London Observer plays carpetbagger on House of Death story

Dear editors,

I just read with great interest the House of Death story published today in the Observer (story here), and it appears you got the "narrative" straight.

As you recall, it starts out with this breathless teaser:

When 12 bodies were found buried in the garden of a Mexican house, it seemed like a case of drug-linked killings. But the trail led to Washington and a cover-up that went right to the top. David Rose reports from El Paso

But your honesty about how the Observer obtained a good share of the source material for this startling story, particularly the reams of documents that you concede were utilized for your story, is not so straight, it appears.
I have every reason to believe the writer, David Rose, submitted a different version of the story than was finally published, and that he did include proper credit for his sourcing, and that you, the editors, chopped and diced that proper attribution in order to make it appear your newspaper did all the work and to ensure the advancement of your careers and paychecks.

I guess that is a not too surprising human weakness, since it surfaces time and again in the mainstream media, but I'm a bit surprised to see it playing out in the London media, even as you slap the U.S. press for its shortcomings -- as the following line from the Observer story illustrates:

The US media have virtually ignored this story. The Observer is the first newspaper to have spoken to Janet Padilla, and this is the first narrative account to appear in print."

I do concede Rose, to his credit, was the first to interview Padilla, the wife of one of the House of Death murder victims.

But, in fact, the first story Narco News printed in April 2004 was a narrative account (link here) -- as were others that followed.

But I guess the word in "print" is how the Observer's claim is justified. Still, it's quite a sleazy defense, and not even entirely accurate. Mexico’s news magazine Proceso actually published a long narrative account of the House of Death in late October – “in print.”

Are only magazine articles written in the English language considered to be “in print” by your calculations?

And then there is this line from the story:

But Ice and its allies in the DoJ were covering up their actions, helped by the US media - aside from the Dallas Morning News, not one major newspaper or TV network has covered the story.

The Dallas Morning News has a very spotty record in covering the House of Death story as you should have picked up on while you were using Narco News as a cheat sheet. In fact, the Morning News has failed to pursue the role of the Department of Justice, or the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in the House of Death cover-up and completely dropped its coverage of the story for nearly a year at one point. But technically they did cover the story.

So why wasn't Narco News given the same credit, as opposed to this puzzling one line reference to Narco News in the story:

Bill Conroy, a reporter who works for an investigative website,, was about to publish an article about it.

Does that mean Narco News actually published a story, or was it only about to?

In fact, Narco News has published 41 stories on the House of Death since April 2004. And it has aggressively investigated the U.S. government’s cover-up of its complicity in the mass murder case -- even during the year or so lapse when no one in the mainstream media, not even the Dallas Morning News, was covering the story.

Again, those facts speak to the very sleazy editing on your part, considering you, as the editors, know that there is absolutely nothing in the Observer story that Narco News has not already published, other than the Padilla interview. You concede as much by taking credit, as mentioned previously, for being the first “to have spoken to Janet Padilla,” and then going on to claim your story “is the first narrative account to appear in print," which has already been discredited. But why would you even choose those words “in print” if someone else had not already published the same information online (namely Narco News). Why wouldn’t you just claim to be the first to publish, period?

And you also know all those documents mentioned in the Observer story are on the Narco News Web site, some for years, and they were only obtained by Narco News after much dogged reporting work (some through the Freedom of Information Act) and not without a risk, in some cases, to the sources who provided them to Narco News. In fact, some of those documents only showed up in court pleadings as exhibits after they were first published online by Narco News.

That's why these lines from your story are puzzling:

Now, as a result of documents disclosed in three separate court cases, it is becoming clear that his [Luis Padilla’s] murder, along with at least 11 further brutal killings, at the Juarez 'House of Death', is part of a gruesome scandal, a web of connivance and cover-up stretching from the wild Texas borderland to top Washington officials close to President Bush.

These documents, which form a dossier several inches thick, are the main source for the facts in this article.

This wording would lead most readers to conclude that the Observer dug up the documents first. Why wouldn't the newspaper credit Narco News as the source of those documents, or at least mention they can all be found on the Narco News Web site? You obviously liked the title of Narco News' series on the mass murder case ("The House of Death") to the extent that you saw fit to appropriate it for the Observer story, which as you know is headlined: "The House of Death."

So, again, I believe the writer, David Rose was honorable in his dealings with Narco News, but you, the editors, were not so, and should concede your failings on that front.

But the reality is that none of this surprises me. Proceso in Mexico did the same thing to us – made use of Narco News’ reporting work in their House of Death story without giving credit to Narco News. (At least Rose managed to convince you, the editors, not to cut out Narco News completely.)

The silver lining in all this is that the story got in front of some more readers. And I suspect they don’t really care how sleazy you, the editors, acted in getting that story to them.

Or do they?

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