October 18, 2018

NFL true-crime; Khashoggi's last column; journalist freed in Vietnam

He rose to the NFL and had early success. He had a secret life. Someone was murdered. He went to prison.

Former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez became the subject of a six-part series and six-part podcast by The Boston Globe.

Ex-Carolina Panthers star Rae Carruth had his story spread out over seven stories and seven podcast episodes by The Charlotte Observer.

Both regional newspapers have, for their first time, combined an in-depth investigation with a podcast. Both have encountered startling new details from an old story. Both, facing deadlines, have released their blockbusters this week.

The Globe Spotlight Team had to deliver its podcast to Apple iTunes by Tuesday, said the newspaper's projects editor Scott Allen (it's now No. 1 on the iTunes podcast chart.) The Observer had to get its series out before Carruth, sentenced in the 1999 shooting death of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, walked free from prison next week

“It’s actually quite bizarre, to be honest,” said the Globe's Allen, who wasn't aware of Charlotte's effort until this week. “This is the first time we’ve done an investigative report with a podcast. We didn’t know there was a market in NFL murderers.”

Aaron Hernandez's hands
Aaron Hernandez's hands (Photo: John Tlumacki, Boston Globe) 

The Globe got access to audio recordings of hundreds of phone calls the onetime Patriots tight end made when he was incarcerated and to documents that led them to new facts: Hernandez was apparently physically abused by his dad and sexually abused by a relative when he was a kid, and he had a sexual relationship with his high school quarterback.

Despite early success with the Patriots, he had mounting secrets: A beef at a Boston nightclub with two men who ended up dead; an encounter with a former friend, who was shot between the eyes but somehow survived; another fatal shooting, of the boyfriend of his girlfriend's sister. Odin Lloyd's body was found not far from Hernandez's home, keys in his pocket to a car that had been rented by Hernandez. Hernandez was convicted of that murder but, on April 14, 2007, acquitted in the deaths of the other two men. Five days after that acquittal, early in the morning, his lifeless body was discovered in his prison cell, hanged. 

In its research, the Globe found a previously unreported Hernandez meeting with Patriots Coach Bill Belichick where he said his life was unraveling and he feared for his loved ones. "The players knew, long before he killed somebody, that there was something wrong with Aaron Hernandez,” Allen said.

In Charlotte, Scott Fowler had spent two decades covering Carruth, a wide receiver convicted of conspiracy of murder in the slaying of Cherica Adams, 24. Podcast listeners hear parts of Adams' 12-minute 911 call, in which she talks about following Carruth's car to a movie theater — they were going to see a movie about a serial murderer — when another car pulled up and someone fired on her. (It turned out to be a hit man who said he was hired by Carruth).

Four bullets inside her, Cherica Adams would not live, but their son, Chancellor Lee Adams, would be delivered prematurely and survive. He is now 18, with cerebral palsy, and has been raised by the hero of this series, Saundra Adams, his grandmother. 

Fowler has spent time with Saundra Adams and Chancellor Lee over the past five years. Podcast listeners hear her talk about everything from how she named her "unique" daughter (a cross between Cher and the Eureka vacuum cleaner), her love for her grandson and her capacity to move forward. "The compassion and forgiveness that she has shown to really all the people involved in her daughter’s killing, it often makes me think as I’m going through life now (saying) 'What would Saundra do?' Somebody cuts you off in traffic, 'What would Saundra do?'" Fowler told The Washington Post.

Fowler may be hosting an event with Saundra Adams later this autumn that might be a coda for the podcast. He hopes that she could sell her inspiring story to Hollywood. 

Allen also has dreams of Hernandez's darker story finding a bigger home as well. He notes a modest upside: Hernandez's brain, tested after his death at 27, came back with unprecedented levels of traumatic brain injury for someone his age. Allen says scientists may learn much more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from Hernandez's brain, learnings that could help many others.

One last thing: Allen and Fowler are both interested in getting their journalistic teams together to swap notes on dual platform journalism and on what they've learned. They may need to invite Sports Illustrated, too. SI just launched its own NFL true-crime podcast, on the 2009 murder of former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair. 

Related: How Carruth, Hernandez podcasts are teaching traditional text reporters.

Quick hits

EXPANDING LOCAL FACT CHECKS: The AP says it has stepped up fact checking on the local and state as well as the national levels. “These local fact checks are of huge value to our members and customers across the U.S., and to a public hungry for objective, factual information, especially as we approach Election Day,” said the news service’s fact-check editor, Karen Mahabir.

HURRICANE-PROOF?: The Florida newspaper’s highly touted building hadn’t met a storm like Hurricane Michael before. Nonetheless, the journalists survived, and ventured out into a destroyed world. Then they planned the next day’s paper. By Poynter’s Kristen Hare.

FREED: She reported on the high number of deaths of suspects in Vietnamese police custody. Vietnam put her in jail for two years. Today, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh is free. She and her family were allowed to leave Vietnam, and she is planning on resettling in the United States, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported.

FINAL WORDS: "The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power." That's Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his last Washington Post column, published last night. His editor, Karen Attiah, said Khashoggi's translator delivered it the day after the Saudi columnist disappeared inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. "The Post held off publishing it because we hoped Jamal would come back to us," Attiah wrote. "Now I have to accept: That is not going to happen."

THE LEAD: Khashoggi got right to the point. "I was recently online looking at the 2018 'Freedom in the World' report published by Freedom House and came to a grave realization. There is only one country in the Arab world that has been classified as 'free.' That nation is Tunisia. Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait come second, with a classification of 'partly free.' The rest of the countries in the Arab world are classified as 'not free.'"

CAN IT HAPPEN HERE?: I'm struck by this line in Khashoggi's column: "A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative." He was referring to the Arab world, but …. 

ADDENDUM: Our story Wednesday on the killing of Khashoggi and of investigative journalists worldwide — among them, in Bulgaria, Malta, Mexico and Slovakia — raised the point of emboldened, empowered killers believing they had the right to slay bearers of bad news. Paul W. Gillespie reminded us that is exactly what happened in his Annapolis newsroom, Maryland’s Capital Gazette, on June 28. “Wendi, Rob, Gerald, John and Rebecca were killed doing their jobs by a man who did not like what we wrote,” Gillespie messaged me. “Remember them.” We will, Paul. 

PROMOTING LOCAL NEWS: Prolific journalism funder Craig Newmark has given $2.5 million to New York Public Radio to increase its coverage of New York-area news and promote the expansion and integration of its WNYC and Gothamist divisions. Last month, the Craigslist founder and philanthropist gave another $2.5 million to The City, a new local news site aligned with New York magazine.

A CHANGE AT KQED: Nearly a year ahead of time, San Francisco’s successful public media company announced its leadership would be shifting. KQED’s leader since 2018, John Boland will be retiring, and COO Michael Isip will replace him as president and CEO.

MOVES: Briana Younger is leaving YouTube/Google to join The New Yorker as the music editor and writer for Goings On About Town. Younger, who has been managing playlists on Google Play and YouTube Music streaming services with a focus on R&B and hip-hop, will be editing both the Night Life and Classical Music sections and writing about music and culture in print and online, according to a staff memo.

CHECK THAT SOURCE: Reuters withdrew a story that sourced a fake version of a Turkish newspaper site. The worldwide news service erroneously reported that the Saudi consul in Istanbul was pulled back to Riyadh.

On Poynter.org

  • Disclosure: We sent a fact-checker to that new fact-checking play on Broadway. He sorts it out. By Bill Adair.

  • He helped independent digital publishers chart a new course for local news. Now Matt DeRienzo is heading back to a newspaper publisher. Here’s why. By Kristen Hare.

  • WhatsApp stayed mum about democracy-threatening misinformation in Brazil. Then fact-checkers spilled the beans in the NYT. By Daniel Funke.

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Got a tip, a link, an NFL true-crime podcast idea? Please email me at dbeard@poynter.org or reach me @dabeard.

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