ProPublica reporter gets the Treme treatment

The show's third season will feature a character based on A.C. Thompson

A.C. Thompson’s reporting on transgressions by the New Orleans police force in the wake of Hurricane Katrina led to an article in The Nation, a reporter position at ProPublica, three convictions (one since overturned) for the police officers involved in the murder of a man named Henry Glover, and, starting September 23, a character on HBO’s Treme.

Treme, written by former journalist David Simon, takes place in a post-Katrina New Orleans. Its third season premieres this Sunday at 10 p.m., when we’ll be introduced to a new character: L.P. Everett. Much like Thompson, Everett comes to New Orleans to investigate racially motivated violence during and immediately after the hurricane hit, only to find that members of a corrupt and dysfunctional police force are behind some of it.

Simon, Thompson, and Treme co-Executive Producer Eric Overmyer attended a panel sponsored by NYU, ProPublica, and HBO on Tuesday night to promote the show and discuss how Simon and Overmeyer are turning “real life” into “reel life.”

Thompson entered New Orleans as a freelancer, supporting his work through funding from nonprofits such as The Nation Institute. He eventually found that, a few days after Katrina hit, a 31-year-old father of four named Henry Glover was shot in the chest while walking with his friend, Bernard Calloway. Calloway and Glover’s brother, Edward King, flagged down a passing motorist named William Tanner. Glover was placed in the back seat of Tanner’s car, and the group set off for the nearest hospital. Tanner decided to drive instead to an elementary school being used by the SWAT team as a temporary base, because it was closer, and he figured that the police would be able to help and call an ambulance.

Instead, the police cuffed and beat Calloway, King, and Tanner, leaving Glover in the backseat of Tanner’s car to die. The three men were released, but Tanner’s car - and Glover - were kept in “police custody.” A few days after that, Tanner’s car was found. It was now a burnt-out shell with Glover’s remains in the backseat.

It was only after Thompson’s story broke that federal agents carried out a thorough investigation into Glover’s death. Ultimately, NOPD officer David Warren was convicted of shooting Glover in the first place; Officer Gregory McRae was convicted of burning his body; and Lt. Travis McCabe was convicted of writing a false report (that conviction was overturned).

Treme is a fictional show that is rooted in reality, much like Simon’s previous HBO series, The Wire, which featured The Baltimore Sun in its fifth and final season. Simon was a longtime Sun reporter, but his portrayal of the industry was generally unfavorable; cutbacks made good reporting more difficult to do, important stories were pushed to the back pages, and reporters who made up stories and sources were rewarded while the honest ones were demoted.

These issues are still present in journalism, but there are also nonprofit organizations such as ProPublica that can do in-depth investigative reporting without worrying about selling ads and pleasing advertisers. Before the panel, I asked Simon if he approached writing about nonprofit journalism differently than he did for-profit.

“I think reporting is reporting,” he said. Basically, the institutions that sponsor such reporting may have different objectives, but the work their reporters do is the same. While Simon focused his depiction of journalism in The Wire on the institution and the business’s shortcomings, “it was not an argument against professional journalism at all … the issue is the revenue stream.” He wonders if that revenue stream will be able to “support a beat structure” again. Reporters like Thompson can come into a city, uncover and expose grievous wrongs, and hope there’s a response. But what happens when Thompson moves on to his next assignment and New Orleans doesn’t have a beat reporter (or even a daily newspaper)? “The way you keep those institutions honest is by covering them every day,” Simon said. On the panel later, he added that “a thousand points of blogger light,” well-intentioned though they may be, cannot replace professional journalism.

Thompson told the mostly adoring crowd that he tried to be fairly hands-off when it came to how his fictional counterpart was written. As a journalist, he said he’s had nightmares about subjects of his stories telling him he depicted them incorrectly. His suggestions to Simon and Overmyer were “occasional,” Simon said, and usually only came when the show diverted from reality in ways that damaged that reality. Otherwise, Thompson said, he was content to let go and see where the story went.

Even so, it looks like L.P. Everett will stay fairly true to the man he’s based on - especially in regards to Thompson’s work. Everett will investigate a body found in a burned car and the NOPD’s involvement in that case.

I asked Thompson if he’d noticed that the actor playing Everett (Chris Coy) was 26 years old—Thompson was about a decade older than that when he went to New Orleans. Thompson laughed, saying that in movies and cinema, “youth often prevails.” What he’s seen so far of Coy’s performance, he added, was “tremendous.” And while it’s a “crazy honor” to work with Simon and Overmyer and see a depiction of himself on the TV screen, “doing work that has some kind of real-world impact, that actually helps bring about a modicum of justice and some sort of social change, is the most rewarding thing … it’s why I do what I do.”

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , ,