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Bad: WaPo publishes error-ridden, fact-check-free story. Worse: The WaPo story is amazingly similar to a New Yorker story with the exact same theme that ran a week earlier

August 8, 2019
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Image: YouTube

Pardon my schadenfreude, but it’s Blooper of the Year Time for the Washington Post.

From the Washingtonian:

The correction on Korsha Wilson’s July 23 Washington Post feature about black families trying to hold onto their forebears’ farmland is gruesome. It’s 579 words long, a little more than a fifth of the length of the revised article. It has 15 bullet points. In print, it’s so long it has to jump from the first page of the Food section to the fourth.

“A previous version of this article contained many errors and omitted context and allegations important to understanding two families’ stories,” the correction reads. Among them: Wilson’s article misspelled the first name of a source’s grandfather, credited him with the wrong number of children with his second wife, misstated the number of acres sold in a partition sale, misquoted a source, “omitted key details that affect understanding of ownership of the land,” and on and on.

The errors in Wilson’s story are impressive, all right–but here’s something even worse: That July 23 story of hers looks like a rip-off–or at least a quickie knock-off–of a July 15 story by ProPublica reporter Lizzie Presser (co-published in the New Yorker) on the very same same topic: black farmers in the South who die without making wills, leaving title to their land in a muddle as multiple heirs (and possible freeloaders and squatters) squabble over ownership rights and leave themselves vulnerable to exploitation by developers if one of the heirs decides to sell out.

The big difference: Presser spent around nine months researching and writing her story, which involves a rural black family in North Carolina. I could be wrong because the time frame is short, but my bet is that Wilson spent about a week on hers, which involves a rural black family in Virginia.

Alternatively, of course, the amazing similarity of theme between the stories could be the handiwork of Thomas W. Mitchell, a law professor at Texas A&M who has been pushing a piece of legislation he has drafted which would alter the legal doctrine of “partition” so as to make it easier for heirs to clear title and keep family property in the family. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out that Mitchell had dug up both black families with their sad stories for Presser and Wilson to interview–so as to prod legislators in North Carolina and Virginia to get off their behinds and enact his pet project into law.

Here’s Mitchell in Presser’s story:

Thomas W. Mitchell, a property-law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, has drafted legislation aimed at reforming this system, which has now passed in 14 states. He told me that heirs’ property owners, particularly those who are African-American, tend to be “land rich and cash poor,” making it difficult for them to keep the land in a sale. “They don’t have the resources to make competitive bids, and they can’t even use their heirs’ property as collateral to get a loan to participate in the bidding more effectively,” he said. His law, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, gives family members the first option to buy, sends most sales to the open market, and mandates that courts, in their decisions to order sales, weigh non-economic factors, such as the consequences of eviction and whether the property has historic value. North Carolina is one of eight states in the South that has held out against these reforms.

And here is Mitchell again in Wilson’s story:

Mitchell is also working with lawmakers to introduce the Partition of Heirs Property Act, most recently passed by the New York legislature and introduced in 10 other state legislatures, including Virginia’s. The act would require “tenants in-common”, those living on the property, to come to an agreement about the sale of the property rather than one heir being able to force a partition sale with a developer. The goal is to help black families retain the asset of their families’ land, Mitchell says. “Stripping people of their real estate is stripping them of their wealth,” he says.

The above quotation is from the original, uncorrected version of Wilson’s story (reprinted by the U.K. Independent), so it contains a few errors. From the Washington Post‘s corrections:

A law proposed to protect heirs from losing land in partition sales is called the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, not the Partition of Heirs Property Act. “Tenants in common” are not solely defined as those living on a property; they are all those who own a share in the property. The act would not require heirs living on a property to come to an agreement before it can be sold, but would instead provide several other protections.

Here are a couple of other choice corrections:

• The first name of Emanuel Freeman Sr. was misspelled.

• Contrary to what was reported in the initial article, Freeman Sr.’s grandson, Johnny, did not refuse to move off a Halifax, Va., sidewalk for a white woman; he was talking to her, which drew the ire of some white locals, including the Ku Klux Klan. When a crowd gathered at the Freeman home where Johnny fled, gunfire was exchanged, and one family member’s home was set ablaze….

• A description by agricultural lawyer Jillian Hishaw of laws governing who inherits property when a landowner dies was a reference to the laws in most states, not more than 20 states. She was also generally describing these laws, not referring to Virginia law.

• A study the article said compared the prevalence of estate planning by older white and older black Americans was published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, not the National Library of Medicine, and was about possession of advance health directives, not estate planning.

Wilson’s article ran in the WaPo‘s food section–so maybe the WaPo’s food editor, Joe Yonan, was so preoccupied with culinary matters that he didn’t check around to make sure that his stories hadn’t already run elsewhere. Wilson is a widely published freelance food writer whose main claim to fame seems to be complaining that French cuisine isn’t “diverse” enough.

Posted by Charlotte Allen

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2 Comments
  1. Great blog!

    As an attorney, I find it very rare for poor families of all races to die with proper wills. In many cases, they are living in a house still titled in the name of a deceased relative. So long as someone pays the taxes, nobody cares what name is on the title.

    Thus, it is common for an old house, especially in a rural area, to have a title mess. My thought is that legislation making easier the transfer of title without full probate to homes worth less than $75,000 would be good policy. Because of the long history of sharecropping and associated peonage, poor people in the South, black and white, do not have a lot of reason to trust the local courts in many cases, and the probate judges cannot clean up title messes without litigation known as a “quiet-title action,” something expensive to someone who has a fractional interest in an ancestral home.

    Thus, in this case, I think the poverty of rural blacks in my native South is made worse by the legacy of slavery and its aftermath. I get lots of calls from people who have lots of legal work for a decayed family house.

  2. As you say, the situation is sadly all too common. Courts and lawyers cost money, and people don’t understand what their ownership rights are in inherited property where they’ve lived all their lives. They can get chiseled in partition sales where one tenant-in-common has already sold his interest to a developer. This is why everyone who owns real estate should have a will. Mitchell’s legislation perhaps solves these problems, although I haven’t looked at its details at all. I do wish that he weren’t apparently plugging it so hard to the press.

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