In a nondescript training room above the newsroom in the old New York Times building, five reporters, two researchers and two editors labored around the clock for a week in May 2003 to get to the bottom of one of the most egregious cases of malpractice in American journalism: Jayson Blair’s short and spectacular career of fraud and plagiarism in the pages of the Times.
“We were given complete freedom to investigate things and follow the trail where it went,” Adam Liptak, a reporter on the team, recalled Thursday evening in an interview. “The paper thought the best response to a journalistic problem was more journalism, and to be as open and candid with our readers as we could be.”
Liptak and his colleagues combed through articles, expense reports and phone records, speaking with subjects of Blair’s stories and asking editors why he was promoted despite a pattern of errors.
By the end of the week, the team aired the newspaper’s dirty laundry in public view in a 7,239-word, front-page autopsy of what went wrong and why. The Times’ two top editors resigned in the aftermath, and the paper adopted new standards and safeguards. (In contrast, the editor’s note a year later on the Times’ erroneous reporting on weapons of mass destruction that ginned up support for the Iraq War never explained why stories based on false intelligence made it into print).
If the rapid response to the Blair scandal is a gold standard of what news organizations should do when something goes awry, the silence by Fox News and CNN over what went wrong inside their organizations when they retracted politically sensitive stories in May and June is a major failure and corrosive to the industry’s credibility.
Likewise, Newsweek and the New York Daily News are letting down their readers by failing to complete investigations and issue findings seven months after the work of a former reporter was called into question.
News organizations demand accountability from government agencies, politicians, institutions and corporations and are rightly accused of hypocrisy if we don’t hold ourselves the the same standard. Public trust in the media is languishing at among the lowest levels in decades. If news organizations refuse to examine and explain mistakes, they make themselves vulnerable to attacks by President Trump and other critics that they’re peddling “fake news.”
“Major news organizations demand accountability from government officials, corporations and others involved in powerful positions, but aren’t nearly as accountable about their processes or mistakes,” said Alicia Shepard, a former ombudsman for NPR who was tasked in 2011 with writing about NPR’s failings that resulted in an erroneous report that Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was killed by a gunman.
“Until Americans get a better understanding of how newsrooms work and how mistakes can happen even with in-place safeguards, distrust of journalists will continue,” said Shepard, a visiting ethics professor at the University of Arkansas. Unless CNN and Fox explain what went wrong in their reporting, “why should other companies or government officials be forthright with CNN or Fox?”
At CNN, the retracted story was a short one, published on the network’s website June 22 asserting that Trump advisor Anthony Scaramucci had met days before Trump’s inauguration with the head of a Russian investment fund under scrutiny by Senate investigators.
Scaramucci and his representatives launched a full-court press asserting the article was wrong. The New York Post reported that under threat of a $100 million libel lawsuit, CNN told the three well-respected investigative journalists involved (including a Pulitzer winner and a Pulitzer finalist) that their full contracts would be paid out, but they had to resign. Publicly, CNN said the story didn’t meet its standards or follow protocol — but never explained what was erroneous or how standards were violated.
Meanwhile, the investigations unit was restructured and its mandate narrowed to steer clear of stories on Russia and the Trump campaign, according to a New York Times account of the story’s retraction. The Scaramucci story came on the heels of a series of embarrassments for CNN involving comedian Kathy Griffin, religion scholar and host Reza Aslan and an erroneous news story about former FBI Director James Comey. Scaramucci was caught on a mic saying CNN’s retraction helped him get his (short-lived) job as White House communications director.
The events happened against the backdrop of pending Justice Department approval for AT&T’s $85 billion takeover of CNN’s parent company Time Warner, a deal that White House officials were privately said to be using as leverage against CNN. In that context, the cable network’s failure to explain what was wrong with the Scaramucci story fueled accusations that the network was caving to political and financial pressure.
“Especially in light of the AT&T purchase, it looks suspicious,” said Shepard.
Seth Mnookin, a professor of comparative media studies at MIT and author of “Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media,” said one of the things that makes the CNN story so confounding is that the journalists involved were well-respected veterans, and no explanation was given for what they supposedly got wrong. Failing to release the full facts, he said, casts what may be an unwarranted shadow over reporters with long track records of getting things right. CNN’s reaction would be “appropriate for something that was more than a mistake — and yet there’s no indication that it was more than a mistake,” Mnookin said.
The network’s failure to explain what happened contrasts with the Times’ exhaustive investigation of Jayson Blair and The Washington Post’s rapid report on the Janet Cooke scandal in 1981. In both cases, the papers “didn’t want to get beaten on stories that were not only in their backyard, but in their house,” Mnookin said. “It creates a paranoid situation if you have other news organizations breathing down your neck. CNN should just get it all out there.”
At Fox, the silence over a failing with major political implications is just as deafening. The network’s report alleging links between a dead Democratic National Committee staffer, Seth Rich, and the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails was 10 months in the making, according to an accounting by CNN, but was discredited within hours of publication. Inexplicably, the piece was left up on the website for a week, and the conspiracy theory was tirelessly promoted by anchor Sean Hannity even after the primary source for the story said Fox put words in his mouth and reporters at the network were disputing its veracity.
The network now faces a lawsuit from a private investigator who was the primary source for the story. A former police detective who was dismissed from the Washington, D.C. police force, the man was hired by a wealthy Trump donor to investigate the Rich case. He alleges in his suit that Fox News and Trump colluded to concoct a story to deflect attention from Russian hacking of Democratic emails. An account of the lawsuit by NPR describes voice and text messages from the Trump donor to the former detective saying the president himself had read a draft of the Fox story linking Rich to WikiLeaks and wanted the story to run as soon as possible.
Fox deleted the story a week after it ran but never explained what went wrong, nor has it disclosed any action to rectify failings that allowed the story to be published or discipline those responsible. Despite the retraction, the conspiracy theory that Rich, who police say was killed in a robbery, was actually murdered because he leaked Democratic Party emails persists on right-wing websites.
W. Joseph Campbell, a professor of communication at American University and author of “Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism,” compared Fox’s failure to other memorable cases where misreported stories took root in public consciousness because news organizations failed to correct the record.
Lurid coverage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a post-apocalyptic hellscape of violent mayhem and sharks was based largely on false information from city officials and turned out to be almost entirely false, Campbell said, but the tales live on in collective memory. Likewise, the hero-warrior narrative of Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old soldier whom unnamed officials described to The Washington Post as having fought off Iraqis Rambo-style, was false. Campbell says the Post never gave a full accounting of what went wrong, allowing the myth to persist even after the story was walked back.
The problem isn’t simply that many newsrooms may be reluctant to expose their own failings, but that in an era of reduced resources, there are almost no newsrooms that still have an ombudsman, Campbell said. The New York Times recently eliminated its public editor position that was created in the wake of the Blair scandal. Campbell suggests that newsrooms faced with embarrassing errors invite “media ethicists to do a top-to-bottom audit of what went wrong…and have that audit published internally and externally.”
Columbia Journalism School’s 2015 audit of Rolling Stone’s false story about campus rape is a good example, as was the external panel named by CBS to review a “60 Minutes” story by Dan Rather in 2004 that relied on forged documents.
Other news organizations can also demand accountability. It was The Baltimore Sun’s reporting early this year that drew attention to missing sources and possibly fabricated events in former New York police reporter Kevin Deutsch’s true-crime book, “Pill City.” The New York Times swiftly investigated a story Deutsch wrote for the paper and appended an editors’ note saying they couldn’t verify the existence of two of his sources. Newsday, Newsweek and the New York Daily News, for whom Deutsch also worked, promised reviews of his work.
Seven months later, only Newsday has summarized its findings, saying the paper reviewed 600 articles and found 109 individuals who couldn’t be traced despite an exhaustive review of records. The note stopped short, however, of accusing Deutsch of fabrication or explaining how possible fabrications or lapses in fact-checking made it through the editing process. Deutsch insists the missing sources were real, though he’s failed to provide proof.
Liptak, the Times’ legal correspondent who helped investigate the Blair debacle, says the reluctance of newsrooms to shine a light on themselves puzzles him. “I can’t think of a reason why a news organization committed to journalistic principles shouldn’t respond to a journalistic problem by reporting on it and sharing that report with its readers,” he said.
In the current political climate, when the integrity of independent media and journalistic principles are under attack by the White House, Liptak said, “it might be exactly the right time to double down on our commitment to reporting and revealing the truth.”