Speeding Past Red Flags  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   September 1998

Speeding Past Red Flags   

There were warning signs before the recent journalistic embarrassments.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      



HINDSIGHT, AS THEY say down on the Cliché Corner, is 20/20. It's always easy to say with great certainty the morning after that the quarterback never should have thrown that pass into heavy coverage, that the shooting guard never should have launched that brick from downtown.
That's even more the case when it comes to journalism. After a story blows up, it's not much of a challenge to sift through the wreckage and blithely point to all of the things that should have been done differently.
And yet...
In examining some of the field's recent high-profile embarrassments, one striking theme emerges: It didn't have to be this way. There were warning lights aplenty along the road to disaster.
Take the case of CNN's ill-fated ``Valley of Death'' broadcast, the one that asserted that the U.S. military in Laos used lethal sarin nerve gas in an effort to kill American defectors.
Now step back for a minute. These are two mind-boggling assertions: The United States used poison gas? On its own people? Are you kidding me?
We've learned enough about unsavory behavior by our government that you don't have to be Oliver Stone to believe it is capable of doing bad things.
But this is pretty atrocious stuff. Before going on the air with such allegations, you had better be sure you've got it dead solid perfect.
Yet one of the broadcast's defining characteristics is that the on-camera interviews are not nearly as definitive as the program's assertions. Isn't that a hint? If you are a top network executive or senior producer, shouldn't the question be: Why not?
That doesn't mean, of course, that the conclusions are wrong. But it does mean that you haven't established that they are right. It means more reporting, and a more skeptical look, are needed.
What's more, the two people at CNN who should know the most about the subject, the military analyst (who has since resigned) and the Pentagon correspondent, had big problems with the piece. But the alarms they sounded were ignored.
Or take the case of Patricia Smith and her fabricated columns . What's particularly eerie about this episode is that it's practically a case of déjà vu.
Nearly three years ago, a Boston Globe assistant managing editor named Walter Robinson became suspicious that Smith was making things up. Robinson investigated, and he was unable to track down and verify the existence of numerous people in her columns.
That, of course, didn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were bogus. But it sure raised serious questions--questions the Globe top management chose not to put to Smith directly.
Instead of asking her if she had lied, why the people couldn't be found, it put into place a system designed to prevent future fabrications.
But it really wasn't much of a system. The senior editor who was supposed to spot-check the accuracy of her columns says he didn't do so. And half of her columns were edited on Sunday, when the editor wasn't in the office and no one on duty knew of doubts about the authenticity of Smith's work.
This May, Robinson's antennae once again sensed fiction. Once again he investigated. Once again people Smith had written about couldn't be found.
But this time Robinson could prove some of them didn't exist. This time the Globe did confront Smith with its disheartening findings. She admitted what she had done, and she resigned.
What would have happened if top management had confronted Smith the first time? Perhaps Globe readers would have been spared a rash of dishonest columns. And perhaps the Globe itself would have been spared the humiliation of explaining why it had nominated a fabricator for a Pulitzer Prize, and of seeing the American Society of Newspaper Editors withdraw a writing award it had conferred upon Smith.
The case of the Cincinnati Enquirer's Chiquita story is trickier. Here, a hard-hitting piece of investigative reporting fell apart not because of fabrications or inadequate, over-hyped reporting. The paper said it was compelled to ``renounce'' the series because, it alleged, reporter Mike Gallagher had based his articles in part on voice mail messages stolen from Chiquita.
But even in this case there were warning flags. Editor Larry Beaupre had learned that his reporter wasn't just receiving bootlegged copies of the messages from some whistleblower; he was accessing Chiquita's voice mail system on his own. The editor told the reporter not to do it anymore. But the damage had been done.
Gallagher had told Beaupre that he had gotten the messages from a source with access to everyone's voice mail at Chiquita. Turns out there is no such person. But Beaupre, who had worked with Gallagher for a long time, did what editors ultimately have to do: He trusted his reporter.
Because that's what the system rests on. Sure, you raise questions and challenge assumptions and check facts and put the reporter's work to the test. But when it comes to the issue of integrity, you trust the reporter. If you have serious reason to believe a reporter might be making things up and lying to his employer, it's time for that reporter to be someplace else.
The trust between editor and reporter is an almost sacred thing. If the Chiquita fiasco seriously damages that relationship, that would be one of the most costly consequences of the recent epidemic of journalistic shame.

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