In the news market, credibility is in a real slump

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

When the news is in the news, the news is in trouble. And trouble runs deep right now as reports roll in of journalistic fabrications, falsehoods, felonies and just plain foolishness.

People are beginning to wonder whether today’s editors are becoming more gullible or reporters more mendacious.

The latest body blow to the media is the painful public apology by The Cincinnati Enquirer renouncing a series of stories alleging suspect business practices at Chiquita Brands International.

This wasn’t one of your run-of-the-mill confessions. In the front-page apology, Publisher Harry W. Whipple and Editor Lawrence Beaupre told their 334,000 Sunday readers that they had renounced the stories published in May, agreed to publish their apology on three separate days, withdrawn the series from display on the Enquirer‘s Web page, fired one of the reporters involved, and paid out more than $10 million as a settlement to the Cincinnati company.

The Enquirer‘s apology stands as an embarrassment of embarrassments. The sad litany for the past month alone:

  • Monday, June 8: Newspapers reported that The New Republic had completed an inquiry into the writings of Stephen Glass, an associate editor, and had determined that of the 41 articles he had written for the magazine, six were wholly fabricated and 21 were partially faked. Glass had been fired in May.
  • Monday, June 8: News accounts report that John F. Kennedy Jr., publisher of George magazine, had sent a letter of apology to Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan, explaining that the magazine’s profile of Jordan contained two unnamed sources that didn’t exist. The author of the piece was Stephen Glass.
  • Thursday, June 18: The Boston Globe announced that it had asked award-winning columnist Patricia Smith to resign after editors discovered she had fabricated information in four of her columns. The American Society of Newspaper Editors withdrew a distinguished-writing award it had given Smith.
  • Thursday, June 18: The Washington Post reported that the media had been a little too quick to accept at face value the heartwarming and heroic story of a seven-year-old girl saving her father by driving him to the hospital after he collapsed at the wheel. As it turned out, a nurse from a nearby hospital did the driving while the girl observed.
  • Friday, June 19: Steven Brill, editor and publisher of the new journal of media criticism, Brill’s Content, retracted a portion of an article in the just-launched magazine and apologized to The Wall Street Journal for “honest confusion” about the ground rules of an interview with a Journal reporter and said that he had been wrong about the newspaper’s reporting process.
  • Tuesday, June 23: After two weeks of controversy, Time magazine and Cable News Network announced they had appointed respected First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams to conduct an independent investigation into the accuracy of their report that the U.S. military had dropped lethal nerve gas in Laos during the Vietnam War.

Revelations of mistakes, missteps and misfeasance are always painful, but particularly so following in the wake of self-inflicted wounds incurred by the media during the frenzy over the Clinton-Lewinsky story. Not only was the coverage marred by rumor, innuendo, punditry and anonymous sourcing, but real mistakes were made – some of which were acknowledged by more-reputable news organizations, such as The Dallas Morning News and The Wall Street Journal, but some of which have not yet been admitted.

In the midst of all this, one might ask: “Where are the editors, the guardians of journalistic credibility, the people who are supposed to keep these things from happening?”

The job of the top news executive in newsrooms, print and broadcast, is to serve as a surrogate reader, to be skeptical, to be suspicious, and to know everything the reporter knows and more. It’s a tall order, especially if that person is distracted by things that have nothing to do with what goes out in the next report.

Of course, one never hears about the problems that these editors do catch and prevent from seeing the light of day. And it is all too easy to over-simplify the situation.

For example, in this miserable list of recent embarrassments, each incident results from an entirely different set of causes and circumstances. In some cases, there were unethical (perhaps criminal) acts on the part of reporters; in some, trusted journalists made things up; in some, the story was hyped beyond its facts and significance.

These are the sorts of things that have given added impetus and urgency to several media initiatives focusing on self-examination and self-policing, including The Freedom Forum’s Free Press/Fair Press project, a multi-million-dollar effort to improve fairness and accountability in the press.

But those efforts must be accompanied by hard work and constant vigilance in each newsroom.

Editors need to perform maintenance on the machinery in place to catch factual errors, ethical lapses, and follow-the-others reporting.

They need to make sure news priorities are properly arranged and journalistic principles are properly understood.

And they need to think twice the next time they are tempted to say Matt Drudge is not a real journalist because he doesn’t have an editor.

A newsroom truism is that good journalism means taking chances, and taking chances means getting burned once in awhile. But there are some things editors need to do to get burned less often and to make sure they are not the unwitting victims of reporters who fudge the truth and find fiction more fun than facts.

And in the struggle to win back their credibility, as well as their readers and viewers, they need to keep one dictum uppermost in mind:

“When it seems too good to be true, it usually is.”