Trouble with Florida
Links to a.d.sullivan & info on Susan Walsh
The Herald News Florida sought me out after the Associated Press
splashed my name all over the country, saying something that had
apparently startled someone somewhere in the Herald News. Perhaps
Florida had disliked my wandering into his beat out of nowhere. He had
expected competition from the Star-Ledger and, perhaps, the Bergen
Record, but not the Secaucus Reporter. I had also brought up an aspect
of the case Florida should have checked out better. As an adjunct at
William Paterson College, Florida had access to many of the same people
Sue and I knew while at school there, and he hadn't thought to look
under that particular rock -- just one more sign of his immaturity as a
writer. He also apparently hadn't quite expected anyone to claim Sue was
faking it and had disappeared on her own, something quite different from
the standard line being broadcast on radio, television and the
I don't know if my saying Sue s disappearance was nothing new sent
shockwaves through the Herald & News or whether or not some editor on
the staff shouted for Florida to find out what I knew. Except for the
Nutley Journal, no other voice had raised the specter that there might
be something deeper going on here.
But Rumors about political influence inside the Herald & News went back
a long way, even to when I was a stringer on the Paterson News, rumors
which suggested that certain important people could shape the editorial
content of the paper in their favor, or, at worst, avoid truly
embarrassing news from being highlighted.
I was largely skeptical of these tales until later, when I moved from
the Paterson News to the Wayne Today s chain of weeklies after the
Herald bought the Paterson paper and fired its entire editorial staff.
My beat on the Today papers often overlapped with the Herald s coverage.
I began to notice how some stories seemed distorted when it came to
certain public officials. Many of these were Passaic County Republicans,
part of an elite power group centered around Little Falls, Nutley,
Totowa and Clifton. Later, in its attempt to gobble up even more of the
area s independent voices, the Herald bought out the Today papers,
though did not fire the reporters as it had done to the Paterson News.
We moved our offices into the Herald Building in Passaic, where I had a
glimpse of the newspaper's internal operations, and saw first hand the
influence the editors used on shaping the news.
Although the Herald put up a good front as a working class, muckraking
newspaper, it suffered many of the fundamental flaws of a Post Watergate
era. Its reporters were arrogant and aggressive as if each story
demanded their full hostility. Most of the time, they attacked sources,
rather than garnered information from them, and when they came upon
other reporters, they showed no mercy had blocking them from getting the
same information they did.
In one instance, I became target of that competition when I found myself
covering the same story at the same time with a Herald reporter who did
not recognize me as a reporter from his sister newspaper. We came to
cover the opening of a newly established historic society in Little
Falls, a society dedicated to celebrating the history of the area, one
of those community relations story that shouldn't have resulted in a
confrontation between reporters. But the Herald reporter knew only one
way to behave, and nearly fought me to keep me away from his source.
Later, when he saw me in the office, he apologized.
"That s just the way we do things on our newspaper," he told me.
The incident taught me to keep out of sight, to follow up on their
stories with greater care, letting them play tiger, while I played
sheep. But this aggressiveness didn't make for better stories. In fact,
the hurry with which they gathered information often resulted in
misinformation -- or what I thought were mistakes in gathering at the
time. Later, as I watched them operate, I saw something else going on,
something that seemed more like news management than reporting.
I began to compare my stories with those printed in the Herald, and
found startling discrepancies. This wasn't just a matter of
sensationalizing stories. While they did that, too, something else went
on in the editorial stage which I couldn't figure out at first. I would
go to the same places, listen to the same people, then come back and
write a story that should have resembled theirs -- and didn't. In fact,
their stories were often 180 degrees opposite of the ones I wrote.
When I confronted their reporters, I found this same defensive attitude,
and discovered also this was editorial policy. When I challenged their
facts, the reporters and editors again attacked me, saying I not only
got the story wrong, but I lifted their quotes -- even though in those
cases when the quotes were the same, I went back to the source to ask if
they were accurate, something I did on Sue s story. I found the Herald s
story had misquoted or, at best, misrepresented what the source said or
Only after much soul searching did I come to the understanding that
their defensiveness may have been guilt, and that the newspaper wasn't
merely setting up a business monopoly in Passaic County, but also an
information monopoly, information that could benefit certain individuals
in the political community. For the first time, I began to give the
rumors of an insider connection credence, though I had previously put
these off as the moans of sore losers.
Were the Herald & News and (as unlikely at it seems) the Star-Ledger
pawns for some larger political institution, some group that crossed
party lines to establish its own power base in the county and state?
Mayor Frank Graves never trusted the Herald, hating its slant, always
questioning who its coverage benefited.
In 1990, when I left the Today Papers in frustration, I still had
doubts, wishing to believe that the Herald was a paper full of
egocentric boobs, rather than a vehicle for someone s political order.
But then, after AP quoted me, I had one more chance to evaluate the
Herald & News, when Florida caught up with me at work for a telephone
Florida sounded upset when he called, and I could almost hear the echoes
of his editor s shouting in his voice, as if this unexpected turn had
caught them completely by surprise. Not only had their paper been
scooped on the news, but I seemed to pose a problem for them. If the
story of Sue s disappearance was being managed by the editors of two
papers, then my sudden appearance meant trouble. The last thing the
editors of either paper -- and the powers who pressed those editors to
keep Sue s story under control-- was someone who knew Sue asking the
wrong kinds of questions.
"Did Susan Walsh really disappear before?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "At college."
"Most of the time it was because she was in trouble with someone."
"Trouble? What kind of trouble?"
"I don t know all the details, but she used to get into arguments with
people. Most of what I know I heard from other people."
"Did she sleep around?"
"She was very sociable."
"Look, you know how college is," I said. "When you re a student, you
experiment with a lot of things, including sex."
"Did Sue experiment."
"I already said she did."
"No," I said.
"You didn't like her in that way?"
"I was editor to the literary magazine, she was managing editor to the
newspaper. She had literary aspirations. We talked a lot about art."
"And that s all?"
"Yes," I said, not bothering to tell him about the time Sue had tried to
seduce me, or about the men I d seen stumbling behind her in a blind
lust, full of pain and fury.
"What about her professors? Was she close to any of them?"
"She had an affair with one," I said.
"Really? You knew this for a fact?"
"It was common knowledge."
Then, we talked a little about her talent, about the stories she used to
write, about her poetry, and about Sue as a person, tiny details that
became clearer as I talked. Over the years, you tend to put these things
aside, the incidental things that define a person for you in the end.
The call lasted about a half hour, and afterwards, I understood how
charmed Florida's other sources had felt after they d talked to him. I
expected fair play in his newspaper. I got fucked.
When the story appeared, Florida had expanded upon his earlier
sensationalism, lumping my interview in with quotes from Billy Walker
and Al Goldstien, the first, an alleged stalker of Sue, the second, the
publisher of Screw Magazine. All of the softer edges of our conversation
vanished, and the figure Florida sculpted amounted to little more than a
lying slut. He hadn't exactly misquoted me. He had done something worse.
He had used my words to create an impression I never gave, manufacturing
my phrases to suit his own agenda. No, not his agenda. This a first
class rewriting job, far beyond the talents of a second rate writer like
Florida. Someone had reshaped my words for him, condensing them to fit
the prevailing myth that was being sold down in Nutley town hall.
I was shocked.
Someone had defused my threat by incorporating my words, trying with
great skill to sever me from those sources that might make their lies
seem obvious. Someone clearly didn't want me snooping around, and this
was an attempt to get people close to Sue to stop talking to me. Who
would want to talk to me after reading my quotes in the Herald?
I thought about confronting Florida. But why bother? He was clearly a
stooge for someone else. But who? Then, I thought about obtaining a
correction, and presumed that if I wrote directly to the editor, he or
she would back off this reckless behavior. You just didn't misquote
another reporter, no matter how skillfully. It just wasn't done.
At first, I thought Florida simply had intercepted my letter. He called
sounding concerned and suggested we should talk about my objections
"Talk? What is there to talk about?" I asked.
"I m in production now," he said. "We ll go into that later."
Maybe I should have waited to find out what he had to say. Perhaps he
would have clued me into the pressures he was under, the subtle
editorial influence that helped shape his work when it came to his
coverage of Sue. I just didn't think yet about the deeper implications
of his wanting to talk. I wanted satisfaction. I wanted to preserve my
credibility with my sources. I didn't need to talk, I needed a printed
retraction. So I mailed my objections to Florida s editor.
The replay was hardly satisfactory. Instead of answering my questions,
trying to work through the problem, his editor further attacked my
credibility by accusing me of lifting quotes from Florida s story to fit
in my own -- something I absolutely did, yet not without first checking
their validity with the original sources. The attack alarmed me. It told
me I had stumbled onto something far more serious than writer s
misshaping my quote. To tell you the truth, it scared me a little. Why
was the Herald & News so determined to paint Sue in such a specific way?
Florida s account of our interview did as much to discredit me as his
stories had done to discredit Sue, he twisting my words into fitting
with the standard line, despite the fact that I was saying much more
about Sue and her behavior.
The Herald had adopted a New York Post kind of journalism years earlier
in order to drag itself out of the financial gutter, splashing anything
on the front page as long as it resembled the truth. But some believe
this is actually a disguise for a much more serious flaw. Some local
reformers claim established parties in places like Nutley can get the
news shaped in the Ledger to fit their own agenda.
"They can get whatever spin they want on a story," one person said.
I decided to try and put together the various elements of Sue s
disappearance largely because things didn't make sense to me. I knew
enough about Sue to know the sensationalism didn't bother her. During
and after college, she thrived on it, though tended to manufacture her
own version of truth. I knew that if the headlines continued, Sue, who
had disappeared for short times in the past, might remain out of sight
for years. And this made me suspicious. If I knew this about Sue,
someone in the town of Nutley knew it, and perhaps gambled that a
continuing string of such stories would keep Sue away long enough for a
more permanent solution could be arranged to keep her quiet.
But quiet about what?
I was also struck by the low level of reporting both papers had put onto
the story, second-rate writers who couldn't even shape the material into
something with a reasonable emotional appeal, despite a host of editors
to help them. Why hadn't the editors given the story to good reporters
who could have shaped it into a decent human interest story? Both
stories tended to play off the Madonna/whore image rather than her
pursuit of power. This puzzled me, and, at first, I put it off to
inexperience. After all, Florida covered rose festivals, not murder
mysteries, and the local papers, such as the Nutley Sun, spent most of
their ink praising local officials, not questioning their connection
with exotic dancers.
For the most part, Florida and the others failed to grasp the
implications of their own story, nor did any of the reporters or editors
come to the natural conclusion that Sue s disappearance was not being
pursued properly. Local officials in Nutley -- even county prosecutors
seemed reluctant to chase down leads, even failing to follow up on
sightings in and around Nutley, Bloomfield, Belleville and Newark. It
was as if someone wanted Sue to remain hidden, possibly forever -- but
were not yet willing for a body to be found floating in the local
I ran the story in my newspaper because I was concerned and before I had
a chance to look deeply into the details of Sue s vanishing. I had gone
to the house, talked to friends, neighbors and family. I d even made the
routine phone calls to verify the facts published in the other
newspapers. But I was too busy with my own beat to begin the long
digging process that would uncover the dirty details behind Sue s
disappearance, the subtle connections that existed between her and the
town in which she lived, connections that -- knowing Sue s past -- had
to exist. She was an opportunist, addicted to power on any level, and
her six years living in Nutley was more than enough time for her to find
truly powerful men there.
Yet I didn't bother following up on all Florida s leads. I wasn't
intending on making an issue of his incompetence or his lack of writing
ability. I just wantewriting ability. I just wanted to help find her,
and if publishing the account in Hudson County helped to that end, I
gave it a shot. I did uncover Florida s misrepresentations, his sources
telling me of their dissatisfaction with the end product. I didn't even
question why the landlord wanted to keep such a low profile, presuming
Louis Riccardi was as embarrassed by the publicity as the rest of the
town. Perhaps Florida had accidentally used his name in print or
misrepresented the opinions of other sources whose quotes only
marginally dealt with Sue s dancing, and largely dealt
I had no intention of showing Florida up, and didn't even know he lived
in my beat until later when he called me up. His call, however, came as
a result of an interview I gave to associated press and shocked him. No
one else had bothered telling the press that Sue had vanished before, in
fact, had made a habit of disappearing, though never for as long as
this. The AP story burst onto the local scene and sent other reporters
Why hadn't anyone thought to ask before?
After running into Florida and his misrepresentation of my statements,
after being handed the same bullshit by his editor that I had gotten
when confronting them earlier, my wishes for their incompetence evapora
had gotten when confronting them earlier, my wishes for their
incompetence evaporated and I was left with the much firmer conviction
that someone -- most likely a group of people -- had infiltrated the
upper ranks of both the Herald and the Ledger in order to manipulate the
coverage, and those same people were now using that power to slant the
press in a specific way, to
But why? How could Sue -- who spent most of her time inventing myths for
herself -- cause such an uproar in the local community and force the
powers to exert their influence when they surely had more valuable use
for those resources? Were the tales Sue told about the Mafia and the CIA
all true after all?
This forced me to retrace the threads of my personal history with Sue,
making me dig up old handwritten journal entries I had stuck in a drawer
from those days when I had more regular contact with her. I also began
to call old friends from college, and many of those people I knew Sue
knew at college to find out, what was Sue like? And what kind of
validity could be placed in the tales she told? Could the Mafia or CIA
really be after her?