Behind the Pulitzer

Death and litigation continue even after The New York Times exposed a foundry owner's negligence

The New York Times Company has been unusually quiet about the Pulitzer it won last week, perhaps because it's humiliating to win just one after scoring seven two years ago. But there's an interesting backstory involving the submission that snagged the Times a Pulitzer in the public-service category. The prizewinning series, published in January 2003 after an investigation by the Times' David Barstow and Lowell Bergman, WGBH's Frontline, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation exposed safety violations that led to injury and death at pipe foundries owned by McWane Industries.

Here are a few of the developments since the series was published.

  • The Birmingham, Alabama-based McWane is now the subject of a "sweeping criminal inquiry" based on the Times' reporting, according to an April 6 house ad in the Times. That would qualify the series as classic enterprise reporting, in which prosecutors follow reporters, instead of the other way around.
  • The first indictments in the criminal inquiry came last December, when several managers at Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe Company, a McWane plant in New Jersey, were charged with conspiring to violate safety and environmental laws, according to published reports. (The defendants pleaded not guilty.)
  • On February 21, 2004, the Times reported that a worker had been crushed to death by a conveyor belt at a McWane foundry in Elmira, New York. (The Times series had documented two previous deaths by conveyor belt at McWane plants.)

In the wake of these revelations, a Texas-based McWane subcontractor named Mike Adams filed a libel action against the Times, WGBH, and the CBC in January. The lawsuit, filed in Smith County, Texas, centers on the first installment of the series, which investigated conditions at Tyler Pipe, a Texas foundry owned by McWane. Tyler Pipe is located in Tyler, Texas. Adams provided medical services to McWane.

Someone familiar with Adams's libel suit faxed the complaint to me anonymously on March 26, with the following note: "With all press scandals breaking this year, this lawsuit has been somehow overlooked. The story in question is a Pulitzer finalist." Adams's lawsuit is pending, but did not manage to get between the Times and its Pulitzer. In theory, McWane could be using the suit as a discovery device—so the company can fish for evidence without having to offer any while it is under criminal investigation. Or maybe not.

Adams's suit focuses on the first article in the Times' series, published January 8, 2003, which accused McWane and Adams of suppressing workers' compensation claims. The suit appears to be a response to a medical malpractice suit brought by Marcos Lopez, who accuses McWane and Adams of failing to treat him properly for a back fracture sustained on the job. The parties disagree as to whether Lopez's injury was severe or insignificant. Adams disputes the credibility of the Times' sources, denies quotes attributed to him, and claims his business was destroyed.

Times reporter Barstow declined to comment. A Timesspokesperson expressed confidence "in the accuracy of the reporting" in the series.

Charles Babcock, a Dallas-based lawyer who represents the Times, said that Adams's lawyers call Lopez a malingerer, based on a surveillance videotape "which they have yet to give us." He said the Times has turned over "tens of thousands of pages of documents," but Adams's lawyers have produced "no discovery at all."

About the Times series, Babcock says, "The research was incredibly thorough, the people involved were dedicated, diligent, and conscientious, and the plaintiff is almost surely a public figure." He believes his client will prevail.

Joe Chumlea, a Dallas-based attorney who represents Mike Adams, denied not having turned over any discovery documents in the case. He said that the Times "got the story wrong" regarding Mike Adams and Occu-Safe, and did so "knowingly or recklessly."


Clarke On a Short Leash

On April 8, the day Condoleezza Rice testified before Congress, former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke gave only a few print interviews and one TV interview, to ABC News. Access to Clarke was limited, the Timesreported the next day, because ABC had hired him as a consultant. Other networks were "fuming."

Was the limited access, as some critics suggested, a rank attempt to capitalize on Clarke's controversial book, Against All Enemies, and his Bush-bashing appeal?

No evidence has emerged to support that claim. According to ABC News spokesperson Jeffrey Schneider, ABC hired Clarke as a terrorism consultant in March 2003, shortly after he left the White House. At the time, the network expected exclusive access. But in the last few weeks, as Clarke became "a major newsmaker," ABC gave him freedom to promote his book through any and all media outlets. Thus, Clarke's first major interview was with CBS's 60 Minutes, followed by appearances on NBC's Meet the Press and ABC's Good Morning America. (CBS caught its own flak for not disclosing that Clarke's book publisher is owned by CBS parent company Viacom.)

The open access continued last week. When Rice testified, ABC's Schneider says, "We made it clear to Richard that he should feel free to do any interviews he wanted to do with any of our competition. It was his choice to keep a low profile."

Schneider denies that ABC has been either possessive or soft on Clarke. "In terms of exclusivity we feel we were quite thoughtful about how we handled him," he says, adding that when Jennings interviewed the terrorism expert, "he asked the questions that needed to be asked." Furthermore, Jennings disclosed that Clarke was a consultant being interviewed in his capacity as newsmaker.

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