Shoddy Journalism?: ESPN Relying On Confidential Informant In Vick Case Coverage

By Gregory Kane
Updated: June 2, 2007

BALTIMORE — We have it from that unimpeachable news source, ESPN, that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is “one of the heavyweights” in the crime known as dogfighting.

Oh, the folks at ESPN didn’t say it outright, of course. They’re much too slick for that. Weasel-like, they just slyly implied it.

According to Jeff Schultz of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ESPN producers ran a segment in which “they showed footage of actual dogfights. They juxtaposed it with words and images of Vick.”

Then producers of the segment played what they no doubt thought was their trump card.

“They played an interview with a confidential informant,” wrote Schultz, “who pointed the finger at Vick as an active and eager participant who raised fighting dogs, fought dogs and gambled on dogs.”

Oh, a confidential informant. Someone trustworthy, of reliable credibility and character, right? The folks at ESPN would have us think so.

According to a story in The Seattle Times, an investigator named David Hunt assured the folks at ESPN that the informant was “extremely reliable” and that information he’s given to cops has “resulted in the arrest of several individuals over the past few years, numerous search warrants, as well as convictions.”

Excuse me, but since when do arrests, search warrants and convictions that result from informants giving information to cops make them reliable? Did Hunt and ESPN honchos miss every decade from the 1960’s up until now?

Didn’t Atlanta cops break into Kathryn Johnston’s home and fatally shoot her based on information supplied by an informant? Didn’t New York City cops do the same thing to Alberta Spruill?

Do the names Julius Butler and Louis Tackwood ring a bell with either Hunt or ESPN producers? You can bet they don’t. But I’ll be happy to enlighten them.

Butler was the FBI informant who fingered Elmer Geronimo ji Jaga, aka Geronimo Pratt, as the killer of a woman in Los Angeles in 1968. Butler’s information, like the information of the informant who was quoted on ESPN, resulted in ji Jaga’s conviction. So, using the logic of Hunt and those big brains at ESPN, Butler was a reliable informant, right?

Hey, you know the answer. Butler lied ji Jaga into prison. FBI agents lied by denying that Butler had been one of their informants. The phrase “reliable confidential informant” is almost a classic American oxymoron.

Which brings me to that piece of work known as Louis Eugene Tackwood. No, he wasn’t an FBI informant. Tackwood did all his damage locally for the Criminal Conspiracy Section of the Los Angeles Police Department. If a Snitch Hall of Fame ever opens, Tackwood should be its first inductee and most prominent member.

Tackwood told all to a radical group in the early 1970s. The result was a book called “The Glass House Tapes” (ESPN producers might want to put it on their “must read” list.).

The CCS was appropriately named, Tackwood said, because “they spend all their time cooking up criminal conspiracies against militants, particularly groups like the (Black) Panthers, Angela Davis and people like that.”

“My first assignment with CCS was as liaison between CCS and Ron Karenga’s organization, US. My second assignment was to watch and help create conspiracies on Panthers.”

Hmmm. “Help create conspiracies.” Not exactly a phrase that bolsters my faith in either law enforcement or confidential informants. You may understand why I’m taking the word of the confidential informant who appeared on ESPN with a couple of billion grains of salt.

Mind you, Vick might be guilty of everything the informant said: Betting $30,000 and $40,000 on dog fights, attending dog fights and even owning a dog that was in a dog fight.

The informant said his dog beat Vick’s dog in 2000. Dogfighting may not be the most despicable “business” in the country, but it has to be up there in the top five. And I don’t even like dogs.

Still, all that Vick has been accused of is owning a house where dogfighting occurred. He said his cousin lived there, and he knew nothing about any dog fights. He’s entitled to the same presumption of innocence that I’m sure producers at ESPN wanted for those Duke lacrosse players.

There’s a term for basing a news report on the uncorroborated word of one confidential informant. I’m not sure ESPN producers are familiar with it, so I’ll spell it out for them.

It’s called “irresponsible journalism.”