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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Deconstructing Eddie Curran

If we learn anything from part one of Eddie Curran's op-ed piece in the the Montgomery Independent, it is this: A good copy editor is worth his or her weight in gold.

I've read a fair chunk of Curran's multipart investigative series in the Mobile Press-Register on the administration of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. Curran is credited with sparking the federal investigation that led to Siegelman's indictment and conviction on corruption charges. A national audience tonight, courtesy of 60 Minutes, will learn some of the details that have caused quite a few observers to conclude that the Siegelman prosecution was politically motivated and legally unjust.

Curran's original series appeared to be presented in a professional way. Siegelman insiders probably would quibble with some of the facts and certainly would take issue with the conclusions drawn. But I've been in journalism myself, in one form or another, for almost 30 years and, on its face, the Mobile series comes across as the work of a solid investigative reporter.

Curran's op-ed piece, which hit the Web yesterday, is another matter. The journalist comes across as a petulant fifth grader, firing spitballs at kids he doesn't like. In this case, the kids he doesn't like are named Jill Simpson (Republican whistleblower who will be at the heart of the 60 Minutes piece) and Scott Horton (legal-affairs reporter for Harper's). Curran fires plenty of spitballs at his targets, but his aim is way off line.

The goal of Curran's op-ed apparently is to convince readers that the Siegelman prosecutors were ethical, U.S. Judge Mark Fuller was honorable, Siegelman was criminal, Simpson is delusional, and Horton is, well, a stain on Harper's considerable legacy.

Curran fails on all counts. And that might be partly because, as Independent editor Bob Martin takes pains to point out in a lengthy editor's note, the piece was published without editing. (You can almost hear the soap and water running over Martin's hands as he attempts to cleanse himself following the decision to run Curran's piece.)

This all makes me think the Mobile Press-Register must have some outstanding copy editors on board. In fact, if I were a copy editor at a major newspaper, I would save Curran's op-ed and take it with me the next time I go to my boss asking for a raise. I would plop the article on my boss' desk and say, "Without people like me, this is the kind of stuff you would have running in your newspaper every day. So pay up, bub."

Based on Curran's op-ed, I can only assume that copy editors had a lot to do with the professional presentation of his work in the Mobile paper. In the Montgomery Independent, we get Eddie Curran raw. And it's not a pretty sight.

In fact, I have to wonder: Where was the editor of the Mobile Press-Register when the deal to run Curran's op-ed was going down? Curran states that he is on unpaid sabbatical from the paper in order to write a book about the Siegelman case. That means he still should be answerable to the editor of the Press-Register. And I know more than one newspaper editor who would consider a sophomoric op-ed such as Curran's to be grounds for dismissal.

I assume folks at the Press-Register care, at least a little bit, about their reputation. After checking out Curran's op-ed, a reasonable reader might ask: If this is the P-R's ace investigative reporter, unfiltered, what kind of editorial judgment does the paper have? And wouldn't they be wise to keep a fairly tight leash on him?

It's not breaking news that Eddie Curran is, to put it charitably, an eccentric fellow. We've had our own interesting encounters with him at Legal Schnauzer. You can check out our posts mentioning Mr. Curran here. If you want to get a flavor for what it's like to have Mr. Curran as an e-mail buddy, scroll to the bottom post and work your way up. You'll see some comments that are so off the wall that I, at first, thought it had to be an impostor. But Curran made it clear that it was indeed him, hair follicles and all.

Now, I've known a few wacky reporters in my time. Investigative reporting is tough, risky work, the kind that doesn't necessarily attract "9 to 5, church deacon" types. But even the nuttiest reporters usually know when to dial it back and let their work speak for itself. They also know that their credibility is strongest when they stick to the facts at hand. And perhaps most importantly, they know that copy editors, managing editors, executive editors, and others are important parts of the reporting process. Going solo might be an attractive option if you are Paul McCartney or Paul Simon, but an investigative reporter should be humble and calm enough to know that it's a good idea to stay within the team framework--to rely on people to check and question and enhance your raw material.

And that seems to be the greatest failing of Curran's op-ed--it is pure Eddie, all bluster and cockiness, with one smart-alecky remark coming after another. It is full of name calling and bomb throwing. But the piece never really goes anywhere. And that's because Curran didn't have an editor to force him to support his assertions--or maybe he just doesn't have a leg to stand on.

Here's one example of Curran making serious charges but not backing them up. He opens by noting that a friend had sent him a copy of a Scott Horton article that ran in the Jan. 21 issue of the Independent. The friend had found it "disturbing," and Curran tells us that he, too, was disturbed by it. "The article is laden with factual error, innuendo and a level of sourcing that would not be permitted in the lowest rank of newspapers."

But Curran gives no examples of factual error or innuendo or poor sourcing in the story. "Unlike my Montgomery friend, I knew something about the subject of the piece--Mark Fuller--as well as its author." But Curran gives us little, if any, information to support his claim that he is knowledgeable about Fuller and Horton.

Curran observed Fuller during the Siegelman trial and gives him high marks for being a "neutral arbiter." Can Curran present any facts that helped him form this conclusion? Evidently not. Curran also likes the fact that Fuller "never grandstanded or tried to make himself the focus of the trial." That's nice, but what does it mean? You could say the same thing about a department-store mannequin conducting a trial.

As for the two targets of his spitballs, Curran doesn't lay a glove on either Simpson or Horton. He takes healthy swings at some matters on the periphery of Simpson's sworn statements and testimony. But he has no answer for her main point: That she overheard Republican operatives saying they were going to work with the U.S. Justice Department to "take care of" Don Siegelman.

As U.S. Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) pointed out in a Congressional hearing on selective prosecution, Simpson has records that show a phone call to the office of Rob Riley (son of Alabama Governor Bob Riley) at the time she says it took place. How does Curran deal with this? It "could be explained by Simpson being placed on hold."

Oh, really. Says who? Why doesn't he quote Rob Riley on this matter?

Interestingly, Curran did talk to Rob Riley before writing his piece. But he never points out the highly hedged language in the affidavit Riley filed with Congress.

And Curran seems to have a double standard when it comes to seeking comment from subjects before writing a story. He goes apoplectic when noting that Horton did not seek comment from him for a piece in Harper's. But he gives no indication that he sought comment from either Simpson or Horton for his own op-ed piece.

As for Horton, Curran makes it clear that he doesn't much care for the Harper's columnist. And he levels all sorts of charges against Horton, calling him a "bully, liar, phony and pompous ass."

Does Curran provide any facts to support his claim that Horton is just an old meany? Nope. The closest he comes is mocking Horton's tendency to use literary references in his work. (By the way, Curran tells us only that Horton is an "Internet columnist." No mention of the fact that Horton is a law professor at an Ivy League school, Columbia University.)

In an apparent effort to contrast himself with this learned Horton fellow, Curran throws in a reference in his own work to the old Scooby Doo cartoon. That'll teach that uppity Horton fellow.

After comparing Horton to Rush Limbaugh (bet Horton never thought he would see that comparison), Curran does tell us this:

I will limit my critique of Horton's work primarily to the article sent me by my friend, and even then will not be able to address all the falsehoods presented there. Such a critique requires considerable length because the lies are so vast and based upon other lies, bogus coincidences and innuendo requiring them, too, to be placed in perspective.

But he proceeds to not critique Horton's work at all--at least not in part one. Curran seems to be doing a "trust me" op-ed, saying, in essence, "This Horton guy is a sorry excuse for a columnist. I'm not going to give you any examples of his sorry work. But trust me, he's bad."

Perhaps Curran will offer some legitimate critique in part two, which apparently will come next Friday. But for all of the sound and fury about Curran's distaste for Horton, you would think our guy Eddie would offer up at least a morsel of fact-based criticism in part one.

Curran does tell us that the title of part two will be "Who's Lying?" That sounds like a screed focused on Jill Simpson. After all, she's the person in the Siegelman saga who has most put her credibility on the line. (And based on part one of Curran's op-ed, I'd say her credibility still stands strong.)

Will Curran ever get down to telling us exactly what it is that causes him to find Scott Horton so distasteful? Guess we'll have to wait for part two.

Perhaps Curran unwittingly shines some light on the real reasons for his pique at Simpson and Horton. "If anyone should declare I have a conflict in writing this piece, let them."

OK, Eddie, I'll take you up on that. Seems to me you have a conflict when it comes to criticizing Simpson and Horton, and here's why: They are casting serious doubts on the Siegelman prosecution, and in so doing, they clearly are causing problems for your plans to write a book. If Siegelman's prosecution is overturned, the market for your book will dry up. You have a vested interest in seeing that Don Siegelman remains in federal prison. And now Jill Simpson and Scott Horton have gone and even helped get 60 Minutes raising questions about the Siegelman case.

No wonder you're pissed. If I were in your shoes, I would be pissed, too. Of course, if I were in your shoes, I might have held off on writing a book about the Siegelman case until it was over--until after the appeal.

And here's another thought: If the Siegelman verdict is overturned, and a Congressional investigation shows that he truly was a political prisoner, now that will be a book.

But that's evidently not the book you want to write. Maybe Scott Horton will write it.

Coming up: Deconstructing Eddie Curran, Part II


Jeff said...

The Siegelman verdict, if - IF - overturned, won't be overturned until after the next election. Count on it.

Do you suppose Mr. Curran's publisher set a purely arbitrary target date for it to hit the market?

I never envisioned it topping any NY Times best-seller lists ("perfect for Holiday gift-giving!"). So, where would it make its biggest splash...? Hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

The difference between you and Eddie Curran is that you are an idiot and he is a journalist.

Anonymous said...

"But he gives no indication that he sought comment from either Simpson or Horton for his own op-ed piece."

Curran's latest work you are skewering is an opinion piece. I don't think those have the same standards as a regular journalistic article. I think you're picking at nits.

Anonymous said...

What's with Eddie Curran? Like you, the first thing I noticed when I read Curran's piece was that he claims Horton's work is full of lies. But then he doesn't identify any of them. Apparently they are SECRET lies that only Eddie Curran is aware of. We just need to trust him. Funny.

Anonymous said...

Eddie Curran makes you look like a joke schnauzer.