Monday, November 23, 2009

From Exclusion to Misrepresentation: Chicago Tribune Reporter Raises More Questions Than She Answers

On September 17, 2009, the Chicago-based non-profit group Save-A-Life Foundation (SALF) filed for voluntary dissolution with the Illinois Secretary of State's Office, effectively closing down the embattled organization that was founded by Carol Spizzirri. While the organization was once well-known for teaching schoolchildren first-aid skills and how to respond in emergency situations, controversy over both the credibility of Spizzirri as well as the claims that she made about the accomplishments of the non-profit, have cast a dark shadow on both SALF and those who have provided the organization with millions of dollars in funding.

In 2006 and 2007 Spizzirri and SALF were the targets of a four-part investigative series by Chuck Goudie of Chicago's ABC 7. Goudie's investigation uncovered multiple red-flags about the organization. He found that Spizzirri fabricated her medical credentials by claiming that she was a Registered Nurse, he found that serious questions exist over Spizzirri's claims that SALF trained over a million school children since 1995, and Goudie found that SALF was under the medical advise of Dr. Henry Heimlich despite controversies over medical scenarios in which Heimlich believes that his "Maneuver" is appropriate.

The Cincinnati Beacon, and more specifically Jason Haap (The Dean of Cincinnati), has had a history of reporting on the controversies surrounding Dr. Heimlich, so when Goudie's investigation ran in 2006 and 2007, Haap continued to cover both Dr. Heimlich and the new questions that were stirred up about Carol Spizzirri.

SALF responded by suing Haap, Peter Heimlich (son of Dr. Henry Heimlich), and Dr. Robert Baratz (President of the National Council Against Health Fraud) claiming that they conspired to harm the reputation of SALF by spreading false information to agencies that gave funding to the non-profit. The lawsuit continued for the next two years until July, 2009 when SALF dropped the charges against the trio, just two months before the organization filed for voluntary dissolution.

As I reported a few weeks ago, Chicago Tribune reporter Lisa Black wrote an article entitled "Save-a-Life Foundation in limbo" that was published on the Tribune's website on October 11, 2009.

Black's piece told her readers that SALF was "in limbo" despite the fact that the dissolution paperwork was filed a month before her piece was written and Black also gave Carol Spizzirri the definitive last word on many of the controversial issues that have surrounded both her, and her organization over the years.

As I also reported, Lisa Black was one of two Tribune reporters on the potential witness list for SALF in the lawsuit that was filed against Haap, Heimlich, and Baratz. Since Black had failed to disclose this information to her readers and since the only voice that was represented in her piece was that of a noted controversial figure, I decided to take a closer look at both what was said and what wasn't said in Black's piece.

Peter Heimlich is the son of Dr. Henry Heimlich (who invented the famous "Maneuver" that bears his name) and runs a wholesale textile business with his wife in the Atlanta area. In Heimlich's spare time, he runs the website on which he posts research that is critical of many of his father's claims. Heimlich was one of the three named in the defamation lawsuit and in my initial piece, I wondered why there were no quotes from either Heimlich or any of his co-defendants in Lisa Black's piece which specifically mentions the case. Instead, Black quotes Carol Spizzirri as saying the lawsuit "took its toll" and is partly responsible for SALF's closure.

I contacted Peter Heimlich and asked if Lisa Black had reached out to him for comment on this issue. Heimlich stated that he was in fact contacted by Black, but that her line of questioning raised his suspicions. "She seemed determined to focus on me and portray me in a negative light," Heimlich stated, "For example, Black asked me to answer a half-dozen loaded questions that had nothing to do with the case and were based on bizarre false claims about me. I asked Black where she got this ridiculous information and she wrote back that it came from Carol Spizzirri."

Heimlich also told me that Black "refused" to interview his co-defendants in the defamation case or anyone that would be critical of SALF, so I contacted both Jason Haap and Dr. Robert Baratz.

Jason Haap, co-founder of the Cincinnati Beacon (to which I am a regular contributor), confirmed that Lisa Black never contacted him and Dr. Baratz (speaking to me on his own accord and not on behalf of the National Council Against Health Fraud) confirmed the same. Dr. Baratz added that Peter Heimlich had made him aware of Black's interest in the legal case and that he had sent Black the following email:

“Peter Heimlich indicated in an email you may want to speak with me regarding the SALF lawsuit (now withdrawn), and perhaps other matters regarding potential fraud with grants, contracts, and other activities.
I am happy to speak with you.”

He never received a reply.

I also contacted Attorney Wayne Giampietro who represented Haap, Heimlich and Baratz in the defamation lawsuit. Giampietro told me that he did speak with Black regarding the case. "We talked about the case, what it alleged, why it was dropped, etc." he stated, "Virtually nothing I told her during that conversation was included in her article."

What also wasn't included in her article was that her name was on the list of requested witnesses on behalf of SALF for the very lawsuit on which she reported. I sent Lisa Black, as well as her editors Peter Kendall and Peter Hernon, multiple requests to comment on whether they were aware that Black's name appeared on this list and if they felt that this information should have been disclosed to readers. While I didn't receive a reply from any of them, Peter Heimlich tells me that he did make Black and Peter Kendall aware that her name appeared on this witness list and that she didn't view it as a problem. According to Heimlich:

I sent her an e-mail asking if she was aware that she was on SALF's witness list. She replied, "I had no idea I was named on a potential witness list. I did some reporting on SALF a few years ago but we never published an article." I then asked if being named as a witness would affect her reporting a story about the lawsuit. She immediately replied, "I don't see why it would be an issue since the suit has been dismissed and I don't remember being contacted about it by any lawyers."
Heimlich then told me that he wrote a letter to Peter Kendall on October 2 that expressed his concerns and requesting that a different reporter be assigned to the story. Heimlich says he never received a reply.

While Attorney Wayne Giampietro verifies that he never contacted Black about her name being on the witness list, the issue of disclosure may not be as clear-cut as Black seemed to indicate to Heimlich.

Dr. Richard Campbell
is the Director of the journalism program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Campbell has written books and numerous articles on the media and journalism for publications such as the Columbia Journalism Review, Journal of Communication, and Media Studies Journal. He received his MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and his PhD from Northwestern University. I spoke with Dr. Campbell about this topic.

"Of course the reporter should have disclosed the information," he says, "The point of good journalism is to insure that readers know as much about the events or issues being covered as possible, and this includes full disclosure of the reporter’s connections to what he/she is covering." Dr. Campbell believes that the mainstream media has "general credibility problems" and that the claim of objectivity isn't necessarily realistic. "The best you can be is to try and be fair," he says and that in critiquing journalists one needs to ask if they have been fair, complete, and if they tell multiple sides of the story. Dr. Campbell concludes, "In this situation, that's leaving stuff out that should be there."

With Black failing to disclose that she was on this list, it only manages to raise more questions about her connections to SALF and to Carol Spizzirri. Dr. Robert Baratz: "Ms. Black was a named witness by SALF in the litigation. She never appeared, was deposed, or generated a report. Thus there was no opportunity to even find out why she was a witness, let alone what she knew that would contribute to the plaintiff’s (SALF’s) case, or what her relationship was with SALF or its principals that would put her on the witness list."

It isn't just the fact that Black left this disclosure out of her piece that raises questions about her objectivity. In Black's piece she wrote (emphasis mine):

Spizzirri launched a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching children emergency response techniques, raising at least $8.6 million in federal and state grants for her Save-A-Life Foundation. Firefighters and paramedics were recruited to offer instruction on how to apply CPR and stop bleeding and choking, said Spizzirri, who estimates 2 million children took the classes, many of them from the Chicago Public Schools.


Much of the foundation’s work, Spizzirri said, focused on Chicago’s public schools. City school officials did not respond to inquiries about how many students received emergency training, but officials previously confirmed that the foundation taught classes that were arranged by individual schools.

Peter Heimlich informed me that when he was in communication with Black prior to the publication of her article, he provided her with the subpoenaed records from his case (which can be viewed here). "Training hundreds of thousands of kids should have produced piles of supporting paperwork," Heimlich said, "but our subpoena to the Chicago Board of Education produced a skimpy 19 pages showing only a few hundred people received SALF training at a handful of Chicago schools."

While Black did not mention this subpoena in her piece she did state that "officials previously confirmed that the foundation taught classes that were arranged by individual schools." This sentence gave Peter Heimlich pause, "Was Black basing that on the subpoenaed records?" he asks, "If so, she was not only ignoring the elephant in the room -- the lack of supporting records for SALF's claims -- she was trying to hide the elephant."

I attempted to obtain comment on many of these issues from Lisa Black, Peter Kendall and Peter Hernon, but after multiple attempts to reach all of them I have not received a response to any of my inquires.

As is usually the case, secrecy and actions that are not transparent only create more questions than they do answers. Among the Code of Ethics listed by the Society of Professional Journalists are the following items:

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.

Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

These standards seem to stand in stark contrast to how Lisa Black and the Chicago Tribune decided to report this most recent story, especially considering that this is how Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern recently described the Tribune's commitment to "keeping their promise" to their readers:

In a special report in June, we told you about our commitment to watchdog reporting, and we promised to stand guard for Chicago. Local investigative reporting is at the heart of our mission, and it drives everything we do.

We are keeping that promise. Each day we make watchdog reporting a defining characteristic of our news report.

The recent reporting on SALF lies in sharp contrast to both Kern's comments about the Tribune as well as the standards outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists. Given that journalism is supposed answer questions, shine a bright light on the truth, and tell a complete story, it is problematic when an organization fails to adhere to these standards. Reporter Lisa Black's failure to give Tribune readers a fair and complete picture of the controversies surrounding SALF, as well as her failure to disclose relevant information regarding her connection to a lawsuit on which she was reporting, only raises more questions than are answered. If the Chicago Tribune views this kind of reporting as "keeping their promise", then their readers may be inclined to wonder how other stories are being presented.

This article is cross posted here.


Grumpy said...

Peter Heimlich has, for whatever reason, spent years trying to discredit his father. All I know is that the Heimlich Maneuver works and has saved countless lives.

C said...

Are Henry Heimlich and Edward Patrick Medical Heroes, or Fast Talking Medical Con Men? Heimlich-Patrick Poll: Vote if these scientists should be held up as a medical hero, or ignored for their medical infamy!

Anonymous said...