Follow the Leader: A Fine Tradition

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In 1996, a jury in state Supreme Court found Wilbert A. Tatum, then the publisher of the Amsterdam News, guilty of having "wrongfully diverted" more than a million dollars from the paper's parent company.

Last week, Executive Editor Jamal Watson was arrested and accused of stealing a thousand dollars from the company's summer internship program. Good stuff.

Tatum's daughter, Elinor, now publisher and editor-in-chief of the paper, denied any relation between the incidents: "That's a completely different case. You're talking about an owner and you're talking about an employee, which are very different things." Very different.

"The Post story," which first reported Watson's arrest and recounted Wilbert's trouble, "is incorrect," Elinor said in a brief telephone interview. And what do people who run newspapers do when they're being misrepresented in the media?

Apparently nothing: According to Elinor, there are no plans set the record straight about either incident.

I asked Elinor, journo to "journo," to tell me just what was inaccurate.

"No. You guys can just do your homework and go to the DA's office and see what they tell you."

So we did. According to the complaint, Watson "stole checks from New York Amsterdam News that were written to summer interns and deposit[ed] said checks into his personal bank account." Smooth operator.

While waiting for the DA's office to get back to me, I called John L. Edmonds, a former shareholder at the 97-year-old paper paper. Edmonds had a 13-year feud with Wilbert before finally winning a jury decision in 1996 finding that Tatum had taken a cool million from the paper.

"I got a judgment against [Tatum] for a certain amount of money," he said. "And the judge told me he wanted Tatum to keep the newspaper, or else I can take my appeals. So I settled on that basis [and] took the money" and went his own way. A businessman all the way.

"Well, after the settlement, [Tatum] became the sole owner of the newspaper. I guess at that point, he brought his daughter in."

Have you been following the paper since?

"No, I don't bother with the paper very much. It doesn't reflect the quality of a newspaper I'd be interested in." Still bitter, after all these years.

I agree, though, about the quality. Under Tatum, a man best known for his pretentious, rather absurd baritone (think a jailhouse preacher in a particularly stupid BET flick and you'll be in the ballpark), the paper has best been known for its bitter conspiracy theories, race-mongering and for Tatum's use of his Jewish wife to fend off accusations of anti-Semitism.

And while his daughter's been pressing charges, the elder Tatum apparently doesn't see the big deal about a measly grand. "The man hasn't been convicted of anything," he's quoted as saying in the Post. "I think he's [a] good [editor]." Family feud, anyone?

Elsewhere in this week's paper, the reader is asked to imagine if rock stars feuded like rap stars. It's a funny thought. We'd love for Thom Yorke to bust a cap into, say, John Mayer.

On the same note, we invite our Spanish-reading readers to imagine El Diario or Hoy! functioning like the Amsterdam News. Ay Dios mio! In that world, Freddy would have been defeated by the Jews, no doubt.

But given that the paper's working theory is apparently that various theys are out to get black folk, and given that even a paranoiac has enemies, you'd think the paper would manage to break a story from time to time, but that almost never happens. Maybe they should do their own reporting, instead of just having us go the DA.

For now, Tatum's daughter is looking for a new executive editor, and defending her father's legacy in telephone interviews.

Their news pages are reserved for more dignified news stories, like Lenora Fulani and her respected role in local politics. After being kicked out of the executive committee of the New York State Independence Party, Fulani was the only person quoted in a story titled "Polls note changes in African-American vote." Eleven pages later was a full-page ad from "The Committee for an Independent Mayor," which is tied to Fulani. Now that is independent.

In that same issue, the highly respected Wilbert makes his voice heard. His essay, "Miracles can happen for Freddy Ferrer," which ran days before the polls opened, builds upon the idea of a gorgeous mosaic with true progressive policies: "So if our miracle of numbers does not happen this year, it may happen four years from now. And Fernando Ferrer and others of his talent, energy and ambition will be, once more, knocking on the door and saying that 'My time is now.'"

Now that's what I call journalism. Note to Elinor: May we suggest out-of-work journo (and mega-fox, incidentally) Judith Miller before Fox News corrupts her?

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