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Zorn Meltdown Further Justifies FOP Boycott of Troubled Newspaper

It was 1997 and the career of Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn was riding high. An urgency pervaded his columns and the news coverage upon which they were based—namely, wrongful conviction cases. It was as if the Tribune had hit upon a new and powerful theme to explain Chicago’s corruption: systemic police and prosecutorial wrongdoing.

One early case in particular gave life to this claim: the exoneration of four men for a 1978 rape and double murder, known as the Ford Heights Four case.

Claiming DNA tests exonerated the men, the court eventually released the four from prison, and the men eventually settled for a $36 million payout from the Cook County Board.

Zorn wrote extensively about the Ford Heights Four and about the investigator at Northwestern University, David Protess, who broke it open. The connection between the two men was powerful, a kind of journalistic marriage, as Protess was a professor at the prestigious Medill School of Journalism and founder of Medill’s Innocence Project. Protess worked with students who investigated the cases. Together the professor and the students often claimed men who had been convicted and sentenced to long prison terms and even death row were innocent. They often brought their “evidence” to Zorn, who trumpeted it in one column after another for decades.

Another Tribune writer, Steve Mills, would also play a crucial role in covering the Protess/Northwestern innocent claims from a straight news perspective.

A hint of just how closely Zorn was working with Protess was cited in a 1997 American Journalism Review article about the Ford Heights Four case:

“With the Ford Heights Four, I’ve never been shy about saying I took information and documents from Protess and re-reported the things that struck me as relevant,” Zorn says. “I’d always do the re-reporting, but they’d do the legwork. I trust Dave.”

In 1996, Zorn wrote a series of columns about the Ford Heights Four case, and WMAQ, NBC’s local affiliate, aired nearly 40 stories on it. Protess was the spark, says Dave Savini, a WMAQ investigative reporter who covered the story. “People like us and Eric Zorn kept the flame burning by doing our jobs,” says Savini. “That created a sense of public pressure, and the guys eventually got out.”

What a stunning admission for Zorn about David Protess. Zorn took Protess’s reporting and “re-reported” it. Zorn “trusts Dave [Protess].”

And public pressure . . . what exactly does that mean?

The happy marriage between Zorn and Protess was troubling for many early on. Zorn’s articles rarely touched on the intense antipathy he generated among many police officers and prosecutors who did not believe his claims about many of the killers being innocent. But Zorn and his cohorts had a powerful self-confidence, one that seemed to many in law enforcement as an unbridled smugness.

Many of these police officers and prosecutors believed Zorn was only telling part of the story, that he was ignoring central evidence that vindicated the police investigations, and their ability to get their side of the story into Tribune articles generally failed.

Fast-forward from 1997 to 2010. At around that time, Northwestern University became aware of accusations against Protess that his investigative techniques may not be on the up-and-up. After conducting an internal investigation of Protess, the school admitted in a statement they caught him lying about his investigations and altering evidence subpoenaed by prosecutors.

Here is what the university said when, in 2011 that when the university was severing decided to sever ties with Protess, by then a 29twenty-nine-year veteran of Medill.

In sum, Protess knowingly misrepresented the facts and his actions to the University, its attorneys and the dean of Medill on many documented occasions. He also misrepresented facts about these matters to students, alumni, the media and the public. He caused the University to take on what turned out to be an unsupportable case and unwittingly misrepresent the situation both to the Court and to the State.

Zorn’s 1997 statement echoes: “I trust Dave.”

So many elemental questions flow from this 2011 statement about Protess. How come Zorn never saw these misrepresentations of fact? Why did he trust Protess so much? Most of all, why didn’t this admission by Northwestern compel Zorn and the Tribune to look back at their coverage and clarify the magnitude and frequency of Protess’s “misrepresentation of the facts.”

Then, in 2013, two lawyers arguing that one of Protess’s biggest exonerations was a fraud, wrote a letter to then Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez asking that Alvarez review the case. In that letter, the attorneys listed what they claimed was evidence of Protess’s wrongdoing in a litany of exonerations, including the Ford Heights Four case.

And it wasn’t any run-of-the-mill misconduct, they alleged. They cited a statement by a witness in the case who claims that Protess offered favors with one of his students if the witness would change his testimony.

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They argued misconduct by Protess in other cases. 

Zorn’s 1997 statement echoes again: “I trust Dave.”

The demise of Protess and his deep ties to Zorn impose a powerful obligation on the Tribune and Zorn to apologize to the police officers and prosecutors who have so regularly been condemned in Zorn’s columns and the newspaper’s reporting.

But the Tribune has refused to do so. On the contrary, the paper has doubled-down on its anti-police narrative, as if the scandal at Northwestern never even took place. A whole new generation of activist reporters at the paper have picked up where Zorn and Mills left off, pushing exoneration narratives without holding their authors accountable.

This is a bizarre and unacceptable tactic by the Tribune, according to the ethics of their own profession. From the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics:

— Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content .

 Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.

Throughout this whole period, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has been little more than a punching bag for the Tribune, Zorn, and its activist reporters, all of whom have ignored the repeated claims by FOP members that the writers at the paper have an obligation to review these seminal cases and Zorn’s and Mills’s coverage of them.

These cases are among the most vicious murders and rapes.

And so finally the FOP gave up. In its last board meeting, the executive board voted unanimously to cease all cooperation with the paper.

Not surprisingly, Zorn had a meltdown in a column a few days later:

Anyway, the blog post went on to say that “it is the (Tribune’s) dark alliance with the wrongful conviction movement that is the most troubling,” and to list four exonerations that continue to stick in the FOP’s craw. Each exoneration was extensively reviewed by the courts, by the way, and none was the result of one of the many Tribune investigations that have exposed ghastly errors in the criminal justice system over the years. But still.

The post concluded by saying FOP officials won’t talk to our reporters until we “make a good-faith effort to investigate the corruption within the industry of police misconduct claims.”

You’re worried. To whom are we going to turn now for rote denials that police did anything wrong? For claims that the officer fired only because the fleeing suspect turned and pointed his gun? For explanations why any new rule limiting police conduct will increase lawlessness?

Zorn’s snide condescension no longer serves, and his response tellingly avoids the central point: A large collection of exonerations covered in depth by the Tribune now stink, particularly those spearheaded by David Protess, the guy whose former employer said he lied about his investigations, the guy Zorn once wrote glowingly that he “trusts.”

Even if the worst accusations against the police by Zorn and the Tribune are true, the paper owes the police, prosecutors, and the citizens of Chicago a serious investigation of the paper’s coverage of these cases. That investigation must include the nature of Zorn’s relationship with Protess.

Until the Chicago Tribune does so, the paper can, in the opinion of the FOP, go rot.

Ka-boom.