Free Press mess

Oct 9, 2009 at 1:27 pm
Talk about a tricky situation. Pulitzer Prize winning Free Press reporters M.L. Elrick and Jim Schaefer yesterday found themselves covering a story they were directly involved in. It’s an explosive issue that centers, in part, on the guy who now appears to be the person most responsible for the two star reporters receiving that Pulitzer — attorney Michael Stefani, the lawyer for three whistle-blowing cops who successfully sued the city and former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, setting off a chain of events that resulted in Kilpatrick losing his job and going to jail.

During a hearing being held by the Attorney Disciplinary Board to determine if Stefani is guilty of any ethical violations for his role in crafting a secret deal to settle the whistleblower cases brought by former cops Gary Brown, Harold Nelthrope and Walter Harris, Stefani disclosed that he provided copies of incriminating text messages (along with thousands more) to the Free Press for “safe keeping.” Actually, if you read the Detroit News account of the hearing, the text messages were given specifically to Schaefer. That detail was omitted from the story Schaefer and Elrick wrote about Stefani’s testimony.

Months after receiving the test messages — which proved that Kilpatrick and chief of staff Christine Beatty lied under oath about conducting an affair and firing Brown — the Freep revealed excerpts of the messages. Their blockbuster report prompted an investigation by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who eventually won convictions of Kilpatrick and Beatty on obstruction of justice charges. Both papers reported that Stefani could now face criminal perjury charges himself as a result of conflicting answers previously given when asked if he was the Freep’s source for the messages.

Particularly interesting was one paragraph in the Freep’s story today. The lawyer’s testimony, Schaefer and Elrick reported, “set off speculation that Stefani was the paper’s source for the text message scandal coverage that ultimately brought down the Detroit mayor’s administration.” “Speculation” that he was the source? Sounds to us like the only “speculation” at this point is coming from the very people who know for certain if Stefani, for whatever bizarre reason, might possibly now be lying about giving the text messages to the paper. Either that, or the reporters are leaving open the possibility that Stefani wasn’t the only source of the messages. The third possibility is that the paragraph is a disingenuous red herring. Both papers reported that Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Free Press, refused comment. Schaefer and Elrick could also have included in their report something like, “The reporters covering this story also refuse to comment on Stefani’s assertions involving them.”

At the risk of sounding like a Monday morning quarterback, it seems at this point fair to question why their editors had Schaefer and Elrick covering this hearing given the possibility Stefani would make the disclosure he did, putting the reporters in a predicament no journalist wants. However, looking ahead instead of back, now that this cat’s out of the bag, the question is will someone else from the Free Press be writing about this in the future? Or will the reporters continue to be put in a position where they are covering a story in which they are key players?