Competing on the Amy Bishop story

Who could have reasonably hoped during last year’s angst over the future of the Boston Globe that it would still be allowed to spend money and compete with its dominant corporate sibling, the New York Times? Yet here we are, and the Globe and the Times both have long, all-known-facts takeouts today on the bizarre case of Amy Bishop.

The Times is better at explaining why Bishop didn’t get tenure at the University of Alabama at Huntsville: apparently she just wasn’t that good. The Times, though, doesn’t mention Bishop’s years in Ipswich, an episode in her life on which the Globe is strong. The Globe quotes a neighbor named Arthur Kerr: “When she moved out everyone said, ‘Those poor people in Alabama.’ Little did we know.”

The Boston Herald runs a shorter piece focused on the immediate aftermath of Bishop’s fatal shooting of her brother, Seth, in 1986. It ends with a rather astonishing piece of information: Thomas Pettigrew — whose tale of having been ignored by authorities after Bishop allegedly pointed a gun at him 24 years ago has emerged as a key element — is being ignored once again.

Three major loose strands in Bishop case

Tomorrow marks the one-week anniversary of the Amy Bishop case. And it seems that we may not have even reached the starting line of this story, which began when the University of Alabama professor was accused of killing three of her colleagues at a faculty meeting.

There are three major strands, only one of which is being thoroughly explored at the moment. Give it time. We’ve only just begun.

1. Why was the 1986 Seth Bishop killing not thoroughly investigated? For the moment, this is the only aspect of the story getting a good airing. It simply makes no sense that a 21-year-old woman could shoot her 18-year-old brother, flee the scene, threaten others with a gun, and then have the whole thing explained away as an accident.

Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory has called for Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint “an independent prosecutor to investigate whether local and state authorities were corrupt or completely incompetent.”

At the very least, we are talking about a scandalous level of ineptitude. A proper investigation could implicate everyone from members of the Braintree police department all the way up to U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who was the Norfolk County district attorney at the time.

2. Who sent a letter bomb to Harvard Medical School professor Paul Rosenberg in 1993? Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, says he and Bishop were questioned and cleared. But there was never an arrest. And now Anderson has been caught saying something rather suspicious.

The New York Times reports that Anderson said they had received a letter from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that said: “You are hereby cleared in this incident. You are no longer a subject of the investigation.” But former U.S. attorney Michael Sullivan, who was the interim head of ATF at the time, tells the Boston Globe that it would have been highly unlikely for such a letter to have been sent out, especially given that Bishop had not publicly been identified as a suspect. Sullivan adds:

There probably were one or two times during my career as a federal and state prosecutor where I felt an obligation to give that type of letter because a person’s reputation was harmed through no fault of their own and there was an exoneration of the individual.

3. What did officials at the University of Alabama know and when did they know it? Given that Bishop was not charged in either the 1986 or the 1993 incident, I can certainly believe officials there had no way of knowing about her dubious past. But her odd behavior as a professor on the Huntsville campus is becoming an issue.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a colleague had said she was “crazy,” which may have been a factor in both her not receiving tenure and in a gender-discrimination complaint she filed. The professor asked not to be identified because he fears for his own safety. According to the Chronicle:

The professor, who was a member of Ms. Bishop’s tenure-review committee, said he first became concerned about Ms. Bishop’s mental health “about five minutes after I met her.” The professor said that during a meeting of the tenure-review committee, he expressed his opinion that Ms. Bishop was “crazy.” Word of what he said made it back to Ms. Bishop….

The professor was given the opportunity to back off the claim, or to say it was a flippant remark. But he didn’t. “I said she was crazy multiple times and I stand by that,” the professor said. “This woman has a pattern of erratic behavior. She did things that weren’t normal.” No one incident stands out, the professor said, but a series of interactions caused him to think she was “out of touch with reality.”

When he first heard about the shooting, the professor adds, his initial thought was “Oh my God. I bet it was Amy Bishop.”

According to the Associated Press, Bishop’s students knew there was something off about her as well.

Finally (for today), the Huntsville Times is compiling an archive of Bishop coverage that is well worth perusing.

Making sense of the Amy Bishop story

In my latest for the Guardian, I warn of the danger that news organizations will try to get too far ahead of a sensational story.

The biggest Boston story in 20 years*

Amy Bishop

The strange case of Amy Bishop is rapidly morphing into the biggest Boston news story in many years — the biggest, perhaps, since 20 years ago, when Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife, Carol, and jumped to his death as authorities were closing in.

At first, the story appeared neither to be local nor all that atypical as such things go. Bishop reportedly shot three colleagues to death at a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama, supposedly in response to not having received tenure.

But soon the Boston Globe broke two mind-boggling stories — that she had killed her brother with a shotgun when she was just 18 21 years old, and that she had come under suspicion in the attempted mail-bombing of one of her professors at Harvard University.

(Today we even learn there’s a Northeastern University angle. Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, are said to have met when they were undergraduates at Northeastern. From what we know so far, she apparently was not weaponized during her time as an undergrad.)

I’ve been thinking hard about whether there has been a bigger local story in the post-Stuart years. Yes, the 9/11 attacks began at Logan Airport, but that angle was quickly subsumed into the larger national story. Louise Woodward? A big one, yes, but not nearly as big as this may become.

At moments like this, it always makes sense to think about what we’ve learned from the past and how that might apply in the present situation. The Stuart case, you may recall, was a media fiasco. Nearly everyone went along for the ride when Stuart blamed the shooting on a black man who set up on him and his wife as they were driving home from a childbirth class at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.

In fact, Stuart had shot his wife for insurance money so he could open a restaurant, then shot himself. That neither law-enforcement officials nor the media questioned his initial story set back race relations in a significant way, and stained the legacy of then-mayor Ray Flynn, who’d made racial harmony his top priority.

In the Bishop case, no one is questioning that she shot fellow faculty members on Friday. Still, the fact that she was never charged — never mind convicted — in the earlier incidents ought to give us pause. (The killing of her brother was ruled an accident, though the reasons are unclear. A Boston Herald story about a man who says Bishop threatened him with a gun right after the shooting certainly raises questions.)

The Globe showed a lot of enterprise in digging out those stories about Bishop’s background. But it may be a while before we know how they fit into the larger picture.

*Update: Andy Smith asks, “wasn’t that priest thing kind of a big deal?” Indeed it was, and I’m glad I threw this out there before writing a more-considered version for the Guardian tonight.