By: Allan Wolper
All-news cable TV station New York 1 charges the New York Daily News with
making false claims about its coverage of the Abner Louima police torture coverage
ANew York City all-news cable station charges the New York Daily News is falsely claiming credit for exposing an alleged police torture scandal the TV station broke first.
Newspaper brawls over bragging rights are common in scoop-happy New York City, but this one is noteworthy because Daily News columnist Mike McAlary won the Pulitzer Prize on April 14 for his commentary on the case.
The story involves Abner Louima, a Haitian security guard, who was arrested last August during a brawl outside a Brooklyn nightclub.
A federal grand jury has charged four white police officers with beating Louima in a squad car, then attacking him again in a jail cell by shoving a stick up his rectum and then ramming it in his mouth.
All-news cable TV station New York 1 says that it was the first to report the details of that event on Aug. 12 ? 12 hours before the Daily News informed the public about the same event in its Aug. 13 edition.
After McAlary won his Pulitzer for his columns on the Louima affair, the Daily News trumpeted his achievement on its news pages and published ads applauding the columnist for “exposing the Abner Louima police torture scandal.”
McAlary, who succeeded Jimmy Breslin as the featured Daily News columnist, insists his work on the Louima case broke it open.
“I was the first person to interview Abner Louima,” McAlary told New York magazine when the flap first flared. “I was the only one with him in that hospital room.”
McAlary, who is undergoing treatment for colon cancer, was unavailable for interviews, according to Debby Krenek, the editor in chief of the Daily News.
New York 1 and the Louima family say the Daily News’ post-Pulitzer ads and statements about “exposing” the alleged police scandal ? one of the worst in New York City history ? misrepresents the facts.
“Mike McAlary did a great job,” said Steve Paulus, senior vice president of New York 1. “But the basic premise of journalism is that you don’t take credit for someone else’s work. And that is what the Daily News is doing. We broke that story.”
Debby Krenek, editor in chief of the News, disagreed. “There were a number of television stations that reported the story the night before we did,” Krenek said. “We are a morning newspaper. We had to wait to publish it during our news cycle.”
Krenek said that “McAlary was responsible for bringing the story to the forefront.”
The Louima torture story ultimately made all the front pages in New York, was picked up by the networks, chronicled for two nights on ABC’s Nightline and was the focus of a 21-page long article in Vanity Fair magazine.
Time Line Reconstructed
The contentious exchange between New York 1 and the Daily News had as much to do with who got where first as it does with who got the word out first.
E&P was able to reconstruct some of that helter-skelter of news-gathering activity through interviews with reporters and news executives.
Sam Nicholas, a cousin of Abner Louima, said the family first called the Daily News and other newspapers on Monday morning, Aug. 11. “But nobody believed us,” he said. “Most of them told us to put it in writing.”
Krenek says she did not know anything about the telephone calls the Louima family said they made to the Daily News or why the newspaper might have ignored them.
Nicholas said, “We didn’t know what to do. We felt powerless. New York 1 was the only one that believed us. They said, ‘OK, we’ll check it out.’ They did and broke the story first.”
Sean Sullivan, the New York 1 assignment editor, received the first call from the Louima family at 6:33:48 on Monday, Aug. 11, two days after Louima was beaten.
Sullivan took down some notes on his computer log: “Anonymous tipster . . . calls to say . . . Abner Louimo [sic], a 30-year-old Haitian man, was beaten by cops over the weekend. They took him to the 70 (precinct) and beat him. Apparently they rammed a plunger up his anus to the point where the bladder was ruptured. He is being treated at Coney Island Hospital.”
Five hours later, New York 1 began working on the story. Their reporters contacted the hospital, spoke to Louima’s sister, and learned police internal affairs units were investigating the case.
New York 1 wrapped up its investigation the next afternoon, Aug. 12, and reported its version of the Louima story on its 7 p.m. newscast, the first news organization to do so.
At 7:55 p.m., on Monday, Aug. 11, 12 hours after the Daily News had first passed on the story, McAlary received a message on his voice mail.
Vanity Fair published the message in its entirety: “You don’t know me, but I’m calling because . . . the cops sodomized a prisoner. The patient is currently at Coney Island Hospital. Now they are trying to cover it up because it was two white officers and they did this to a black guy they had locked up for disorderly conduct, and now they’re charging him with assault 2. . . . I won’t call you anymore.”
On Aug. 12, McAlary informed the Daily News he was investigating the allegations, and the paper assigned several reporters to the story, including a photographer who snapped a picture of Louima on his hospital bed.
McAlary later landed exclusives with Justin Volpe, one of the white police officers charged with assaulting Louima, and Volpe’s African- American girlfriend.
“That was why his stuff was so strong,” Krenek said of McAlary. “He got to everyone involved in the case. No one else knew that this white police officer had a relationship with an African-American woman.
“That’s what was so impressive about his work. We never wanted to take credit away from anyone.”
New York 1 was the first news organization to respond to the Louima family and was the first to confirm some of the details of the story. But it did not manage to talk to Louima on Aug. 11, the day it received the tip.
McAlary beat New York 1 to Louima’s bedside by three hours. Nevertheless, the all-news station got its story on the air 12 hours before the News hit the streets.
“It was an important story for New York 1,” said Aram Roston, a CNN general assignment reporter who was covering police beat for cable station when the story first broke.
“The Louima family told us they had called everyone and no one responded. But even though we had the story first, McAlary really did a great job of reporting it.”
Pulitzer Prize Committee
Peter Landis, New York 1’s news director, called Seymour Topping, the executive director of the Pulitzer Prize committee, as soon as the Daily News began claiming McAlary’s story was exclusive.
“They wanted to tell me for the record that Channel One had broken the story,” Topping said. “That was about it. They were not protesting the award to McAlary.”
Landis agreed. “McAlary’s columns were terrific,” he said. “The Pulitzer Prize is a pretty good award. You don’t have to hype it with falsehoods.”n
?(“The Louima family told us they had called everyone and no one responded. But even though we had the story first, McAlary really did a great job of reporting is.”) [Caption]
?(? Aram Roston, reporter, New York 1) [Caption & Photo]
?(Wolper is a professor of journalism at the Newark, N.J., campus of Rutgers University.) [Caption]
?( Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 30,1998) [Caption]