By: Allan Wolper
Ethics Corner Column
Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis remembers every detail that followed the Friday-afternoon call to his home on Feb. 1. A gruff male voice ordered him to check his mailbox. “There was no envelope or note,” DeRogatis said. “Just a tape.”
DeRogatis inserted the tape into his VCR and watched a 26-minute, 39-second porno video that allegedly showed rhythm-and-blues megastar R. Kelly having sex with a young girl in the singer’s Chicago home.
It was the break DeRogatis and Abdon M. Pallasch, the paper’s legal-affairs reporter, had been waiting for since their stunning investigative piece on Dec. 21, 2000, chronicling Kelly’s alleged trysts with underage girls.
The women they interviewed for that piece are now over 18, had settled civil lawsuits against Kelly, and were past the statutory date when criminal charges could be brought against him. But the new tape could be the smoking gun the music world had gossiped about for a year. A video of a Kelly love interest who might still be underage. A tape that could bring Kelly down.
DeRogatis phoned Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards, a key source for the Sun-Times reporters, and asked her to drive to the newspaper office. Edwards watched the video. It was the same one that two other men had shown her a couple of months before, she told the reporters. It was a video, she told them, of Kelly having sex with her niece. Edwards also told DeRogatis the girl’s father worked for Kelly.
Edwards is an R&B soloist who collaborated with Kelly in 1998 on a best-selling single, “Be Careful.” She was willing to be quoted by name — and later was, in the New York Post.
It was time to get Kelly’s reaction. To have an expert examine the video to determine if it had been doctored. To find out who sent the tape. To investigate whether someone was trying to frame Kelly.
Kelly would be singing the following week in Salt Lake City at the opening of the Winter Olympics. The world press would be covering him. The story had to be published as quickly as possible.
But Sun-Times editors had other plans. They ordered DeRogatis to surrender the video to the Chicago Police Department’s sex-crimes unit. The editors had turned their reporters into auxiliary police officers. In fact, they even sound like cops. “We had evidence of a crime,” said Pallasch. “We
had a duty to give the tape to the cops. It’s like finding a gun that was used in a robbery. You have to do it. We didn’t step over the line.”
Yes, they did. Reporters don’t decide what is evidence. Judges do. Still, it’s hard to blame them. They were caught up in the emotion of what they had seen on the tape. They had forgotten for a moment that newspapers report to the public — not to the police department.
A week later, on the day Kelly sang at the Olympics, the Sun-Times broke the story of the tape. It used a cheap journalistic trick as its lede: “Chicago police are investigating whether R&B superstar R. Kelly … had sex with an underage girl and videotaped the illegal act.” But the paper didn’t tell its readers that it gave the video to the cops.
Nor did the paper mention that vocalist Edwards was its primary source for the story. She was identified simply as an aunt of the girl in the video. Not being able to fully report Kelly’s connection to Edwards and her niece still rankles the reporters. “We pushed hard to name the girl because it proved a connection to Kelly,” said DeRogatis. “But our editors felt she was a rape victim and a minor, and didn’t want to identify her. I can understand that.”
Even so, the Sun-Times should have published the facts that Edwards’ niece — who was identified by prosecutors as Kelly’s victim when he was indicted on child-pornography charges — and her parents all told a grand jury that she was not the young woman in the video, according to Ed Genson, the singer’s defense attorney.
The Sun-Times twisted those facts. The paper said the alleged victim and her family had refused to cooperate with the prosecutors — something quite different from their grand-jury appearances.
The Sun-Times is sensitive about its role in the case. The paper demonized Chicago magazine Senior Editor Steve Rhodes for simply quoting ethics experts who disagreed with it.
“The principle for most journalists is to say, ‘You do your investigation, and we’ll do ours,'” said Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
All indications are that the Sun-Times would not have revealed how the police got the tape if prosecutors had not mentioned it at a press conference announcing the 21-count indictment against Kelly.
Why? Because the paper never reported that it was the second time that editors had told DeRogatis to secretly give police a video sent to his home of Kelly allegedly having sex with a young woman.