Conyers and Free Press amnesia

By Joel Thurtell

On November 22, 2017, the Detroit Free Press demanded that U.S. Rep John Conyers resign because of allegations of sexual misconduct and a possibly illegal payoff to the woman who complained.

That date — November 22 — is important. So is the fact that the Free Press based its demand for Conyers’ resignation on a report from Buzzfeed.

Why Buzzfeed?

Why not base the demand on in-house reporting at the Free Press?

Unless there is collective amnesia at the Free Press, which I doubt, staffers must know that their own newspaper on November 21, 2003 published reports by about Conyers’ alleged misuse of federal employees and federal funds. I was co-author.

If they truly didn’t remember, you’d think they’d have followed elementary reporting rules and conducted a library search to see if someone on staff once upon a time wrote juicy stuff about Conyers.

A search would have found those 14-year-old articles outlining Conyers’ assignment of congressional staff to campaign for him and other Democratic candidates while being paid for working in Conyers’ office.

Wonder why no reference to those Free Press stories?

I said November 22 is an important date. Not only was it the date when the Free Press recently called on Conyers to quit the seat he’s held in Congress since 1965. It’s also the date in 2003 when the Free Press was planning to run my followup story about Conyers fixing it so members of his congressional staff were paid federal dollars to babysit his two young sons.

On November 22, 2003 one might have expected the Free Press to publish an editorial demanding that Conyers resign from the House of Representatives. The timing would be perfect, coming the day after the Free Press provided a road map for ethics investigators and federal prosecutors looking into possible payroll fraud by Conyers.

But instead, the editorial ran 14 years later. To the day.

Thank you Buzzfeed, for unwittingly inspiring this amazing Free Press demand!

Why didm’t the Free Press run a powerful editorial against Conyers in 2003?

Well, something happened on November 21, 2003, the day our stories ran. Or rather, something didn’t happen.

Free Press editors were expecting other media to jump on our Conyers stories and blanket the news with more reports about Conyers’ bad behavior. Instead, silence.

My article about babysitting was supposed to run November 22. It was killed. I was told it was being held to run later.

Soon, the story changed.

My most important source for the stories was the chief of staff of Conyers’ Southgate office. She had spoken not for attribution, for fear of being fired if she were identified. Free Press editors decided they would no longer publish stories about Conyers unless this source spoke on the record. She refused to do so.

Through the early months of 2004, I pushed my editors to run the babysitting story.

Not unless she goes on the record, I was told.

The source got frustrated with the Free Press and began talking to other reporters. In April 2004, a story about Conyers’ babysitters ran in The Hill. My editors still refused to run my story. That changed when a story shut babysitting appeared in our arch rival, The Detroit News. Then the Free Press ran was my story, even though our main source still was unnamed.*

When the editors relented, I thought they had a new interest in running stories about Conyers. I was wrong.

That is why I say November 22 is significant. If the Free Press had run an editorial on November 22, 2003 demanding that Conyers resign, they would have shown toughness and courage based on a foundation of their own reporting.

Instead, they waited 14 years to the day and ran  an editorial based on reporting by an unaffiliated online publication.

Why didn’t they mention their own reporting?

Well, how would they explain a 14-year wait?

Could it be they’re embarrassed?

Drop me a line at joelthurtell@gmail.com

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