WASHINGTON – An investigative reporter’s quest to unmask the truth about a renowned civil rights photographer leading a double life as an FBI informant took more than a decade of reporting,litigation and formal mediation.
“We knew this was going to be an uphill battle,” David M. Giles,Scripps deputy general counsel and vice president,said. “We were taking on the FBI.”
In a panel discussion Thursday at the National Press Club,Perrusquia explained to the audience how he and the newspaper pieced together the story about Ernest Withers,a well-known photographer who had close access to Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
(The Scripps Howard Foundation is the corporate charitable arm of the E.W. Scripps Co.,but operates independently.)
Withers was not only taking photos of King and other leaders for newspapers,but he was also leaking personal and detailed information to the FBI.
He informed for the FBI from 1958 to 1976 and was paid for some of his information and photographs.
“Ernest’s daughter said she never heard this in her life,” Perrusquia said. “At one point they basically said I made this up.”
Withers was born in 1922 in Memphis and grew up poor. He didn’t have many opportunities and decided to work as a freelance photographer for newspapers in the city and for the black press across the country. During the civil rights movement,Withers was young,married and supporting his eight children.
David Garrow,a civil rights historian,said at that time money alone wasn’t enough of a motive to be an FBI informant.
He said he thought a majority of people who became informants did so “for the adrenaline and pleasure of playing secret agent man.”
“For some of these individuals,thinking they had the ear of the FBI or the ear of a part of the CIA sort of had an ego boost to tell them how important they were,” Garrow said.
Even though this was hugely exaggerated,the FBI feared the African American struggle was vulnerable to manipulation from Soviet Union agents,Garrow said.
Moderator Charles D. Tobin who represented the company in court,asked Mizell Stewart III,Scripps vice president of content for newspapers,why the newspaper pursued a story that happened more than 40 years ago.
Stewart said it was an important story to tell because not only did everyone in Memphis know Withers as a journalist who chronicled the movement,but they also saw him as a famous and trusted person in the community.
Also,he said,surveillance of private citizens was an explosive story no matter how many years have passed.
“In the ‘60s it wasn’t as much about electronic surveillance as much as it was about relationships and about human intelligence,” Stewart said.
The only way to get the story was through records compiled by the FBI.
Withers died in October 2007,and Perrusquia filed a FOIA request in February 2008.
“The FBI is an organization that does not often lose in FOIA litigations. It’s one of the frequent winners,” Giles said.
Giles said they felt that they had enough of a compelling story to tell,and the FBI couldn’t withhold records for criminal investigation purposes because Withers had died and no one was investigating civil rights activities.
However,the newspaper faced many challenges.
Giles said the FBI had the full resources of the U.S. government behind it,and some parts of the FOIA law favor the government.
After years of expensive litigation,the judge ruled mostly in favor of Scripps and advised the company,the FBI and the Justice Department to work out the details with a federal mediator.
Giles said the judge told the FBI it had no reason to hold the documents and was “protecting others and the government from embarrassment.”
In the end,Perrusquia got access to 70 files of classified documents that he said will probably produce more stories. “The 70 files really speak to what a prolific informant Withers was,” Perrusquia said.
In a time when many newspapers are struggling against changes in the news business,Giles said it was a big decision to take the case to court. It helped in the end that the company was reimbursed for 80 percent of its legal fees.
Perrusquia said Withers was not the only person in the civil rights movement,journalism or church leadership who provided information to the FBI. The reporter said that being an informant did not diminish Withers’ achievements in photography.
Reach reporter Zahra Farah at [email protected] or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.