Category Archives: Fabrication

Daley News: Preserving Disorder in Trump’s Washington

Richard J. Daley.
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, in an official photo by Laszlo Kondor. (University of Illinois Library Archives)

By Casey Bukro

Powerful men often have a way with words, although not always in the way we might expect.

Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago was famous for malapropisms, often saying the opposite of what he meant. He was Chicago’s powerful mayor for 21 years, and an example for journalists taking measure of Donald J. Trump.

Daley was the undisputed Democratic kingmaker in Illinois and beyond until his death in 1976, both feared and respected. Daley was a force in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential victory, leaving lingering hints of vote fraud. A dressing down by Daley could leave his underlings in pools of sweat.

But his speech was sometimes tangled and mangled, often while he was agitated or angry. Such as the time he was talking about the battle being waged by police against street violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

“Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all,” the mayor said. “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

Continue reading Daley News: Preserving Disorder in Trump’s Washington

Fake News Trumps True News

Boston Globe fake news page.
The Boston Globe publishes fake news as an editiorial-page spoof in April, 2016.

By Casey Bukro

Fake news might have proved more interesting to readers than the factual stuff.

This sobering thought has churned angst over whether social-media falsehoods contributed to Donald Trump’s presidential victory, not to mention whether the upset win could have been foreseen.

News consumers tend to believe reports that support their personal beliefs — an effect that psychologists call confirmation bias. People like to believe they’re right. In the election run-up, they clicked their way across the internet to prove it.

As President-elect Trump selects the people who’ll help him govern, observers are picking through the rubble trying to understand the forces behind a Republican victory. Here our concern is news-media accuracy and ethics.

Let’s start with something basic. What is fake news?

“Pure fiction,” says Jackie Spinner, assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, appearing on WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago in a “Chicago Tonight” program devoted to separating fact from fiction in internet news feeds.

“It’s something made up,” adds Spinner. “It’s fake.”

But as the WTTW program points out, “fake news is on the rise, and it’s real news.” Some false reports, such as campaign endorsements from Pope Francis, survived many a news cycle.
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Rolling Stone In the Penalty Phase of a Faulty Rape Story

Rolling Stone article
Rolling Stone retracted the article in its December 2014 issue months later.

By Casey Bukro

Rolling Stone retracted its 2014 story about an alleged gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house after admitting post-publication doubts about the story’s accuracy. You might wonder what a blunder like that might cost a publication, and now we know.

The magazine was hammered by lawsuits. In November 2016, a federal court jury in Charlottesville, Va., awarded $3 million in damages to a former U.Va. associate dean, Nicole Eramo. The jury found that the Rolling Stone article damaged her reputation by reporting she was indifferent to allegations of a gang rape on campus. Eramo oversaw sexual violence cases at U.Va. at the time the article was published.

The jury concluded that the Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was responsible for defamation with “actual malice,” which usually means a reckless disregard for the truth.

Continue reading Rolling Stone In the Penalty Phase of a Faulty Rape Story

The Peeping Tom Chronicles: Gay Talese’s New Journalism Tease

Gay Talese
Author Gay Talese (Wikipedia photo)

Update: “I should not have believed a word he said,” author Gay Talese said after the Washington Post informed him that property records showed that the subject of his latest book,  a Peeping Tom motel owner, did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988. While Talese disavowed his latest book in the Post’s report, he and his publisher defended the book to the New York Times.

By Casey Bukro

One questionable ethical episode after another piles up in the New Yorker’s excerpt of a forthcoming Gay Talese book. In “The Voyeur’s Motel,” a serial Peeping Tom owner of a motel might have witnessed a possible murder. He invites Talese to join him in secretly watching a couple have sex.

By Talese’s own admission, there’s reason to believe some of the story is not true.

It’s possible the New Yorker was swayed by the author’s fame in publishing a titillating account of voyeurism. The Aurora, Colorado, motel owner kept detailed written accounts of what he saw through the ceiling ventilating system grille openings over more than a dozen rooms. Talese writes that he could not verify some details, including the murder. He shrugs it off as poor record-keeping.

Although the motel owner, Gerald Foos, admits to being a voyeur since the age of 9, he considers himself a researcher of human sexual habits. Talese knows the subject as well, having explored it in 1981’s “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” He’s also an inventor of New Journalism, a style that depends heavily on subjective observation.

“Over the years, as I burrowed deeper into Foos’s story, I found various inconsistencies – mostly about dates – that called his reliability into question,” Talese wrote in the New Yorker excerpt. Most editors might balk at publishing a story on which the writer himself casts doubt upon its reliability. But the New Yorker forged ahead.

At least Talese points to the holes in his story. Under the rules of Old Journalism, that would have qualified “spiking” the piece.

Continue reading The Peeping Tom Chronicles: Gay Talese’s New Journalism Tease

Bill Green, Ombudsman Exemplar, Unsparing on Post’s Failure

 

green

Bill Green set the standard for ombudsmen while investigating the Janet Cooke hoax at the Washington Post. (Post photo).

By Casey Bukro

Bill Green, an ombudsman’s ombudsman, was not even sure what the job entailed when he was called on unexpectedly to unravel one of journalism’s most famous ethical failures.

Green was only weeks into the job as Washington Post ombudsman on Sept. 28, 1980, when the Post published “Jimmy’s World,” the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict with “needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.”

So compelling and detailed, the front-page story written by 26-year-old reporter Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing on April 13, 1981.

Almost immediately the story about the unnamed boy, and Cooke’s background that appeared when the prize was announced, started falling apart.

The story that followed is especially notable for two reasons. One is that falsehoods often fail sooner or later. The other is that Green, an editor of small-town newspapers who took a year’s sabbatical from Duke University to serve as the Post’s reader advocate, wrote a blistering report on the Post’s editorial lapses that is a model of journalism accountability. It set the standard for ombudsmen.

The nine-part report, starting on the front page and covering four full inside pages, showed the Post’s willingness to confront its flaws and admit them publicly.

Continue reading Bill Green, Ombudsman Exemplar, Unsparing on Post’s Failure

Staged Photos Darken the Fog of War

Fox News screen shot of Brussels photographer posing girl. Photo by James Pomerantz
Fox News screen shot of Brussels photographer posing girl. Photo by James Pomerantz

By Casey Bukro

War is famously shrouded in a fog that journalists are supposed to penetrate.

Since war correspondents and photographers sometimes risk their lives in combat zones, you’d think they’d want to get it right. Otherwise, it’s just propaganda.

In that case, the fog just gets thicker. But it is a way to make a buck as media cut staff and rely on freelancers.

The recent Brussels bombings is an example. A 21-year-old Palestinian photographer triggered strong social media reactions. When a Fox News video showed him posing a girl at a makeshift memorial, an outcry arose against the unethical practice of staging photographs.

The Guardian, a British national newspaper, identified the photographer as Khaled Al Sabbah, who lives in Brussels and has won photography awards for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The newspaper also quoted Michael Kamber, a former New York Times staff photographer and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, after he saw the video.

“It’s one more example of a photographer doing something that destroys public trust in the media,” said Kamber.

Continue reading Staged Photos Darken the Fog of War

Undercover Investigator Insults Journalists

By Casey Bukro

David R. Daleiden said he misrepresented himself and falsified his identification while investigating Planned Parenthood because that’s what journalists do.

What an insult to journalists! Ethical journalists know that telling lies and deception while covering the news destroys their credibility. Who would believe a journalist who lies, cheats or steals?

That’s why the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics clearly states: “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.”

True, there’s a qualification. And journalism lore is rife with tales of Hollywood-style derring-do, with reporters pulling off grand deceptions.

The Mirage tavern, a study in journalism deception.
The Mirage tavern, a study in journalism deception.

In 1977, the Chicago Sun-Times bought a tavern and staffed it with reporters and photographers to show the extent of corruption and shakedowns by Chicago city inspectors and others who took $10 or $20 payoffs to ignore safety or health hazards. Then the Sun-Times published a 25-part series that documented the abuses and crimes in the Mirage tavern.

You’ll still get an argument from some journalists who say it was a terrific story and resulted in major city, state and federal reforms. The talk at the time, though, was that the series failed to win a Pulitzer Prize because the investigation was based on deception, and that was wrong.

Continue reading Undercover Investigator Insults Journalists

Searching for the Limits of Ethics

By Casey Bukro

Some media people find it impossible to forgive Brian Williams, saying he tainted journalism through false reports.

A cascade of shame enveloped the former NBC anchor, demoted and vilified after saying repeatedly that he was aboard a military helicopter that was forced down over Iraq by enemy fire. Turns out that happened to another military helicopter, not the one he was riding.

Williams’ career began unraveling as other reports were called into question.

From a strictly ethical viewpoint, how should Williams be judged? He admitted he was mistaken about the helicopter incident and apologized.

Ethically, are there limits to forgiveness? Is it best to forgive and forget? Is he forever tainted, or is he allowed to get beyond it and redeem himself?

These questions were posed to AdviceLine’s team of ethicists.

Nancy Matchett, who teaches ethics at the University of Northern Colorado, answered this way:

“Philosophers understand ethics as ongoing reflection about ‘how one should live.’ In the professional context, that means ongoing reflection about the principles that should guide one’s work and how they apply to the concrete choices one faces every day. Ethics doesn’t exactly have a beginning or end.

“And, with respect to the Williams affair, we can evaluate his choices since the incident, and the choices of the network, as well as the original mistake.”

I asked Matchett if that suggests we should judge Williams and the aftermath by what he does from now on?

“Sure, that’s part of it,” said Matchett. “But I guess what I’m also trying to emphasize is that the fact that any particular bit of conduct that was good, bad, etc., is never ‘the whole story about Williams’ ethics.’ There is no whole story, except perhaps after a person is dead, because characters are never wholly fixed.

“What he does from now on should be judged in light of the fact that we know he is at least careless and at worst inclined to stretch the truth for the sake of a story.”

I told Matchett that appears to raise the issue of redemption.

“I don’t really have anything to say about redemption,” said Matchett. “Whether another person, or ‘the profession,’ forgives Williams doesn’t change his act from wrong to right. It acknowledges that his character isn’t all bad and that the mistake was in some sense ‘understandable’ given the various pressures he was under. And just to be crystal clear, note that ‘understandable’ is not the same as ‘justifiable.’ Or as we say in my business, an explanation is not the same as an excuse.

“As for people finding it ‘impossible to forgive,’ that’s a psychological issue or question, not the ethically central one. The ethically central issue is whether forgiveness is morally appropriate, whether people should do it, which is a little different from whether they can. … If it’s not appropriate, then folks are doing the right thing by refusing to forgive.

“But in general, I think any network would be foolish to leave him as an anchor on their main show. He has harmed his own and the network’s credibility. Even if the network execs were convinced that it was a forgivable mistake and his journalistic integrity could be counted on in the future, the average viewer surely doesn’t know Williams well enough to decide whether to trust him again.”

David A. Craig, another AdviceLine ethicist, who teaches ethics at the University of Oklahoma, sees it a different way:

“It troubles me that Williams seems to deflect responsibility for his untruths by saying he did not intend them. Journalists, especially those in roles as high profile as his, have a responsibility for every word that comes out of their mouths in a formal journalistic setting.

“If this were a single brief slipup in language, that would be different. But he was untruthful more than once about his experience in Iraq. Every viewer now has reason to question his trustfulness in the future. By failing to fully take responsibility for his words, he gives his audience ongoing reason to doubt.”

Reason to doubt Williams first emerged when military publication Stars and Stripes challenged his account of being aboard the helicopter that was forced down over Iraq.

NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay, then stripped him of his duties as anchor of NBC Nightly News.

As Matchett points out, we don’t know “the whole story” about Williams yet. Already, he is the subject of jokes and spoofs by the likes of Harry Shearer.

Forgiveness happens on two levels, personal and professional.

Journalists are notoriously soft on each other, and hard on everyone else. Journalists don’t like to criticize or censure other journalists. So, personally, they are likely to forgive Williams by finding that morally appropriate, as Matchett put it. They will write about ethical transgressions, but that’s not the same as taking a personal stand.

Professionally, it’s hard to forgive an act that weakens public trust in the integrity of journalism, which rests on a foundation of truth. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics begins with this tenet: “Seek truth and report it.”

Falsehoods damage the profession, and cannot be tolerated.

CBC Acts Fast, NBC Acts Slow

By Casey Bukro

Consider the differences in the way Canadian and United States broadcasting officials reacted when their star performers got into trouble.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation swiftly fired political anchor Evan Solomon, one of the biggest names in Canadian journalism, for moonlighting as a fine arts broker.

NBC is still trying to decide what to do about high-profile anchor Brian Williams, who was suspended for six months in February for saying he was aboard a helicopter over Iraq that was forced down by enemy fire, which proved untrue. Reports say Williams’ lawyer is making negotiations “excruciating” for NBC as it tries to decide what to do with Williams.

The comparison is interesting because both Solomon and Williams have been described as among the biggest media names in their countries.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, officially known as CBC/Radio-Canada, serves as the National Public Radio and Television broadcaster.

CBC acted swiftly after the Toronto Star reported that, for commissions of about 10 percent, Solomon had been working with a Toronto art collector and had earned at least $300,000 over two years, and believed he was entitled to another $1 million.

Solomon had disclosed to CBC in April that a production company he owned with his wife had a business partnership with an art dealer that would not conflict with his CBC News work.

After an independent investigation, CBC/Radio-Canada CEO Hubert Lacroix said Solomon was fired to protect “the integrity of the content and the journalism that we make.”

Reaction at CBC reportedly was mixed with anger and frustration, in part because of other ethics issues that had surfaced in the past. Some called it a “disproportionate response” and Solomon could appeal.

Tim Bousquet, editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner, called what Solomon did a “crime against journalism.”

CBC’s sensitivity to ethical lapses no doubt was heightened by the earlier downfall of another CBC star, Jian Ghomeshi, who was fired for rough sex with women. He is facing trial on charges of sexual assault and choking.

The Guardian quoted critics who said the broadcaster’s decision to “groom celebrity journalists” led to a “corrosive culture” of stars with tremendous power and little self-restraint. Said one: “When you create these celebrities, you create monsters.”

Meanwhile, the Brian Williams case drags on. After suspending Williams, NBC reportedly found other instances where the anchor had exaggerated his involvement in events. Williams had apologized for the helicopter event, after military sources pointed out that Williams was not riding in a helicopter that was forced down by enemy fire.

“This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position,” Deborah Turness, president of NBC News, said in a memo.

The outcome remains to be seen. The suspension ends in August.

Nothing so far has been finalized in the Williams affair, reported columnist Lisa de Moraes, calling it a media cliffhanger.

The case drew attention from The New York Times. It said the episode “has called into question not only the credibility of Mr. Williams but also the ethics and culture of NBC News.”

Politico media writer Jack Shafer writes that Williams knows he’s dead, but is negotiating the terms of his burial.

In Vanity Fair, correspondent Bryan Burrough says the newsman is too damaged to return to the anchor’s desk. Burrough toyed with possibilities for a return.

Clearly, there are cultural and historical differences between Canada and the United States, as anyone who has traveled the two countries can attest. But maybe it’s possible to generalize and say that among the similarities between the two countries, which are fast allies, is a faith in media ethics. The details usually are messy, but ethics matters.

Florida Student Blows Whistle on Boca Raton Plagiarist

By Casey Bukro

Journalism student Emily Bloch thought she saw something familiar while reading a story in the Boca Raton Tribune. It looked like something she had written, exactly the way she had written it.

Turned out it was a case of plagiarism, for which the Tribune writer was fired. He had copied material Bloch had written for the Florida Atlantic University student newspaper, the University Press, about an alleged campus rape.

Students sometimes are accused of copying material written by professional journalists, but in this case the professional journalist copied material written by a student. The case was reported by New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

Plagiarism often is a career-killing offense in journalism, although not always.

A Columbia Journalism Review report found that punishment for plagiarism falls in an grey area “ranging from severe to virtually nothing even for major offenses.”

It’s an editor’s decision, one that takes a writer’s talents and past performance into consideration. In other words, how badly does an editor need that writer or how easily could that writer be replaced? And, it is no secret that editors sometimes have favorites, known among staffers as “friends of the editor’s” or FOEs.

Editors might look for a pattern of plagiarism before taking disciplinary steps.

In these days of the Internet, much is made of the ease with which text can be stolen or copied and pasted. Cut-and-paste is a dangerous practice. The only good case for it is for citing a direct quote accurately. It is commonly used in the drafting stage, but a writer might forget to recast the material.

Equally easy is finding online plagiarism checkers, or reports that list the latest examples of plagiarism, or plagiarism “hit lists” of famous journalists gone wrong. Where are they now? For the most part, out of journalism.

At The New York Times a reporter, Jayson Blair, lost his job for plagiarism, and another, Maureen Dowd, didn’t.

They were named in a Plagiarism Today report by Jonathan Bailey called “5 Famous Plagiarists: Where Are They Now?”

The so-called “celebrity plagiarists,” for the most part, “seemed to land on their feet,” according to Bailey.

In its report on top 10 cases of plagiarism and attribution, Media Ethics in 2012 named Jonah Lehrer, formerly of The New Yorker, as its No. 1 plagiarist for plagiarizing himself.

“We’re putting him on our top plagiarist list since being busted for self-plagiarism led to his downfall,” said writer Sydney Smith. How do you plagiarize yourself, you might ask?

Lehrer’s blogs duplicated content he previously published for other outlets. He also made up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.

The Poynter Institute also published a roundup of plagiarism and fabrication cases, by Mallary Jean Tenore, showing “the range of actions news organizations have taken and some of the factors they’ve considered when making these decisions.”

Plagiarism is a slippery slope. One might argue that plagiarism could be committed by accident. But the profiles of serial plagiarists show that it’s usually not a one-time mistake. It’s a choice.

In most cases, it becomes a pattern or a bad habit, perhaps because it seems so easy. And because some get away with it for some time, they might think they can get away with it indefinitely.

It’s an illusion. One of the benefits of the Internet are the millions of eyes on our words, including print editions. Many people are voracious readers of news reports, foreign and domestic. They recognize when identical paragraphs appear in two or more publications, and don’t hesitate telling editors.

A reader once notified the Chicago Tribune that one of its stories bore an uncanny resemblance to a story in the Jerusalem Post. An investigation proved that he was right. A Tribune reporter had taken text from the Post, a publication half a world away from Chicago.

Astute readers are unpaid “copy cops,” and anyone who works for a publication knows what I mean. They are really good at catching errors, among other things, and enjoy playing “gotcha.”

I think it’s fair to say the industry standard is zero tolerance for plagiarism. Penalties can be harsh even for a single infraction.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics flatly says: “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.”

I suppose I fall into the zero tolerance camp for plagiarism, because zero means zero. Otherwise, journalists can argue over how much is allowed and how much is not.

My intolerance dates from my earliest days of writing the 1973 version of the SPJ code of ethics. Some ethics committee members argued for a little of this, and a little of that. It was hard to define how much is a little, or too much.

So I decided that it’s best to draw a bright line. No means no, and there is no quibble room to haggle over.

Journalists are terrible hagglers and nit-pickers. The result is a long, drawn-out process that sometimes does not reach a conclusion or a consensus. Get a room full of journalists and they will argue over all the possibilities and change the punctuation. There is a point at which that is not productive. Best to draw bright lines.

Plagiarism is theft. It can’t be allowed.