Wednesday, December 03, 2008

It's not the Brooklyn Bridge but, hey. . . .

The New York Daily News didn't sell some petrorube the Brooklyn Bridge. But the tabloid's reporters and editors did something almost as good -- they stole the Empire State Building.

COME TO FIND OUT, it wasn't that tough. After all, it was paper-pushing bureaucrats they were dealing with. The only challenge there would be accomplishing something legit.
The News swiped the 102-story Art Deco skyscraper by drawing up a batch of bogus documents, making a fake notary stamp and filing paperwork with the city to transfer the deed to the property.

Some of the information was laughable: Original "King Kong" star Fay Wray is listed as a witness and the notary shared a name with bank robber Willie Sutton.

The massive ripoff illustrates a gaping loophole in the city's system for recording deeds, mortgages and other transactions.

The loophole: The system - run by the office of the city register - doesn't require clerks to verify the information.

Less than 90 minutes after the bogus documents were submitted on Monday, the agency rubber-stamped the transfer from Empire State Land Associates to Nelots Properties LLC. Nelots is "stolen" spelled backward. (The News returned the property Tuesday.)

"Crooks go where the money is. That's why Willie Sutton robbed banks, and this is the new bank robbery," said Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Richard Farrell, who is prosecuting several deed fraud cases.

Of course, stealing the Empire State Building wouldn't go unnoticed for long, but it shows how easy it is for con artists to swipe more modest buildings right out from under their owners. Armed with a fraudulent deed, they can take out big mortgages and disappear, leaving a mess for property owners, banks and bureaucrats.
GEE, MAYBE HARD TIMES have brought back "undercover" journalism, which had fallen into disrepute among a generation of journalists -- flush with the gravitas that goes with bringing down a president and all -- who had come to take themselves waaaaaaay too seriously.

Fittingly enough, it was a tabloid like the Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, that
pulled off the last grand "undercover" investigative series. It opened a bar and named it the Mirage. Get it?

I think you know the purpose:
The Mirage was the event that changed everything. The Sun-Times "opened a tavern, staffed it with reporters and photographers, and waited for the city inspectors to come and shake them down. They sardonically called the bar the Mirage, and it drew petty crooks like drought victims to a vision of water."

Series of this magnitude -- the Mirage was 25 days of stories that began on January 8, 1978, preceded by four months in late 1977 of running the bar and many more months of planning -- aren't measured by the good they do. They succeed if they collect the biggest prizes. Mirage was a Pulitzer finalist, but Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post and Eugene Patterson of the St. Petersburg Times argued for its defeat. "The Pulitzer Prize Board decided not to award the Sun-Times the prize because the series was based on deception," Fuller related. "The board concluded that truth-telling enterprises should not engage in such tactics."

This judgment reflected the uneasiness seeping into a business that, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, was taking itself especially seriously. "We would not allow reporters to misrepresent themselves in any way, and I don't think we would be the hidden owners of anything," Bradlee told me at the time. Patterson said, "Some felt the Mirage story could have been reported in another way," and he compared the Sun-Times to an undercover policewoman enticing a john.

The Mirage's champion when the Pulitzer board met had been Clayton Kirkpatrick, then the editor of the Tribune. Kirkpatrick argued not merely for the opposition's big story but for a way of journalistic life in Chicago. It was his own paper, in fact, that won three Pulitzers earlier in the 70s for undercover projects. The Sun-Times didn't get into that business until Pam Zekman came over from the Tribune in 1975, bringing the tavern idea with her. The Tribune had said no to it for liability reasons -- the editors imagined the horrible spot they'd be in if someone staggered drunk out of their bar, climbed into his car, and drove into a school bus. Sun-Times editor Jim Hoge said yes.
IT'S MY firm conviction that God not only "don't like ugly," He also don't like snooty. Three years after Ben Bradlee helped to scuttle a Pulitzer for the Sun Times' "Mirage" series, his Washington Post had to give back its Pulitzer.

Perhaps "Jimmy's World" rings a bell. How about Janet Cooke?

Talk about your series "based on deception". . . .

No comments: