July 12, 2009
Out of the Past: Ordeal by NewspaperBy David Paulin
Americans were shocked by the story of a petite 72-year-old grandmother getting "Tased" during a routine traffic stop in Texas last month. Dash-cam video of the screaming grandmother and strapping, Taser-wielding deputy were a YouTube hit.
Now, a second story from central Texas has emerged involving the "Tasing" of an elderly woman. However, this was what might be called a journalistic "Tasing."
The victim was 81-year-old Lori Adams of Smithville - a town of 4,400 residents about 40 miles southeast of Austin, the capital. Adams' tormentors were a young newspaper reporter, Andrea Lorenz, and her editors at the Austin-American Statesman.
What happened to the 81-year-old in the space of three days is a parable on how easily the news media can hold up people to public admiration, and then destroy their reputations - all for the sake of the public's right to know. It raises questions about the ethics and values of Lorenz and her editors. And it provokes larger issues related to forgiveness, redemption, and how one should measure a person's character.
Readers of the Statesman, an influential Cox newspaper, were recently treated to a front-page feature by reporter Andrea Lorenz: "81-year old pilot still flying high."
The 750-word story described how Adams -- a "bubbly and energetic" 81-year-old -- is an active pilot and flight instructor with 29,000 hours of flying time. Calling her the "Queen of the airport bums," it noted the spunky redhead enjoys hanging out with the guys at Smithville's small airport.
On top of that, the story noted Adams enjoys doing aerobatics in a single-engine airplane, a Citabria that she co-owns. She even took the plane up for a solo flight -- doing loops for the benefit of the Statesman's reporter and photographer. Adams had for years operated the "Lori Adams Flying Service" in the Houston area, until selling the business in 1982. She returned to Smithville, her hometown, nearly 20 years ago.
"When she gets into an airplane, she goes into her own world," Smithville resident Austin Wampler was quoted as saying. A friend of Adams, he's one of her flight students and co-owns the Citabria.
The story's first paragraph started cheerfully:
In the newspaper trade, such stories are called "feel good" or "puff" pieces. Generally, they rely on what the reporter is told by the interview subject and maybe one or two of the person's friends and associates.
Soon after the story ran, somebody sent the Statesman an e-mail revealing a dark episode in Adams' life. Forty years ago, police in the Houston area charged Adams, then 42, with beating her 5-year-old stepson to death.
The Statesman checked out the allegation, and sure enough, it learned Adams had pleaded "no contest" to such a crime in 1973, 36 years ago. Lorenz and her editors were intrigued: Some follow-up was definitely needed. So the next day, Lorenz phoned Adams to get her side of the story.
Adams told me, during an interview, that she was shocked to hear Lorenz on the phone -- urging her to talk about the tragic episode in her life: Nobody in Smithville even knew about it, she noted. "I said: 'That's 40 years ago!" You're not going to bring that up, are you? Why would you do that? It has nothing to do with that story (on my flying) that you did about me.'"
Adams grew concerned that Lorenz was irritated at her refusal to give her side of the story - and would write something if she refused to talk, she said.
'Skeletons in the closet'
What happened next provoked much controversy in central Texas about the Statesman's ethics. It also highlighted a clash of values - the small-town values of Smithville's residents verses the urbane values of the Statesman's editors, who fancy themselves as guardians of the public's right to know. In a sense, this was a dispute over "journalistic values" verses "human values."
The Statesman, three days after its feel-good piece, published a second story on Adams -- one describing her no-contest plea to the old murder charge. The 470-word piece, also by Lorenz, ran prominently on an inside section. Its headline declared: "Pilot says she has skeletons in past; Smithville's 81-year-old Lori Adams failed to disclose 1973 murder conviction."
The story's first two paragraph's stated:
Adams' friend Austin Wampler was quoted as saying: "I have no idea what transpired with this or anything, but I stand behind her 100 percent."
Lorenz's story related some sketchy details about the case, based on a few sentences it cited from the police and autopsy reports. Lorenz implied this came from copies of original police and autopsy reports. However, it more likely came from old newspaper articles about the case found at online sites such as Newspaperarchive.com.
According to Lorenz, it could not even be determined if Adams served her sentence -- two to four years -- for the death of her 5-year-old stepson. (The Statesman said the boy was 6 years old, as did newspapers in 1969. Adams said he was 5.)
"It naturally tore me up. It would tear anybody up," Adams said of the story. On the Saturday it came out, Lorenz said she cried for much of the day after reading it. Then she threw the paper in the trash. That was in mid-June, and she's been crying off and off ever since, she added.
"I'm almost 82, and at that age you don't have many more years left. And to think I'll have this hanging over me for the rest of my life."
"She took it pretty hard," Wampler told me, during an interview. Yet hours after the story ran, Adams dried her tears and visited a friend who'd just gotten out of the hospital, he noted. "It shows you the kind of person she is."
Responding to the story, some outraged readers left comments at the Statesman's online edition describing Adams as a monster who should pay for her crime forever. Others -- some presumably from Smithville -- accused the Statesman of stooping to tabloid journalism: Adams had paid for her crime, they argued, and should have been left alone.
Responding to the strong reactions, the Statesman published an "Editors' Note" two days later, justifying its decision to out Adams. The story was intended to present a "more full picture of Adams' life in light of the previous profile we had run," wrote city editor Debbie Hiott.
In other words, it was all about the public's right to know, at least as defined by Hiott and editor Fred Zipp.
The Statesman also ran a "correction" regarding some problems in its first upbeat story. Lorenz, it noted, had misspelled the name of Adams' friend, Austin Wampler. And the correction pointed out something else the Statesman had dug up on Adams: She'd actually been married three times -- not once -- as the first story had stated. The first story quoted Adams as saying she'd never remarried after her first husband, a pilot, died while flying a cropduster plane.
Until the Statesman's stories, Adams had lived a private low-key life in Smithville for nearly 20 years. By all accounts, she was well-respected. She was actively involved with a local charity, the Order of the Eastern Star. She was not a public figure, was not running for office. Above all, she'd never put herself in the public spotlight in Smithville -- until agreeing to let a cheerful young newspaper reporter write about her love of flying.
Now, in addition to a story about her flying, the Statesman had run a story that suggested Adams was a liar and one of the worst sorts of criminals -- a brutal child killer. And it implied something else: Adams was living a lie in Smithville -- passing herself off as a pleasant woman who'd nevertheless kept a dark secret from co-workers, friends, and neighbors. Adams is known to many residents because she works part-time as a cashier at a popular local grocery store/filling station.
Did the Statesman present a fuller picture of Adams' complex life? On the contrary, it merely regurgitated a few scraps of information about a 40-year-old criminal case. Then, it left it up to readers to clean up the mess -- to fill in the context that journalists ought to provide.
The case was no doubt filled with ambiguities. Adams, for one thing, received a remarkably light sentence -- two to four years -- for what newspapers in 1969 had described as a terrible crime: The boy had a fractured skull, broken neck, and bruises over his body. He'd allegedly been beaten with a pool cue and paddle. Is this really what happened?
In news accounts back then, these unsettling detail were attributed to the initial police and autopsy reports. Yet as anybody knows who ever sat through an interesting murder trail, defense lawyers routinely poke holes in more than a few police and autopsy reports.
Underscoring how little the Statesman knew, Lorenz noted it was not even known if Adams even served any prison time. Adams told me she served "eight months or so."
To get anything resembling Adams' side of the story -- without speaking to her -- Lorenz would have had to spend a day or two in the Houston area retrieving old court records. She would have no luck talking to Adams' attorney, famed criminal defense lawyer Percy Foreman of Houston. He died years ago.
Why did Adams plead "no contest" to the murder charges?
Originally, she'd wanted a jury trial, she told me. But Foreman advised against it: He told her juries can be unpredictable -- especially in cases involving prominent woman like herself: "It's because I was Lori Adams," she said. In 1969, only a handful of women worked as commercial pilots -- and only a few owned and managed their own flying services.
How did the boy die?
Adams, in a contrite e-mail to her many friends, described an accident that occurred when she was getting the boy out of the bath tub, before putting him and his older brother and sister, also stepchildren, to bed. The toddler, named Clet, was being mischievous that night, and she'd had a long day as usual, she related. When Clet disobeyed her and grabbed a bath mat instead of a towel, she jerked it out of his hands.
The boy fell backwards, she said, banging his head on the faucet. She inspected his head and found no blood. So she dried him off and put him to bed. Later that evening, when checking on him, she said he was non-responsive. She became hysterical.
It had started out as an ordinary evening. After supper, she and her three stepchildren played some pool, she wrote in her e-mail, explaining:
According to an old newspaper account at the time, her husband, a NASA employee, was on a business trip in Florida that evening. She phoned a physician. When he determined the boy was dead, he phoned the police.
Adams, in her e-mail, said she was "real hysterical" when the police arrived. Referring to Clet, she recalled saying she'd "killed him."
"Didn't I?" she wrote. "Later, I learned that I shouldn't have said that but I felt guilty and thought I had done that to him,"
"It was an accident," she told me. "But I thought: 'Oh my god, I killed him! But the lawyer didn't want to hear any of it."
Adams later wondered about the bruises on the boy. They might have come, she later thought, from a good thrashing Clet and his older brother David had gotten from their father, earlier that day, at her flying service. Her husband worked part-time there as an aircraft mechanic.
The boys had been caught mischievously spray painting an airplane in the hanger, she wrote. The plane was being painted and the boys -- thinking they could help out -- got cans of spray paint and started spraying the plane. Adams said she and her employees could hear the thrashing the boys got at back of the hangar.
After the murder charges in 1969, Adams and her husband remained married six more years. One day, before their divorce, Adams came across a photograph of Clet in a hospital bed. Needles protruded from his shaved head, making him look "like a porcupine," her e-mail related.
Curious, she asked her husband what happened. He told her Clet had been severely injured in an auto wreck that killed the boy's mother: It might have explained why his little hands sometimes shook, she said. "Had I known this, I would have handled that child with kid gloves and had help for him," she wrote. Her lawyer, she added, was never informed of Clet's previous injuries.
The boy's death still haunts her, she told me, despite what some of the Statesman's readers might think, those who wrote she appears to have no conscious. Over the years, Adams said, she's often thought about her responsibility for Clet's death -- wondered what he'd be doing had he lived: He'd be 45 today.
'What our Lord tells us'
One positive thing emerged from the Statesman's second story: Adams realized she had "more friends than I ever thought I had." Soon after the story was published, a flood of supportive e-mails arrived from friends, helping to lift her depression and shame. They "told me they loved me and that it (the murder conviction) didn't matter," she said.
One friend wrote: "I am sorry this happened to such a beautiful, gracious, caring friend." It was among a number of such e-mails Adams shared with me.
All in all, many Smithville residents rejected the Statesman's argument about the public's right to know and their journalistic responsibility: Adams, they believed, had a right to be left alone.
What if Adams really did beat her stepson to death? Is redemption and forgiveness ever possible for terrible crimes?
"I would hope so," said Victoria Adams of Smithville, a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, during a phone interview. "That's what our Lord would like us to to do. I think she's respected in this town, and I think people will stand by her."
She didn't know what happened, and nor did it matter, she stressed. "This is a loverly 81-year-old woman, and she does not need a slap in the face like this. This happened a long time ago, and I'm sure she is trying to put it behind her. All of my Eastern Star sisters will support her any way we can."
In her "Editors' Note," Hiott raised the hackles of some readers with the revelation that her reporters "generally" run background checks on profile subjects, before interviewing them. However, the check on Adams failed to turn up anything. The background checks utilize a commercial service that turns up things like bankruptcies, liens, and run-ins with the law.
"In some cases, we decide the information we have found isn't relevant to the story because it's old, it's minor or it has no relation to the current situation," Hiott explained. "Had we known about the murder conviction in this case, we might have included it in the original profile or we might have decided not to do a story about the pilot at all."
Adams, however, would never have agreed to a story about her flying and her no-contest plea to murder. But what if the paper had written such a story? What kind of story might it have been?
It might, ironically, have been positive -- portraying Adams as a woman who'd overcame a dark episode in her life. Now, at 81, she's a well-respected in the town where she's lived nearly 20 years. She flies airplanes, does charitable work, and has a part-time job.
Lorenz graduated a few years ago from the University of Missouri's journalism school. You have to wonder if she ever expected to be doing this sort of journalism -- outing an old woman who pleaded no-contest to a murder charge 40 years ago.
Interestingly, Lorenz herself appears to have been troubled by her story outing Adams, at least if an e-mail she sent Adams is anything to go by:
Adams, on first meeting Lorenz, could never have imagined how things would turn out. The young reporter had seemed so pleasant. They'd hit it off, too. Adams recalled chatting informally with Lorenz for nearly an hour, after the interview had ended. She gave the reporter a box of candy. The two parted with a hug.
It was, of course, the start of a disorienting experience for Adams, with Lorenz quickly changing from friend to tormentor, and finally professing to be "sorry" for the emotional havoc her paper caused. For Adams, it was certainly not like dealing with the small-town folks in Smithville -- people who are so transparent and easy to read.
Adams also probably never imagined that Lorenz and her editors -- rather than publishing a story about her love of flying -- would have been just as happy with one about her crashing in her Citabria, too. It's nothing personal. They're just doing their jobs; they don't make things happen.
Nor could Adams have guessed that newspapers are lousy at distilling a complex life into a 750-word feature story. Ultimately, the journalistic "Tasing" Adams suffered should serve as a warning to everybody who gives up a bit of their privacy to let a cheerful reporter write a feel-good story about them.
David Paulin is a contributor to American Thinker.