Hoax: Tried in the Media

By Judy Berman

The Manti Te’o story has more plot twists than the Twin Peaks TV show, and just as many odd characters.

Did a friend dupe Te’o into believing he had a girlfriend named Lennay Kekua who died last September of leukemia? Turns out, there is no girlfriend. Everyone has come under fire in this story, including the reporters who should have been more skeptical and dug deeper.

It is a cautionary tale for reporters who are too close to those they cover. The adage to new reporters is: “If your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source.” That’s not just typical newsroom dark humor talking. It’s experience.

The Te’o story is still unraveling. Not all the facts are in. As the story unfolds, some cringe-worthy moments might emerge and reputations might be tarnished.

But this story needs to be put in perspective with other “tall tales” that have had a devastating impact on those involved.

Rev. Al Sharpton has championed equal justice in crime cases. In this photo in 1989, he's protesting the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, 16, a black teen in a white neighborhood. Two years earlier, he was criticized for his actions in the Tawana Brawley case - later labeled a hoax.
Rev. Al Sharpton has championed equal justice in crime cases. In this photo in 1989, he’s protesting the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, 16, a black teen in a white neighborhood. Two years earlier, he was criticized for his actions in the Tawana Brawley case – later labeled a hoax.

* In November 1987, I was working late at WHEN-AM radio in Liverpool, New York, when a shocking story crossed the wire. A Wappingers Falls’ girl, who had been missing for four days from her home, was found in a trash bag. The 15-year-old girl (Tawana Brawley) was dazed, covered in feces and had racial epithets scrawled across her torso. The Associated Press wire story stated that the teen was reportedly abducted, held captive, and raped by a gang of white men.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and Brawley’s lawyers accused Dutchess County prosecutor Steven Pagones of being one of the men who raped Brawley.

The story quickly became a feeding frenzy for the media – each news outlet intent on being the first in pursuit of “hot news.” Mike Taihbi and Anna Sims-Philips covered the story for WCBS-TV, and their investigative reporting didn’t jibe with the daily press conferences. Their book, “Unholy Alliances: Working the Tawana Brawley Story,” (1989) outlined how the case unfolded.

I interviewed Sims-Philips. She said their findings angered the Brawley advisers and supporters. They received death threats, demonstrators protested outside the station, and pressure was put on the network to remove them from the story.

In 1988, a grand jury found that there had been no rape, that the case was a hoax. Authorities said Brawley’s story was made up to avoid punishment for running away and missing school.

“But, in the end, something changed,” the authors wrote. “Pieces of the truth were forced into the open air, not the whole truth; that’s still hidden. But enough of it emerged, through the efforts of forensic scientists and investigators and, yes, the press, so that there was room and time at last, away from the noise of the headlines and the six o’clock news, for people to measure those bits of truth and privately choose what was worthy of belief. The rhetoric has been silence. The silence, though, remains.”

“In 1998, Pagones won a defamation lawsuit against Sharpton, Brawley and her lawyers. (Alton H.) Maddox was found liable for $97,000, (C. Vernon) Mason for $188,000, and Sharpton was ordered to pony up $66,000,” according to a Dec. 23, 2012, story by the New York Post.

“Brawley was ordered to fork over $190,000 at 9 percent annual interest.” The New York Post reported that all but Brawley paid up.

* What the press – and the public – knows in the beginning stages of a news story is often limited. Details are few and everyone is clamoring for answers and – when there’s a crime – an arrest.

Two days before Christmas in 1989, the murders of the Harris family in Dryden, New York, was eerily similar to Truman Capote’s story, “In Cold Blood.” Warren and Dolores Harris, their daughter, Shelby, 15, and their son, Marc, 11, were bound, blindfolded, shot and killed. Before Shelby was killed, she was raped. The primary suspect, Michael Kinge, then doused the house with gasoline and set a fire before he fled.

Credit cards taken from the Harris home, used during a shopping spree, were traced back to Michael Kinge and his mother, Shirley.

“On February 7 (1990), members of the New York State Police SWAT team burst into the duplex apartments where Mr. Kinge and his mother lived. Mr. Kinge, holding a shotgun, according to the police accounts, was shot dead. Mrs. Kinge was first charged as an accessory in the Harris murders,” The New York Times reported.

The drama didn’t end there. In the courtroom, Trooper David L. Harding charmed the press with his stories about the case. He was likable, friendly, and always available for an interview.

Harding bragged about how he befriended Shirley Kinge at her workplace. He had a cast on his arm and asked her to address some letters to be sent to Harrisburg. (This was done to see how she wrote the victim’s name when she used the credit cards.)

Harding also got her fingerprints off a glass of water she brought to him. Kinge’s prints were a match  to those on a gas can found at the Harris family crime scene. Kinge was convicted of burglary and arson. She was sentenced 17 to 44 years in prison.

This was based on Shirley Kinge’s presence at the murder scene.

Only it wasn’t true. About 2 ½ years into her prison sentence, she was released from prison after an investigation found that David Harding planted her fingerprints from the glass at her workplace onto the gas can in the Harris home.

It wasn’t the only time that Harding and a few other troopers took shortcuts to gather “evidence” to convict someone they thought was guilty of a crime.

Harding pleaded guilty to perjury in two of the four cases investigated. He was sentenced Dec. 16, 1992, to 4 to 12 years in prison and fined $20,000 for fabricating evidence in the four documented cases, according to Wikipedia.

In 2009, New York Court of Claims Judge Nicholas Midey Jr.awarded Kinge $250,000 “based on the emotional and mental anguish she suffered and her loss of privacy and liberty while imprisoned,” according to the Ithaca Journal.

“Midey found that Kinge was the victim of malicious prosecution and negligent supervision of a state police investigator who planted phony fingerprint evidence and gave false testimony linking her to the Harris family slayings.”

These cases serve as a reminder that everyone – the media, police, the public – need to be skeptical about the facts and the evidence.

When I wrote “Tried in the Media” for WHEN, a newspaper executive offered this hopeful insight: “The truth will emerge. Not instantly and always, but it will emerge.”

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider, earth-rider.com, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Court of Claims case: Shirley Turner Kinge, Claimant v. State of New York, Defendant – filed Dec. 13, 2007 http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ny-court-of-claims/1427693.html

Photo: Rev. Al Sharpton – Protest March – 1989 – Brooklyn, NY                                    In another case that drew national attention, the Rev. Al Sharpton led the first of dozens of protest marches after 40 white teenagers murdered Yusuf Hawkins, 16, a black teen in the (then) white neighborhood of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. He led marchers every week for over a year despite catcalls and threats to his life. In 1991, he was stabbed during another march in Bensonhurst. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/06/Al_Sharpton%2C_1989_Protest_March%2C_Brooklyn_NY.jpg/640px-Al_Sharpton%2C_1989_Protest_March%2C_Brooklyn_NY.jpg

  1. Great post. I usually don’t believe the first stories that come out because they are often not true or not the whole story. News people are under great pressure to be first to pop the latest. Then people are up in arms and ready to kill anyone based on halftruths, misunderstandings or nothing. Makes me want to bang my head on my desk. Let’s let the cops do their jobs and then react.

  2. I can think of another story that gripped the nation and had us all taken in, only to find out it was a hoax…”The Balloon Boy.” Whether the parents of that little boy knew he was hiding in the garage the whole time is still unclear, but the story still had us and tugged at our heartstrings.
    Good story as always Mom.

  3. I think Kate’s approach is a good one: I wish everyone were as cautious. It is a very sad fact that mud sticks, whether or not it is proved true later on.

    Great post, Judy.

    1. Those disturbing stories – and others that have disrupted or ruined lives – serve as ugly reminders that we should take care to examine the facts before we act or speak ill of others.

  4. Very interesting! To be frank I was not aware of this incident till I read your post. Very difficult to come to an opinion since most of it seems to be aversion from one side only.


  5. Unfortunately, by the time the truth emerges, the public’s attention has shifted to the next sensational story. If we manage to remember anything, it’s usually those early, incomplete bits of information that we somehow put together in our minds. The result is a distorted version of what really happened. I’ve caught glimpses of the Manti Te’o story, but I have no idea who he is or why he had an imaginary girlfriend. I suppose I’ll catch up with it, although by then I’m sure we’ll have been hit with a new front-page bombshell that’s hard to believe — and with good reason.

    You must have more stories from your days (and nights) at the radio station, Judy. No doubt they’d make excellent blog posts, and I hope you’ll continue to write about them.

    1. Yes, sometimes our attention is like – “SQUIRREL” – and we have shifted to the next sensational story before we have all the info on the one we just read or saw. By “we,” I mean the press and the public.

      Thanks, Charles, for your comment on my radio days (and nights). I’ll reach into my “Way Back Machine” for some stories I worked on when I was in radio and at the newspapers. The two stories I was involved with in this post fascinated me because it was more than 20 years before they wrapped up.

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