Tag Archives: Janet Cooke

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

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When Media Are the News: Brian Williams’ Mistake

 

 

 

 

  • Brian Williams under fire: Cartoons of the day
            Bob Englehart, Hartford Journal

 

By Casey Bukro

The news has been the news in recent weeks, starting with Rolling Stone, then Charlie Hebdo and now NBC’s Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.

Usually, journalists try to avoid being the story, although Williams demonstrated that television celebrities might see no harm in a little self-promoting embellishment even if it’s  untrue.

After challenges from military witnesses, Williams now admits he was mistaken or had “gone crazy” when he said that he was in a helicopter that was shot down in 2003 while he was covering the Iraq war. Williams often repeated that scenario, making himself look intrepid.

Whoops. It was another helicopter that was forced down by a rocket hit, not the one Williams was riding. Williams and military witnesses give different accounts of the incident.

Williams apologized.

Caught in a fabrication that was widely mocked on the internet, Williams said he was stepping down for a few days from his post as managing editor and anchor of Nightly News, a post which ethics expert Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute described as “the primary arbiter of the facts.”

Let’s get one thing straight: Williams was in a helicopter in a war zone, which was dangerous and laudable. Witnesses vouch for that. So I give the guy credit for doing a reporter’s job.

But he went a step too far and landed in the shoals of fabrication and deceit, which ended the careers of Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Janet Cooke of the Washington Post and Stephen Glass of The New Republic. Their careers crashed and burned.

Dan Rather left CBS News after 44 years for “a mistake in judgment.”

NBC management said they were considering “the best next steps.” They should consider the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. It says “journalists should be honest….” They also should not cast doubt on the credibility of other journalists working to gain the trust and respect of the public.

NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay.

For some people, Williams will be living proof that “reporters make it all up.”

Williams told the false story of his heroics often, and one unanswered question is whether NBC knew the story was fake and did nothing about it. Where were the editors? Or was Williams so untouchable that nothing he said could be challenged? Television crew members with Williams also witnessed the event. Did anyone bother to question them?

To complicate matters, Williams’ 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina also is being challenged since he reported seeing a body floating past his hotel room in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

A local newspaper reported that flood waters did surround the Ritz-Carlton where Williams was staying. And a former sheriff’s sergeant working with the anchor during the Katrina floods says he believes Williams.

Charlie Hebdo was a far more tragic story, in which two gunmen killed 12 people in or near the offices of the satirical magazine, which had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Two philosophers who are staff members of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists wrote blogs about the event. You can read their comments at http://www.ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

David Ozar and Hugh Miller agreed that no religion condones killing people over religious or philosophical differences.  But they saw the Charlie Hebdo massacre turning on the issue of offense, and what should be done to avoid offending the beliefs of others.

A step in that direction came when al-Jezeera English banned the use of certain words that could be offensive in other cultures, such as “terrorists,” “Islamists” or “jihad.”

Nancy Matchett, also an AdviceLine staff member, had this to say about Charlie Hebdo:

” I too think the most interesting and difficult issues raised by satire have to do with the concept of ‘offense.’  One thing I might emphasize a bit more (and here I would be paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line) is that no one can offend another person without that other person’s consent.

“That does not, of course, obviate the point that a person can, through deliberate malice or carelessness or even cluelessness, say or do things that are extremely likely to be taken offensively by specific others (and here again, I agree with both Dave and Hugh that such sayings and doings constitute ethical failings).

“It is just to note that the mere fact that one person ‘took offense’ does not, by itself, show that the purportedly offensive action was the result of a clearly blameworthy motive like malice, etc. Applied very briefly to Charlie Hebdo, it’s my sense that the magazine was trying to deliberately provoke (if not outright offend) in ways that make the taking of offense by various communities justified. But of course a murderous response to even the most highly offensive speech act is inexcusable in any context.”

And I would add one more thought about Charlie Hebdo. And that is to be true to your standards about giving offense. Think hard about it, and decide on your standards. Then stick to them. Charlie Hebdo intentionally offended. It was their standard. Journalists should decide where they draw the line.

Enough time has passed to show that Rolling Stone magazine clearly shot itself in the foot by reporting a story based on a single source, with no attempt at in-depth investigation, about an unnamed woman who said she had been gang raped by seven men at a fraternity party on the University of Virginia campus in 2012.

The story began unraveling almost immediately after it was printed as times, dates, places and people mentioned in the story did not match reality.

The author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely,  said she had agreed with a request from the alleged rape victim to avoid interviewing anyone else who might have been involved, thereby violating a standard journalism practice to seek as many viewpoints as possible to check the validity of the allegations.

Erdely and Brian Williams have this in common: They should have checked their facts.

Rolling Stone editors later issued a statement saying that in light of new information, “there now appear to be discrepancies,” and the editors concluded their trust in the young woman’s story “was misplaced.”

“The truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story,” tweeted Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana.

The university and the fraternity mentioned in the story were seriously smeared by the allegations, and the legitimate cause of campus rape prevention was damaged.

Charlie Hebdo represented an assault on freedom of expression.

Brian Williams and Rolling Stone represent an assault on professional standards in journalism, and a subversion of simply telling the truth.

 

 

 

 

Rape, Cosby and UVA

A story in Rolling Stone featured the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student, launching calls for reform and more attention to the issue of sexual assaults on campus. Recent reporting by the Washington Post, however, has raised doubts about the veracity of the story.
Fraternity house named in alleged rapes (Ryan M. Kelly, The Daily Progress/AP file)

How aggressively did journalists pursue the facts?

By Casey Bukro

Rape became big news with allegations against Comedian Bill Cosby and an explosive Rolling Stone story describing a gang rape of a co-ed at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus, for which editors later apologized for “discrepancies.”

Both rape stories raised questions about how journalism works in America and whether it can be trusted.

Where were the editors while these stories were being covered? Tough editors ask tough questions, and demand answers from their own reporters about how they got the story and whether it’s supported by hard investigation.

Media are accused of failing to dig into serial rape accusations over decades against Cosby, who was seen as a popular father figure as he was portrayed on his television show.

About 20 women have accused Cosby of drugging them, and often raping them. But he has not answered to what he calls “innuendos.” Some of the accusers have been challenged. Cosby’s most recent comment is that his wife is dealing well with the controversy.

Pushing back, Cosby’s lawyer accuses a reporter of deception, and his wife, Camille, contends the media failed to take a close look at her husband’s accusers.

The Rolling Stone gang rape story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely is based on a single source, a woman identified only as “Jackie,” who claimed she was lured to a 2012 fraternity party by a man named “Drew,” and raped by seven men. The Washington Post described the story.

Good reporting usually involves getting all sides of the story. Erdely admitted that she made a deal with Jackie that no attempt would be made to find and interview anyone else involved in the alleged rape, or knew about it.  And her editors allowed her to get away with a violation of a basic tenet of good reporting – getting multiple sources to verify the accuracy of the story

The editors allowed this unusual dispensation from careful reporting because the story was “sensitive.” Yes, rape is a sensitive issue, but not a reason to suspend professional standards in reporting. Sensitive stories require more careful reporting, not less.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges caution in reporting sex crimes.

The story was widely reported and put a spotlight on campus rape. Then came questions about its accuracy. The accused fraternity had no party on the night the rape allegedly happened, and issued a statement saying that sexual assault was not “part of our pledging or initiation process.” It appeared to be fabricated and continues to be called into question from many sources.

Media followed the story as a lesson in journalism and ethics. A defamation suit against Rolling Stone is a possibility.

Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, issued a statement:  “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”

Other media noticed the discrepancies. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Columnist Jack Kelly calls the story “an unforgivable breach of journalism ethics” and thinks the fraternity house should sue Erdely and Rolling Stone for libel.

Rolling Stone editors believed Jackie was credible, according to Leslie Loftis in the Columbia Journalism Review,  because of a bias – a willingness to believe Jackie because “everyone knows that there is an epidemic of rape on campuses around the country….”

It’s what you know, or want to believe, that can set a trap.

The editors at the Washington Post wanted to believe one of their bright and upcoming reporters, Janet Cooke. She wrote “Jimmy’s World,” a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict in a family of addicts. Narcotics addiction was a big issue in 1980.

That story was so good, it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

Then came the questions. A Washington Post editor asked Cooke to get in a car and go with him to identify where Jimmy lived. They drove around and could find no Jimmy. Cooke eventually admitted she invented Jimmy.

Cooke said the Post’s high-pressure newsroom corrupted her judgement. She said she had heard about somebody like Jimmy. She decided to write the story, based on anonymous sources, to satisfy her editors, she said.

The Post’s ombudsman wrote a long critique on the “Jimmy’s World” story, and found that the editors bore heavy responsibility, adding that “everybody who touched this journalistic felony was wrong.”

Good editors are supposed to do the hard work of keeping stories honest.

“Don’t tell me what you think, chum. Tell me what you know!” said a fabled, crusty editor at the former City News Bureau of Chicago, once called the Devils Island of Journalism. He grilled his reporters as vigorously as he expected his reporters to grill their sources.