Appropriate this story

Apr 30, 2003 at 12:00 am

The hot topic in journalism circles in Memphis, Tenn., is a scandal swirling around the Tri-State Defender, an African-American weekly newspaper there. The controversy began when a reporter at the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly in Oakland, Calif., discovered that the Defender had printed a pared-down version of a lengthy Express investigative piece. As far-fetched as it sounds, a few minor changes were made to make it appear that the story was actually about rogue cops in Nashville, not Oakland. The Defender version of the story carried the byline of a reporter named Larry Reeves.

The Memphis Flyer, an alternative weekly based in the Defender’s hometown, then caught wind of the issue and began looking into the matter. A computer search revealed the Defender had published more than 140 articles under Reeves’ byline between 1995 and 2002, according to a story by Flyer columnist John Branston. A little more digging found that many of Reeves’ other pieces were plagiarized as well.

This is where the tale gets interesting, and a connection to Detroit comes in. The story coming from the Defender is that Reeves is a freelance contributor no one at the paper has ever actually met in person, and who submitted all his stories electronically without ever asking for a cent in pay. Branston contacted Tom Picou, president and CEO of Real Time, Inc., a Chicago-based multimedia company that bought the Defender along with the Michigan Chronicle and three other African-American community papers from the Sengstacke trust in January. According to one Defender employee, Picou, while the paper’s executive editor, was the only person to have ever been in contact with the elusive Reeves.

Picou, who did not return a call from News Hits seeking comment, told Branston that he’d never met Reeves, but that he did talk to him by phone once. He described Reeves as a white man in his 80s who lives somewhere in Arkansas. Picou added that he assumed Reeves to be white based on his voice.

But Virginia Porter, managing editor of the Defender from 1995 to 2002, reportedly told Branston that she would “stake my life” that it was Picou who fabricated Reeves and another Defender contributor who also seems to be more fiction than flesh.

News Hits contacted Sam Logan, publisher of the Michigan Chronicle.

“This is the first I’ve heard about it,” said Logan when we asked him about the Defender controversy and the allegations being leveled at his parent company’s leader. “I’m going to have to make some calls down to Tennessee to find out what’s going on.”

Maybe he can start by talking to Larry Reeves.

Send comments to [email protected]