I have been serving since 1993. I feel my testimony is worth a pardon by Mr. Carnahan or a reduction in my sentence…I will uphold my end of the situation as I am certain you will fulfill your obligations to me.”

Despite evidence of innocence, Johnson remains behind bars. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that state law did not permit a prosecutor to move for a new trial for a person their office had convicted. The Missouri Legislature has since passed a law permitting the prosecutor to take those steps — the law that helped Strickland get out of prison — but the law has not been applied to Johnson.

 “There is no doubt that Lamar Johnson is innocent,” Midwest’s Bushnell tweeted. “And no one is arguing he is not. But still, he languishes.” 

Black clergy and St. Louis’ Black police union called last summer for Nickerson to be fired from his current police job in St. Louis County because of his role in the Johnson case.

Nickerson calls Gardner’s allegation about him “baloney” and says he still thinks Johnson is guilty. Prosecutor Warren also maintains Johnson is guilty and says the $4,000 in payments to the eyewitness were for witness 

protection.

In Chicago exonerations come in the dozens

In Chicago, unjust convictions are not just isolated cases but are uncovered  in the dozens from the work of corrupt police squads. Sgt. Ronald Watts’ tactical unit at Ida B. Wells apartment has reached 115 exonerations and counting. CPD Detective Reynaldo Guevara framed about 50 mostly young Latino men on the city’s northwest side. And Burge’s homicide squad tortured hundreds of mostly Black suspects from the 1970s-90s before he was stopped.

Illinois has had 363 total exonerations since 1989, with 271 of them having grown out of police misconduct. 177 of the exonerations were murder cases and 133 of those grew out of police misconduct.

Illinois courts have recently thrown out 115 unjust convictions based on the fabricated police work of a tactical team headed by disgraced Sgt. Ronald Watts. It is one of the biggest police scandals in Chicago history.  

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called Watts “the Burge of our time,” a reference to Chicago Commander Jon Burge whose homicide squad physically tortured Black men into making false confessions. 

The Exoneration Project calls the Watts scandal “nothing short of a decade-long criminal conspiracy of extorting drug dealers, stealing narcotics, planting evidence, and falsifying charges.”

Watts and his crew terrorized the Ida B. Wells housing project for the decade leading  up to 2012, but the ramifications of that streak of police misconduct are still playing out in Chicago courtrooms. Another 83 cases will go before a judge for possible exoneration in January, 2022.

Ben Baker spent 9.5 years in prison on drug charges for a crime he did not commit. While exculpatory FBI documents were available during Baker’s trial, they were hidden from his lawyers, causing him to be wrongfully convicted in 2006. He was exonerated in 2016.

Joshua Tepfer, Baker’s attorney at the Exoneration Project, tweeted, “There is no one more corrupt in Chicago history than Ronald Watts.” “Ben is just one of…I don’t think it would be exaggeration to say hundreds of people that are victims of this corrupt crew.” 

“It was Watts law, not Illinois law,” Baker said of Watts’ crew in an interview with the Exoneration Project. “Either you pay, or you went away. That was the rule.” 

In 2012, Watts and another officer were indicted by federal authorities for taking a bribe from an informant and later pleaded guilty. Documents have since revealed that Watts and members of his team were running a “protection racket” for more than a decade, planting evidence and fabricating charges against Black Southside housing project residents while facilitating their own drug and gun trade.

The Illinois Appellate Court said Watts and his team were “corrupt police officers,” perjurers, and “criminals.” It criticized the city’s police disciplinary bodies for failing to do anything  “to slow down the criminal” police officers during a decade of corruption.

Now, three years after the mass exonerations started, the City’s latest police oversight board—the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA)— has failed to act and has retained a dozen officers tied to the dismissed case as active members of the police force.

Tepfer said that in Baker’s case, “The judge accepted the testimony of four sworn police officers over a black man.” To this day, all three officers who backed up Watts in Baker’s trial remain on the force. 

50 more people framed 

CPD Detective Reynaldo Guevara is accused of framing 50 innocent people for murder, mostly young Latino men from the city’s Northwest Side. Twenty have already been exonerated and the investigation of 30 other cases continues. Guevara pressured eyewitnesses to crimes to make false identifications and beat false confessions from suspects, investigations have shown.

Jose Montanez is one of Guervara’s victims. He spent 23 years incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. He and his co-defendant Armando Serrano were wrongfully convicted for murder and each sentenced to 55 years in prison. 

Neither man confessed, and there is no physical evidence tying them to the crime. The sole piece of evidence against the two was the

 false testimony from a jailhouse informant coerced by Guevara.

The jailhouse informant later recanted, stating “My false testimony was given as a result of threats, intimidation, and physical abuse by Detective Reynaldo Guevara.” Moreover, prior to their exoneration, a 2015 report on a review conducted by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office found that Montanez and Serrano were “more likely than not actually innocent.” 

“This was no mistake; Detective Guevara framed these innocent men,” Russell Ainsworth, Montanez’ attorney at the Exoneration Project, said in a statement. “Sadly, dozens more innocent Guevara victims remain incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit. We will not rest until every single one of them is exonerated,” Ainsworth said. 

Last year the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office announced it was  conducting a “comprehensive review” of all convictions connected to Guevara.

Burge’s midnight crew

John Burge, the former Commander of the “Midnight Crew” tortured over a hundred Blacks in the 1970s and 1980s, forcing many to give false confessions through beatings, electrical shocks, and more. 

The Crew was known to point guns in the mouths of victims, smother them with plastic typewriter covers, and burn them with cigarette lighters. 118 Black victims have been documented, with many more still unidentified. Only in 1993, ten years after his crew’s rampant misconduct was first brought to light, was Burge fired from the CPD. Federal prosecutors later sent him to prison.

James Kluppelberg spent 24 years in prison for an alleged arson and 6-person homicide on the South Side of Chicago that he did not commit. He was tortured in 1984 by detectives working under Burge.

According to the Chicago Police Torture Archive, a self-described human rights documentation of Burge’s violence against over one hundred Black people from the 1970s – 1990s, Kluppelberg was tortured into giving a false confession and beaten to the point that his kidney was lacerated and he urinated blood.

 “They laid me face down on the floor and they started punching me in my back and using the heel of their feet in the back kidney area,” Kluppelberg said. “They knew what they were doing. And they did it anyway for their own personal gain,” Kluppelberg said of the officers who tortured him in a video produced by the Invisible Institute. “They used my case to build their careers,” he said. 

While Kluppelberg was convicted of arson and murder, CPD ultimately concluded that the fire was an accident. Still, Kluppelberg spent 24 years behind bars.

Biggest problem in the criminal justice system

Bushnell, director at the Midwest Innocence Project, the organization that represents wrongfully convicted prisoners in Missouri, said in an interview that she sees police misconduct as the biggest problem in the criminal legal system, referring to it as a kind of “open secret.”

Sean O’Brien, who has represented many men who have been wrongfully convicted in Missouri, said in an interview that one cause of unjust convictions in Missouri is that the “rural public defender system has been exceedingly weak in terms of quality of representation.” Missouri has an underfunded legal representation system: it ranks 49th in the country, according to National Legal Aid and Defender Association statistics.

O’Brien also said more independence is needed to look into prison homicides and prison violence to avoid corruption: “Prison guards are not well-trained or well-compensated. They are vulnerable to corruption so investigations need to be done by outside agencies and individual officers from outside agencies should be screened for independence from connections to the corrections complex.” 

The 15 exonerations in murder cases that flow from police misconduct include coerced confessions, unreliable use of lineups and photo arrays, failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, reliance on self-interested confidential sources and failure to follow up on alibi evidence. 

Elizabeth Tharakan is a PhD student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she studies Mass Communication and Media Arts. She is also an attorney licensed in Missouri, Colorado, New York and the District of Columbia.




Facebook v. Science

Social media have helped us cocoon ourselves into comfortable ignorance of “the other side” — so goes the prevailing notion of the last few years, since Facebook has been king.

A team of researchers at Facebook published an article Thursday that claimed to detail how much the site contributes to political echo chambers or filter-bubbles. Published in the journal Science, their report claimed Facebook’s blackbox newsfeed algorithm weeded out some disagreeable content from readers’ feeds, but not as much as did their personal behavior.

A flurry of criticism came from other social scientists, with one, University of Michigan’s Christian Sandvig, calling it Facebook’s “it’s not our fault” study.

Sample frame

Perhaps the most important limitation to the findings is the small, and unique, subset of users examined. Although the total number was huge (10 million), these were users who voluntarily label their political leanings on their profile, and also log on regularly — only about 4 percent of the total Facebook population, who differ from general users in obvious and subtle ways. Critics have pointed out this crucial detail is relegated to an appendix.

Despite the sample problem, the authors framed their findings by saying they “conclusively establish [them] on average in the context of Facebook […]” [emphasis added].

As University of North Carolina’s Zeynep Tufekci and University of Maryland’s Nathan Jurgenson pointed out, that’s simply inaccurate. The context the Facebook researchers examined was highly skewed, and cannot be generalized.

While the ideal random sample is not always available and convenient samples can tell us much about subpopulations of interest, the sampling selection here confounded the results. Those who are willing to include their political preferences in their Facebook bio are likely to deal with ideologically challenging information in fundamentally different ways than everyone else does.

In spite of this criticism, though, we now know more about that type of user than we did yesterday.

Algorithm vs. personal choice (what they really found, and didn’t)

Another troubling aspect of the study has to do with the way the main finding is presented. The authors write that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm reduces exposure to cross-cutting material by 8 percent (1 in 13 of such hard-news stories) for self-identified liberals and 5 percent (1 in 20) for conservatives. The researchers also report that these individuals themselves further reduce diverse content exposure by 6 percent among liberals and 17 percent among conservatives.

The comparison of these — algorithm and personal choice — is what caused Sandvig to call this Facebook’s “it’s not our fault” study.

Tufekci and Jurgenson say the authors failed to mention the two effects are additive and cumulative. That individuals make reading choices that contribute to their personal filter-bubble is pretty much unchallenged. Yesterday’s study confirmed that Facebook’s algorithm adds to that, above the psychological baseline. This was not the emphasis of the comparison they made, nor of many headlines covering the study.

For instance:

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 3.11.44 PM

Tufecki and Jurgenson also point out the authors apparently have botched the statement of this main finding by claiming “that on average in the context of Facebook individual choices more than algorithms limit exposure to attitude-challenging content.” The findings they report are actually mixed: Self-identified liberals’ exposure was more strongly suppressed by the algorithm than by personal choice (8 percent v. 6 percent), while for conservatives the reverse was true (5 percent v. 17 percent).

Science is iterative

Amid all the blowback in the academic world, especially over the inflated claims of the conclusion, some called for a more dispassionate appraisal. Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, who regularly contributes to New York Times’ Upshot, asked for social scientists to “show we can hold two (somewhat) opposed ideas in our heads at the same on the [Facebook] study.” Translated, the study is important, if flawed.

“Science is iterative!” Nyhan tweeted. “Let’s encourage [Facebook] to help us learn more, not attack them every time they publish research. Risk is they just stop.”

But there are rejoinders to that call as well. As University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann pointed out, “‘Conclusively’ doesn’t leave a lot of room for iteration.”

Nyhan’s point, that Facebook could stop publishing its findings given enough criticism also highlights that the study, conducted with their proprietary data, is not replicable, a key ingredient in scientific research.

Journals and journalists

Given the overstated (or misstated) findings, many have called out Science, the journal that published the article. Not only is Science peer-reviewed, but along with Nature is one of the foremost academic journals in the world.

While many of yesterday’s news articles noted the controversy around the publication, others repeated the debated conclusion verbatim. Jurgenson had harsh words for the journal: “Reporters are simply repeating Facebook’s poor work because it was published in Science. [Th]e fault here centrally lies with Science, [which] has decided to trade its own credibility for attention. [K]inda undermines why they exist.”

In the Summer 2014 GJR article, “Should journalists take responsibility for reporting bad science?” I wrote about the responsible parties in such cases. Although social media habits are not as high-stakes as health and medicine, journals, public relations departments and scientists themselves must be more accountable for the information they pass on to journalists and ultimately readers.

Although “post-publication review” is here to stay, the initial gatekeepers should always be the first line of defense against bad science  — especially when the journal in question carries the mantle of the entire Scientific enterprise.




The New York Times gets all politics right. Or wrong.

The headline on p. A1 of the June 16 New York Times read: “Population Shifts Turning All Politics National.” The story by Ashley Parker and Jonathan Martin drew that conclusion from the results of two elections, the one in Virginia that cost Eric Cantor his position as majority leader in the House and one in Mississippi that could unseat another Republican leader, Senator Thad Cochran.

The story suggested that “the growth fueled by a migration of newcomers from other parts of the and even abroad is bringing nationalized politics in races further down the ballot…For all the talk about how partisan polarization is overwhelming Washington, there is another powerful, overlapping force at play: Voters who are not deeply rooted increasingly view politics through a generic national lens.”

As a result, the story proposed that “the axiom that ‘all politics is local’ is increasingly anachronistic.”

But it’s just this axiom that inspired Dave Carr’s The Medium Equation column (“Reporters’ Beltway Blind Spot In a Congressman’s Defeat”) of the same day on p. B1: “All politics is local, which may explain why The Richmond Times –Dispatch and the Chesterfield Observer both took David Brat’s Tea Party Challenge to Mr. Cantor seriously, but few of the publications inside the District that follow the majority leader’s every wiggle and wobble sensed that he was leaving the home fires dangerously unattended.”

Carr’s column quotes Jim McConnell, a staff reporter on the Chesterfield Observer, a large weekly in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia about Bret’s sensational victory over Cantor:  “Any credible journalist would have seen it – all I did was talk to the challenger, listen to what people were saying and get a sense of what was happening on the ground in this campaign.”

There is no reason why the Times should not carry two pieces that offer different or contradictory interpretations of the same event. It may well be that the story on page One and the column in the Business section are right, that therefore politics is both national and local, and that read together, readers see the trees and the forest. What’s silly and shallow, however, is the dragging in of the old axioms about “all politics.” Maybe “all politics” have always been both, but the old axioms, clichés by now, make it easier to explain things than hard, complex and often clashing analyses. Leave the clichés to the talking heads, whose expertise they shape and head-nodding mindlessness they induce.

The best comment about this problem was made by Sidney Morgenbesser, a beloved Columbia University philosopher, when asked if he agreed with Chairman Mao’s comment that a statement can be true and false at the same time. Replied Morgenbesser: “Well, I do and I don’t.”