Friday, May 16, 2003

Faking the News

The New York Times committed some of the same sins as the Tri-State Defender.

Posted By on Fri, May 16, 2003 at 4:00 AM

When The Memphis Flyer uncovered serial plagiarism and a pattern of bogus stories at the Tri-State Defender last month, I thought it was the worst case of journalistic fraud I would see for a while. After reading Sunday about the adventures of Jayson Blair at The New York Times, I'm not so sure.

The Tri-State Defender, according to insiders, has a circulation of about 6,000. Counting Internet subscribers, The New York Times has a circulation of millions. Blair, a 27-year-old reporter, made up quotes, datelines, and descriptions while also plagiarizing the work of others in at least 36 stories since last October.

The Defender made no effort to clear the record. The Times is making a huge effort. Both papers said they were victimized by a rogue reporter. That's off the mark. Serial fraud can only happen when there's trouble at the top. I say that based on my interviews with former key employees of the Defender, published accounts in the Times, and my own experience, including being plagiarized by the Times six years ago.

The Times, according to a spokeswoman quoted in The Wall Street Journal, wrote 50 corrections of Blair's work during his career, only six of which were caused by other employees. That is a remarkable record of inaccuracy and a remarkably tolerant error policy. I have worked for three news outfits in 24 years -- United Press International, The Commercial Appeal, and Contemporary Media, the parent of Memphis magazine and The Memphis Flyer, and freelanced for half a dozen more, including the Times. A string of unintentional errors (misspelled names, wrong titles, quotes misattributed or imprecisely recorded) in a month or two would earn you a reprimand and possibly a demotion or desk assignment. Falsifying a dateline, which is a news organization's way of telling its audience that its reporter was on the scene, is a firing offense. I can only remember it happening a couple of times (once for a concert review), and it was the talk of the newsroom both times and raised lasting suspicions about the reporters who did it.

A rogue can fool readers who either have no way of detecting bogus stories or suspect them but don't bother to do anything about it. But you can't fool colleagues, who tend to be savvy, gossipy, and pretty honest when not covering their asses.

At the Defender, a second employee -- former classified-advertising manager Myron Hudson -- has come forward to support the accusation of former managing editor Virginia Porter that the plagiarist was the newspaper's owner, Tom Picou, writing as a "consultant" under made-up bylines.

"As a former, 11-year employee, I can emphatically state that Tom Picou is Larry Reeves/Reginold Bundy or any other alias he might have used," said Hudson. Picou said Reeves is an elderly white guy who wrote 142 stories for free and never came to the office.

The Times is doing a thorough investigation and disclosure of Blair's sins and its internal policies, to a point. "Let's not begin to demonize our executives -- either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher," cautioned publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. What's next? The investigative Pulitzer? According to the Times account, some of Blair's editors and colleagues were wise to Blair and complained about his errors and deceptions long before he resigned two weeks ago. (See Viewpoint, page 13.)

I would say I can't imagine higher-ups failing to heed such a stern warning, but the trouble is, I can. In 1996, I wrote a package of stories for Memphis magazine about Tunica and the casinos. Three months later, on an autumn morning, I opened a copy of the Times we got at the office and was flattered to see several bits of my work in a front-page story on Tunica by a veteran Times reporter. The problem was, there was no attribution to me or Memphis whatsoever.

Once you know where to look, plagiarism is easy to spot, like shoplifting caught on tape. In this case, I had spent several weeks researching the stories and had plenty of time to loaf, rewrite, interview people, travel, collect stories, and play around with the abundant statistics in the monthly reports of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. I found the smoking guns right away, and Memphis publisher Kenneth Neill packaged them in a letter and dashed off a polite but firm objection and request for a printed apology and correction.

To make a long story short, it took us a month, a lawyer, and a few more letters to get it. Maybe that's understandable. A newspaper's first duty is to its employees. The "editor's note" was roughly two parts defense of the Times and one part grudging apology. We asked for and got nothing more.

The Commercial Appeal and The Village Voice did articles about it. The big journalism watchdogs, Columbia Journalism Review and American Journalism Review, were silent even though they routinely write about similar sins of lesser papers. The Times also never mentioned this little incident when writing about plagiarism at other papers.

We were the first to agree it was hard to believe, not at all like the Times. But there it was in black and white with "All the News That's Fit to Print." I still read and enjoy the Times, but I've never looked at it quite the same way. Now I suppose other readers won't either.

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