JOURNALISM AT ITS WORST

By Murray Chass

July 31, 2011

Under the law, a dead man cannot be defamed. The New York Post nevertheless defamed the late Barry Halper last week.

In a journalistically indefensible page one article, the Post accused Halper of swindling buyers of items from his vast memorabilia collection by passing off uniform shirts, baseballs, historical documents and other artifacts as authentic when they were really fakes.Barry Halper 225

What the Post didn’t tell its readers was the background of one of the two writers whose names appeared on the story. Peter Nash, a self-proclaimed collector himself.

Nash, a former rapper, has developed a notorious biography in recent years. In 2009, as the result of a lawsuit he filed against a memorabilia auction house, a New Jersey Superior Court judge ordered Nash to pay Robert Lifson and his auction house $760,000 “for the causes of action including but not limited to fraud as found by” the judge, Yolanda Ciccone.

In addition, the judge issued a warrant for Nash’s arrest “to enforce litigant’s rights” – that was Lifson.

But here is Nash accusing Halper of fraud when he himself was found to have defrauded a memorabilia dealer. Yet the Post ignored that fact, identifying Nash simply as a blogger who writes for haulsofshame.com and is working on a book titled “Hauls of Shame: The Cooperstown Conspiracy and the Madoff of Memorabilia.”

“My article wasn’t about me; it was about an article I wrote on my Web site,” Nash said in a telephone interview Saturday. The information about him, he said, has appeared in “numerous articles,” adding’ “I don’t have to write about my lawsuit in every article.”

That’s one of the problems I have with bloggers. They don’t understand the basic rules of journalism. But then the Post apparently doesn’t either. A newspaper has an obligation to its readers to tell them of any possible conflicts of interest or background of their writers that might be relevant to the article.

I believe that very few other newspapers, if any, would have run that story had they known Nash’s background filled with conflicts of interest. It’s the kind of situation that on rare occasion eludes the editors of The New York Times and then requires a huge editor’s note on page two of the paper.

Besides neglecting to mention Nash’s $760,000 penalty and arrest warrant stemming from the suit alleging memorabilia fraud, the Post ignored another significant element its readers might have found worth knowing.

When Halper decided to sell whatever memorabilia remained after a 1999 Sotheby’s auction of his collection, he hired Robert Edward Auctions to handle the sale. R.E.A. is the house owned by Robert Lifson, who demolished Nash in their lawsuit.

It would not take a great leap of suspicion to believe that Nash’s Post article about Halper was his revenge.

Asked about the possibility of people harboring that suspicion, Nash said, “People can have their opinion. I have no comment on that.”

I tried asking a Post editor about the absence of information about Nash with the article, but when I told him the reason for my call he quickly connected me to the extension of Brad Hamilton, a Post reporter who was Nash’s co-author. Hamilton, however, didn’t answer and didn’t return that call.

This was not a case of the Post’s not knowing Nash’s background. It ran an article last October in which the lawsuit was mentioned.

That the Post would not provide full and significant disclosure should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the tabloid. Before Rupert Murdoch bought the Post from Dorothy Schiff in 1976, it was not only a reputable newspaper but a good one with the best sports section in New York. Now neither the paper nor the sports section is worth its weight in newsprint.

Peter NashThe Halper article is the kind of story the Post thrives on. It fits the practice that a former Post sports writer articulated: never let the facts get in the way of a good story. And he made sure they didn’t. The Post, under Murdoch, has long followed the same practice.

That is not to say that nothing Nash (at left) wrote about Halper was correct. Even Halper’s son, Jason, a New Jersey lawyer, has acknowledged that his father’s collection might have included some inauthentic pieces among what he said were more than one million items.

“My father was not a forensic expert,” Jason Halper said in response to the Nash accusations, “and he never claimed to be an authenticator, and he certainly may have been gullible when he was presented with exciting finds.”

Furthermore, he said, “When certain items were said to be replicas and not originals, he either did not sell them or he expressly relabeled them as replicas without dispute. This includes the Ty Cobb, Pud Galvin, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth uniforms referenced by Mr. Nash in his article. In fact, many of the items identified in Mr. Nash’s article, such as the Ty Cobb shotgun, were not sold at all by my father. Evidently, Mr. Nash did not want such facts to get in the way of his public smear campaign.”

Or to get in the way of a good story.

I am less interested in the debate over good memorabilia and bad memorabilia than I am about the issues the Post has created by ignoring Nash’s background. But I looked into one of Nash’s accusations, one concerning the Hall of Fame and the part of Halper’s collection that Major League Baseball bought and gave to the Hall.

Allegedly finding problems with various items, including a uniform shirt purported to have been worn by Shoeless Joe Jackson, Nash wrote, “Curators ultimately decided to not exhibit some items and returned them to Halper.”

Asked if the Hall had rejected items from Halper’s collection, Brad Horn, senior director of communications at the Hall, said in a telephone interview, “In one instance we have addressed an item from that collection. It was in the Fall of 2010. Joe Jackson’s jersey showed some inconsistency with the timing so we removed it from display.”

Nash mentioned the Jackson jersey, which had been previously written about, but he used the plural “items.” Has the Hall rejected other Halper items?

“Jackson is the only item we reviewed and made a conclusion,” Horn said.

Were any other items returned to Halper?

“Not that I have specific knowledge to,” he said. “I don’t think I have that information.” Would he know it if anything else had been returned? “I think I would have that information,” Horn said.

In my telephone conversation with Nash, he claimed to have evidence to support every one of his multitude of allegations of Halper’s fraud. He said it was too simplistic to say that Halper was naïve and gullible and was swindled himself in buying items that turned out to be fakes.

On the other hand, a man who knew Halper probably better than anyone said that might have been Halper’s problem precisely.

“Whether you want to call him gullible or too trusting of people, there was a certain naivete to Barry,” said Marvin Goldklang, also a limited partner in the Yankees and long-time friend who lived across the street from Halper in Livingston, N.J.

“That makes it possible that items in his collection were not authentic, but did he ever intend to defraud anyone? Absolutely not.”

I knew Halper, who died in 2005, from the time he became a limited partner of George Steinbrenner in the Yankees’ ownership. Ours was a professional relationship, and I found him to be a good and honest man.

He periodically invited me to see his collection, which he housed at his home in Livingston, N. J., but I never found the time for what I figured would likely turn into an all-day visit.

And anyway I wasn’t a fan of memorabilia. I have never collected and have never understood the mad desire to pay lots of money for old bats and balls.

All of that said, I would be surprised if Halper were the evil person Nash has portrayed him to have been. I doubt that Halper had a fraudulent bone in his body.

I don’t know Nash at all. Saturday was the first time I spoke with him. The Post story, he said, resulted from the paper’s contacting him after reading his blogs about Halper and asked him to write one for the Post. He said he had written probably 30 articles about Halper for his Web site. He sounds like a man obsessed. I haven’t written nearly that many columns about Marvin Miller.

Goldklang offered a few reasons why Halper was not out to con anyone, as Nash charged. For one thing, Goldklang said in a telephone interview, Halper was not in the memorabilia business to sell the items he collected.Barry Halper TSN Cover

“His plan was to create a museum,” Goldklang said, “not sell things. Most of the stuff he acquired wasn’t for the purpose of selling it.”

Goldklang’s best reason, I thought for Halper’s being legitimate with his memorabilia collection involved the Yankees.

Nash’s article began with a 1985 scene at Yankee Stadium in which Steinbrenner, manager Yogi Berra and several players were posing for a picture for The Sporting News wearing old uniforms from Halper’s collection. The uniforms were all fake, Nash wrote.

If they were fakes, did Halper know it? Not a chance, Goldklang said.

“Barry was afraid of George,” Goldklang said. “I know how important his relationship with the Yankees was to Barry and he never would have done anything to jeopardize that.”

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.