Five Great Stories You Didn’t Read in 2005

In the spirit of the season, here's our list of five outstanding stories from local and regional papers you might have missed this year -- but shouldn't have.

Each day and every week, a great mass of print journalism is produced in this country — something all too easy to forget when reading a mere sliver of that output in your local paper or scanning the links on your favorite blog. From that mass, the work of the country’s Big Five dailies is usually more than enough to keep us occupied in our pursuit of lively, helpful and quick media criticism.

At the same time, each week smaller papers across the nation quietly publish compelling, thought-provoking pieces of journalism, stories that inform and illuminate. But it’s nearly impossible to catch it all; even for those of us who cover the reporters who cover the news, time is often short. And so, in keeping with the season, we give to you our countdown of five excellent newspaper stories of 2005 that you might have missed (as we did, until now) — our way of focusing some attention on outstanding work done this year that was largely overlooked on the national stage.

From a gripping series in the St. Petersburg Times on the fallout of a hit-and-run accident to vivid, blood-strewn portraits of four Iraq veterans recovering from their wounds in Ohio, from the hidden destruction wrought by Hurricane Rita in rural Louisiana to a comprehensive examination of global warming in the Seattle Times, these five stories caught our eye.

5) A quiet picture of catastrophe

While it was Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath that shocked the nation and rightly grabbed the lion’s share of headlines this year, Hurricane Rita also took its toll on the Gulf Coast. For residents of Terrebonne Parish in southern Louisiana, the Houma Courier recently noted, it is the less-famed Rita that is “the stand-out of the 2005 storm season” after it “crept south of the Louisiana coast for days, pushing water up Terrebonne’s five bayous, topping every levee on the parish’s southern end and flooding an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 homes and businesses.”

One of journalism’s tasks is to shine a light on the forgotten, and the Courier’s Kimberly Solet performed that job well with her Sept. 29 report, “Rita deals Pointe-aux-Chenes a catastrophic blow.” Nearly a week after the storm, when no relief agency or help had arrived for the remote villages of Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles, Solet published a subtly powerful story about the despair and destruction residents there faced.

“[S]tagnant water still sits in most yards on this finger of land,” wrote Solet, “and for most the tedious ritual of cleaning up has just begun.” “We feel like we’ve been forgotten down here,” said 27-year-old mother Sandy Chaisson, starting over amidst the muck after losing her second home in three years to hurricane flooding. An excerpt:

The flight from low-lying communities battered by storms almost annually is evident in Pointe-aux-Chenes and the island to its west. A drive down the road with Sandy Chaisson is like stepping back in time, as the 1997 South Terrebonne High graduate points out blown-out homes abandoned by families long ago. There’s a vacant gingerbread house left to rot in the mud a decade or so ago, an elevated trailer gutted by drug dealers and wasting away, a brick home on a concrete slab with the windows blown out and few signs of life.

On Island Road, the only way in and out of Isle de Jean Charles, the widespread destruction is breathtaking. On one section of the street once populated by American Indian families such as Sandy’s mother, Velma Naquin, and Johnny’s mother, Mary Danos, five homes in a row are vacant, as if the people who lived in them up and left and never looked back. The island where native families settled centuries ago to take advantage of once-lush forests full of mink and muskrat and water brimming with shrimp, crabs and oysters is surrounded on all sides by the Gulf of Mexico, which creeps ever closer.

Rita wreaked such misery on this island of about 30 families that even Sandy Chaisson could not help but gasp when she drove her truck onto the muddy road curving through the neighborhood. Only a bomb dropped from the sky could cause such total wreckage, she said. Houses were ripped in half and ceilings torn open. Rotting horses were sprawled sideways on the levee. Residents walked in a quiet daze, barefoot and somber.

4) Waltzing in Memphis

A two-year FBI sting operation, codenamed “Tennessee Waltz,” announced itself to the world one day in May with the grand jury indictments and arrests of five current and former state lawmakers and two “bagmen,” charged with taking more than $90,000 in bribes to push legislation for a fake recycler of outdated computer equipment set up by the feds.

In Tennessee, that incredible story — which now includes 10 defendants, three of whom have pled guilty — has been the biggest of the year. And while much has been written about Tennessee Waltz since its unveiling in late May, it was Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Marc Perrusquia who broke some crucial new ground in mid-June with a front-page article that expertly explained the story of Tim Willis, the FBI’s key informant in the case.

Perrusquia drew a portrait of Willis “as a felon with a huge debt who was desperately trying to stay out of jail” — and an informant whose long-term cover was nearly blown when “officials discovered Willis had been slow to repay $43,519 in court-ordered restitution” after he pleaded guilty to an identity theft scheme in Mississippi in 2001.

An excerpt:

Months before his voice appeared on a scratchy undercover tape, the key informant behind Operation Tennessee Waltz cut a deal.

To a mesmerized public, Tim Willis remains little more than a cutout figure, a shadowy silhouette in the FBI sting that netted bribery charges against five current and former Tennessee lawmakers.

To political insiders, he was Kashflow, a well-connected consultant with the moxie to bring businessmen and politicians together with the promise of a big score.

While offering those deals, records show, the FBI was paying Willis handsomely.

Records obtained by The Commercial Appeal show agents paid Willis $6,000 a month — $72,000 a year — to help bring bribery charges against former state senator John Ford, Sen. Kathryn Bowers, former senator Roscoe Dixon and others.

Perrusquia, who has been one of the most prominent reporters in Tennessee Waltz coverage this year, said his “lucky stroke” on the Willis story came when he logged onto PACER, the federal court records system, and saw Willis’ name mentioned in connection with another case. “It kind of sounds like they’re talking about this investigation,” Perrusquia thought, before sending an Ole Miss student to check out some courthouse documents for him in the neighboring state. The student struck gold, finding a federal probation report that laid out crucial details of Willis’ work for the FBI.

“I think a lot of reporters had been on PACER, but whatever happened, they hadn’t gone down there and checked out the courthouse,” said Perrusquia, 46, a projects and investigative reporter who has been with the Commercial Appeal for nearly 17 years.

3) Perception vs. reality on global warming

With the United States having spent much of the recent two-week United Nations environmental conference in Montreal opposing attempts to start fresh talks on improving the effectiveness of a 1992 international climate change accord, and with the New York Times reporting (subscription required) in a recent series on the thawing Arctic that many scientists “have concluded that the momentum behind human-caused warming, combined with the region’s tendency to amplify change, has put the familiar Arctic past the point of no return,” Sandi Doughton’s comprehensive examination of global warming in the Seattle Times this fall stood out for its clarity, scope, and timeliness.

In a special report entitled “The truth about global warming,” Doughton set the record straight, showing how there is an overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming but that the message “doesn’t seem to be getting through to the public and policy-makers.” With Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, calling global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people” and a Gallup Poll last June finding that “only about half of Americans believe the effects of global warming have already started,” Doughton reported, many still believe that there is a strong ongoing debate among scientists on the issue. In actuality, there is almost universal scientific agreement, Doughton wrote, pointing to one science historian who analyzed 1,000 research papers on climate change between 1993 and 2003 and found that “Not a single study explicitly rejected the idea that people are warming the planet,” and to another who said the subject was extensively reviewed and debated like no other in the history of science as the consensus built.

Doughton also examined why skeptics, often with funding from coal and oil interests, tend to dominate the discussion — aided by journalists who give them equal coverage even though they are “on the fringe of legitimate science.”

“My goal was sort of to explain to people that fact — that there really isn’t a lot of scientific disagreement on this issue, and that the people who are generally presented as skeptics have some vested interest or some conflict of interest,” said Doughton, 50, who has been at the Times three years, and in journalism for 20. “I got a huge amount of reaction, probably more than I’ve gotten on any story. I’ve probably received hundreds and hundreds of emails and calls.”

An excerpt:

1995 was the hottest year on record until it was eclipsed by 1997 — then 1998, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. Melting ice has driven Alaska Natives from seal-hunting areas used for generations. Glaciers around the globe are shrinking so rapidly many could disappear before the middle of the century.

As one study after another has pointed to carbon dioxide and other man-made emissions as the most plausible explanation, the cautious community of science has embraced an idea initially dismissed as far-fetched. The result is a convergence of opinion rarely seen in a profession where attacking each other’s work is part of the process. Every major scientific body to examine the evidence has come to the same conclusion: The planet is getting hotter; man is to blame; and it’s going to get worse.

2) Telling the soldiers’ stories

Nearly 16,000 American soldiers have now been wounded in Iraq, but few stories detailing how they were injured or their subsequent struggles to rehabilitate themselves have been told. In a gritty October article for the Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, reporter Christopher Evans did just that.

“Wounded Warriors” profiled four local veterans of the Iraq war: Jim Alunni, “a big, burly scooter dude” and firefighter-paramedic who every now and then “runs his hand down the back of his head, and picks out an infinitesimal piece of shrapnel, a tiny forget-me-not from the Iraqi car bomb that almost ate him for lunch”; Jessica Clements, a mortgage loan processor and a “slight, sharp-boned woman with a gorgeous smile” who now has trouble remembering the simplest things, let alone how she received a traumatic brain injury in Iraq; Dana Reagan, a truck driver-dispatcher and a “wiry, rhapsodic raconteur [who] combines facial expressions and hand gestures with breathless sound effects” when he tells war stories; and Vic Lewis, a firefighter-paramedic who calls survivor guilt “the real deal,” wondering why he lived and hoping that he has a purpose, that “Maybe you have to do something before you go to the Great Beyond.”

All suffered major injuries; Reagan’s left eye hung out of its socket as he ordered troops to take cover, and Alunni “was almost blown up by a car bomb.” Three of the four are portrayed as trying to readjust to civilian life while often feeling that their Ohio neighbors have little idea of what’s going on in the war they fought half a world away.

The Plain Dealer’s Evans said that aside from the unforeseen difficulty he had finding wounded soldiers (the Department of Veterans Affairs will not give out names or information for medical privacy reasons, and Iraq vets, wherever they are going, are not going to VFW halls), it also took some time for his subjects, who he calls “examples of American character that transcends this horrible war,” to open up. At first they would claim “Oh, nothing really happened,” Evans said. “It was weird. I had to seduce them [into talking].”

Last month the Plain Dealer announced that it was closing down its magazine, which ended its 85-year run on Sunday, Dec. 18. “It’s heartbreaking. I was on the magazine for 17 years and it was a great ride,” said Evans, 52, a 20-year Plain Dealer reporter who will probably now move into a general assignment position at the paper. “It was something that set the paper apart. We’re one of the few newspapers to still have a Sunday magazine, and it’s a loss.”

An excerpt from his story:

Clements was unconscious when she arrived at the 31st Combat Support Hospital in the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad. Emergency room personnel hooked her up to a ventilator and prepped her for surgery. The shrapnel that ripped into her lower back had chewed up the flesh around her left hip, but, luckily, left the bone intact. It was the shrapnel embedded in Clements’ brain that was killing her.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Poffenbarger, a neurosurgeon, performed a craniotomy, slicing a hockey puck-shaped chunk of bone from the right side of her skull, and exposing the traumatized section of the brain. He removed only the largest piece of shrapnel. The smaller shards were too many and too deep to risk extraction. Poffenbarger stopped the bleeding and cleaned the wound. He did not replace the bone from Clements’ skull. Her brain needed room to swell.

Instead, Poffenbarger created a space inside Clements’ lower right abdomen. He implanted the skull fragment there to preserve it and keep it safe. If and when Clements recovered, surgeons could then reattach the bone.

1) Long reporting pays off in Florida

Our top spot goes to a series of stories that represent narrative writing at its best: a special report in the St. Petersburg Times entitled “The Hard Road.”

A long, tragic tale broken into five installments, “The Hard Road” explores what happened after Jennifer Porter, a quiet, unassuming 28-year-old schoolteacher, ran down four of Lisa Wilkins’ children one evening in March 2004. The case transfixed the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, and the Times series takes us through the full arc of the story, from the night of the accident, to the first chaotic days of the investigation, to Porter’s decision to step forward at a press conference, to Wilkins saying goodbye to her two dead children, and on through the intricate legal developments leading up to Porter’s dramatic sentencing last month.

The case, of course, is much more complex than that, and Times reporters Thomas French, Christopher Goffard and Jamie Thompson tell the story with nuance, grace and power. What is most striking about the series — and makes it so riveting for readers — is how it delves with near-omniscient precision into the heads of the major people involved and charts their lives as they become part of the larger story, making them seem as fully realized as characters in a novel.

“It’s one of those few stories that seem to have all of the elements. It speaks to larger human issues and larger human themes than most crime stories do,” said Goffard, 33, adding that the three years he had put in as a Tampa court beat reporter, “getting to know all of the prosecutors and many of the defense attorneys, really paid off, because I had credibility going in. Sources knew they could trust me.”

Building such trust with other sources and gaining the access necessary to write the story as they did was a process that took many months and much effort and patience, Goffard and French said. “The Hard Road” was based on a year of reporting, although its writers did work on other stories during most of that time. “Time really helps to give people a chance to know you, the reporter, and understand why you’re asking these questions,” said French, 47, a 1998 Pulitzer winner who has spent his entire 25-year career at the Times, the last 20 or so as a narrative project writer.

The series’ beginning was enough to get us hooked:

After the accident, the desire for a face grew almost unbearable. People saw the mother cracking with grief on TV, begging someone to come forward, and it became impossible not to wonder who could have driven away from such a thing, who could have felt those impacts and heard those sounds and then kept going, staring ahead through a broken windshield, the night and the future suddenly fragmented.

Finally, a young woman stepped in front of the TV lights. A schoolteacher, so still and muted she almost seemed invisible. Someone who had never before made a mistake, or at least none that mattered. A person who spent her days surrounded by children.

At the jail, Jennifer Porter gave her fingerprints and stood in front of a camera for the image that would follow her forever. Her long brown hair was shown hanging over her shoulders. Her eyes stared slightly downward, big and dark and dead.

It became the test. Some, seeing the photo, would say Porter appeared cold and self-absorbed. Others insisted they saw numbness, despair, a sense of something irrevocable.

Her face, identifiable at last, was no longer just a face. It had become a blank canvas on which a multitude of assumptions could be projected, on which the boundaries of justice and human frailty could be debated, on and on.

We can’t say it any better than the Times writers did. Read the series for yourself.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.