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From AJR,   October 1998  issue

Strike One, You’re Out   

By Bridget Gutierrez
Bridget Gutierrez is a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.     

It's not exactly journalism's dream team: Stephen Glass. Patricia Smith. Mike Barnicle. All were found to be making up material, and all lost their jobs. Now add another name to the list: James S. Hirsch.

Only in Hirsch's case, many are questioning whether he was an unfortunate casualty taking heat for the actions of wayward journalists before him.

In mid-August, Hirsch, 36, published a falsehood in the Wall Street Journal, ironically in an article about the Barnicle debacle. Near the end of the article, Hirsch, a reporter in the Journal's Boston bureau, wrote, "The Globe is owned by New York Times Co., which declined to comment." It's a seemingly innocuous sentence. The problem is the New York Times did have a comment--Hirsch just never checked.

After reading the article, Nancy Nielsen, vice president for corporate communications of the Times Co., called Hirsch to find out whom he had contacted for a comment. According to Nielsen, Hirsch said he hadn't actually called anyone and apologized.

Hirsch would not comment for this story, but in an interview with the Globe, he said he had called the Times on the Barnicle story twice during the summer and each time the spokeswoman declined comment, saying Times subsidiaries operate independently. He admitted that it was a mistake not to have called a third time.

The official statement, Nielsen says, is that all of the Times media properties have editorial autonomy and independence. Therefore, the company supports the Globe's right to make its own decisions. Perhaps it's not a very detailed declaration, but Nielsen stresses it "is a very strong statement about our philosophy because not all newspaper companies handle it that way."

Nielsen mentioned the incident to Chairman and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and together they decided Nielsen should write a letter to Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger. Sulzberger felt that if the situation was reversed, he would want to know about it, Nielsen says.

Steiger received the letter two days after the article was published. It was the first the Wall Street Journal had heard there was a problem. "We were stunned," says Richard Tofel, vice president for corporate communications for Dow Jones, the Journal's parent company.

Four days later on August 18, the Journal published a correction and "disciplined" the reporter. Tofel would not say whether Hirsch was fired or resigned but did confirm that the nine-year Journal veteran no longer worked for the company. In a New York Times article, Hirsch was quoted as saying that Steiger's deputy told him the incident was "a firable offense."

The same day, the Journal's union, the Independent Association of Publishers' Employees, filed a grievance claiming lack of sufficient cause for Hirsch's termination. But, referring to the factual points of the case, Tofel says, "This is a pretty cut and dried thing."

Not so, says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz. "The dismissal struck many journalists as particularly bizarre because what Hirsch did seemed so far from a firing offense." It was a mistake, Kurtz says, for Hirsch not to make clear that he had not spoken to the Times on that particular day. But, "If he had just changed a couple of words, there would have been no problem."

Kurtz adds, "The Journal may have been a little quick on the trigger because of the heightened atmosphere of suspicion surrounding some of the recent journalistic meltdowns." What Hirsch did was "about 4,000 light years away" from the offenses committed by Patricia Smith or Stephen Glass, he says.

Louis Hodges, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, agrees. Hirsch was definitely in the wrong, Hodges says, but firing him is "clearly an overreaction."

But Edward Seaton, ASNE president and editor in chief of Kansas' Manhattan Mercury, says the Journal's move is reasonable. "Fabrication is a very serious violation of journalistic standards. It did not surprise me that the Wall Street Journal took the action [it] took."

While each newspaper develops its own standards to determine what is or is not cause for dismissal, Seaton says, "There's not one newspaper in the country that doesn't take these things very seriously."

And this was not a minor point of the story, says Steve Geimann, Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee chair. When he read the original article and saw that the Times declined to comment, Geimann says, "I put some significance in that fact. I, as a reader, was misled."

Hirsch made a "fatal decision," Geimann says, because the statement suggests that the Times did not support the Globe's actions. " 'Declining to comment' and 'declining to comment on the internal actions of a company' are two different things."

While Geimann admits that firing Hirsch would be a "harsh action," it is nonetheless "commensurate" and "appropriate."

Steiger did not return phone calls from AJR, and Tofel would not comment on whether there had been previous problems with Hirsch's reporting. But this incident appears to have moved him out of journalism, at least for the time being. Hirsch has a new job with The Hubbell Group Inc., a Norwell, Massachusetts, public relations firm.

So what does this string of transgressions mean for the press? Is the term "ethical journalist" becoming an oxymoron?

"I don't think it makes sense to say..that journalism is going to hell in a handbasket," Hodges says. There's no evidence of a serious decline in standards, he says. And, he cautions, we have to place these unfortunate incidents in historical perspective. Compared to 150 years ago, when reporters frequently fabricated stories for political purposes, Hodges says, "We look very good indeed."