Marketplace, KQED explain how fabricated commentary got on the air

KQED, a public radio station based in San Francisco, has for 13 years been publishing first person commentaries under the Perspectives banner. The NPR member station airs roughly 250 Perspectives a year, and KQED communications director Scott Walton said this week marks the first time they’ve ever had to retract one.

As detailed in my previous post, a Perspectives commentary that aired on KQED January 11 — and subsequently was re-aired by American Public Media’s Marketplace on Monday — turned out to have included fraudulent claims. The man in question, Leo Webb, said he was a former Army sniper with 17 kills, and a former minor league pitcher to boot. Neither KQED nor Marketplace were able to confirm those details after suspicion was raised by comments on both of their sites and by at least two blogs.

Walton said efforts to locate Webb have been unsuccessful thus far. Perspectives editor Mark Trautwein previously told the blog “This Ain’t Hell” that “Mr. Webb has been subsequently placed in a VA live-in care facility specializing in PTSD so I’m unable to seek his response to your comment at this time.”

So how did Webb end up on the air in the first place?

Walton said the Perspectives series often finds its contributors through other organizations, such as NGOs and foundations. These contributors are referred to the station because they have a unique personal story. That was the case with Webb, though Walton declined to name which organization referred him to the station.

“We have a mission and big push on right now to make sure that voices that aren’t always heard on public radio are heard,” he said, noting this can include people who are marginalized or disenfranchised by society.

Deborah Clark, the executive producer of Marketplace, said her program also has a goal to “bring in a diversity of voices that aren’t heard very often.” (Walton and Clark also spoke with Erik Wemple today.)

This drive to find untold or ignored stories helped Webb get on the air. Clark said in the case of her program, Webb’s tale “didn’t receive the standard editorial vetting from us that it should have.” She said it would be standard procedure for the program to contact the military to verify Webb’s claims prior to airing his words. That didn’t happen.

Walton said KQED also didn’t contact the military prior to airing the piece, nor did it check any databases of minor league baseball players to confirm Webb’s account that he played Double A ball for the Chicago Cubs.

“There is a [vetting] process and part of it is that the person does work worth the editor of the piece quite a bit, so you generally have an idea that person is who they said they are,” he said.

Webb recorded his commentary live in studio with a KQED editor, but it appears no attempts were made to check his story or details.

Walton said it’s a challenge to vet “someone who doesn’t have a job and doesn’t really have a track record.” Though as Clark noted, it’s straightforward to confirm someone’s military service.

Walton said the station was unaware of concerns about Webb’s claims until after the piece aired on Marketplace Monday night. At that point, he said, comments began piling up on that show’s site and blogs like “This Ain’t Hell” began asking questions. Clark said her program was alerted to concerns thanks to listener comments.

“We aired it on Monday and on Tuesday we started reading on our website listener comments questioning the veracity,” she said. “Immediately we started looking into it, and as soon as we realized there were big questions about its veracity we retracted on Wednesday.”

Walton said his station is reviewing its vetting procedures.

“Right now our news director, executive director of news and public affairs and any of the editors in our radio division are sitting down and talking about creating news processes and vetting processes,” he said.

Clark said her team is doing a similar review, but also noted they have a vetting process in place — the problem is it wasn’t followed.

“We verify identity and basic claims of stories,” she said. “that goes for both the subjects in pieces and commentaries. It’s pretty standard journalistic practice.”

Thursday night, Clark released the following statement:

On January 30, Marketplace aired an outside, first-person commentary, titled “Returning Veteran has Few Marketable Skills.” Listeners questioned the veracity of the piece, and when we looked more closely into the matter we found it had likely been fabricated.

Our responsibility to listeners, members, partners and ourselves, is to provide accurate, trustworthy information, in context, without conflict of interest. We didn’t meet that obligation in this instance, and for that we apologize. We’ve retracted the commentary completely, and we’re using this experience to learn how we can do our jobs better.

Thank you for your engagement with Marketplace, and for holding us accountable to the highest journalistic standards.

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