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Defending the New York Times

I'm pretty hard on the media. Mostly because they earn it. But while many are saying the New York Times has egg on its face today, I just can't muster any outrage on this one.

Editor & Publisher has a story about this latest "embarrassment" for the paper. It turns out someone the paper interviewed lied to a reporter during an interview and that made the paper unchecked.

Depending on the situation that may or may not be a sign of poor reporting. For example:

If someone were to (hypothetically of course) tell a media organization during an election that they had memos which proved the President of the United States was AWOL during the Vietnam era and the media organization ran them unchecked, that would be inexcusable.

But nothing near so important happened to the Times.

It turns out they got hustled by a scam artist. A woman who claimed she was from Biloxi, Mississippi and was a hurricane victim was not. She allowed herself to be profiled, no doubt, to help get thousands of dollars of hurricane relief money. She's in jail now on multiple fraud charges.

What I find troubling though is the nature of the correction the paper felt forced to run.

The article was based on interviews with Ms. Fenton, caseworkers with the Salvation Army, employees of the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Queens, where Ms. Fenton lives, and Amanda McGee, who described herself as the fiance of Ms. Fenton's oldest son. Ms. Fenton said that she lived at the hotel with her five children, and that her husband had come with her from Biloxi but was living elsewhere in New York.


...A reporter originally obtained Ms. Fenton's name from the Rev. Donald Hudson, a Queens pastor active in efforts to secure aid for Katrina evacuees in New York. Mr. Hudson had described her as an evacuee who might be willing to be profiled, after the reporter asked him for possible interview subjects. A reporter visited Ms. Fenton on two occasions, in late February and early March, and spent several hours with her, even watching her battle with FEMA officials on the phone.

And from an "editor's note"

"For its profile, The Times did not conduct adequate interviews or public record checks to verify Ms. Fenton's account, including her claim that she had lived in Biloxi. Such checks would have uncovered a fraud conviction and raised serious questions about the truthfulness of her account."

I have a LONG, LONG history of demanding media accountability. But let's be realistic. Is a media outlet supposed to run criminal background checks on everyone they quote in the paper?

The paper had no obvious reason to suspect she was not being truthful. Maybe I sound like an eBay commercial but our society is based on the fact that, as a rule, most people are basically honest. If a reporter is getting a credible story from a first hand source, demanding that level of fact checking is egregiously burdensome on the paper and really, just silly.

I'm glad to see the Times standing up and "admitting" to their "mistakes" but I don't think anyone can credibly fault the Times on this one.

This was not a case of a reporter being sloppy or not bothering to check obviously suspicious facts. The reporter got lied to by a professional liar. Don't blame him, blame the perpetrator.

Bloggers are right to hold the media's feet to the fire but bashing the media for the sake of bashing hurts our credibility more than the media's. If the Times felt obligated to write that correction the way they did because of bloggers, I don't consider that a good thing.

If we demand responsibility of them then we too must be responsible with our criticism. Anything less is hypocrisy.


For Katrina Evacuee, Getting Help Is a Full-Time Job - [NYT]
Woman Claiming to Be a Victim of Katrina Is Charged With Fraud - [NYT]


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Comments (15)

Paul,While I appla... (Below threshold)
NewEnglandDevil:

Paul,

While I applaud your caution and restraint - we should be fair - I disagree with you on two substantive points.

1) The woman was the direct subject of the article, not a witness or otherwise uninvolved 3rd party. Therefore it seems that SOME level of checking her story should be done, since that IS the story, no?

2) It seems that, after an initial interview with the woman, if I were doing the reporting/investigating, I would ask who is handling her case at FEMA. Then I would talk to that person directly. That seems to me to be pretty straight-forward investigative, and unbiased journalism - seeking the full set of facts. I don't believe it represents an onerous responsibility on the part of the reporter, and there is no evidence that this was done.

JM(NS)HO.

NED

"If a reporter is getting a... (Below threshold)
Faith+1:

"If a reporter is getting a credible story from a first hand source, demanding that level of fact checking is egregiously burdensome on the paper and really, just silly."

The problem, Paul, is in the first part of your sentence. Who determines "credible story". It seems the press is more willing to determine a story is "credible" if it happens to be a story that runs in the same direction as the reporter's bias.

If the story was intent on being a hatchet job on FEMA and you accepted her word because her claims went along with the bias that FEMA was guilty then it becomes MORE important to double check things.

If you don't you run the risk that this will happen and you actually damamge the point you are trying to make. In a case where FEMA is guilty of doing things badly or wrong you don't help things by appearing to embellish the story. When they are guilty you don't need to--just report the facts.

Where I do agree with you, however, is that this doesn't appear to be a case where the NYT was blatantly setting out to distort a story or outright lie (like some of the vocal far right seem to think). I believe it's more of a case of a reporter just being lazy and doing a sloppy job.

Hmmm.Would it make... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

Would it make it any easier Paul that, if the situation were reversed, that the NYT wouldn't be so generous?

Good for the goose, good for the gander.

The MSM has beaten up on blogs over verification issues on a constant basis. Even though the MSM is sadly lacking in verifying the facts of their stories, like this one, on all too many occasions.

All things considered I think we should hold them to the highest possible standards since they're professionals, with editors and multiple layers of review.

Brings to mind a recent eve... (Below threshold)

Brings to mind a recent event with our local NYT daughter paper...all winter they ran sob stories about old people and their interesting lives but now they live alone blah blah...you know the type. Well one of the chaps they waxed eloquent on was a registered sex offender with an unpleasant past. Anyway, long story short, the response from the paper when this was brought to their attention was along the lines of: "yeah, we screwed up, here's a nonapologetic apology, but, c'mon, do you really think it's reasonable to run criminal offender checks on everyone we interview?" For myself, I was glad to see them caught on an underreasearched front page item for about the third time in a year, but I have to agree, where does due diligence end?

NED?!?! You want to count o... (Below threshold)
Paul:

NED?!?! You want to count on FEMA to get the right answer.... Dude that's funny.

I think this is covered by ... (Below threshold)

I think this is covered by the phrase "A story that is too good to check". If over the year we saw the NYT was truly unbiased and got caught out on sources 6 times by sources who were supportive of Bush and 6 times by sources who were critical of Bush, I would agree with you. But when the paper continually runs stories critical to Bush and sees the sources (here, the abu gharib story to name a couple in the last month or so) always on the critical to Bush side lying to them, the burden of proof of innoncense on the NYT side changes.

The bottom line is not that I expect NYT to be perfect, but that I expect them to be honest in their reporting. The difference is that when I see a constant drum beat on one side of an issue, with very little counterbalancing to give a broader context, then I question their honesty. They aren't trying to give both sides of the story, just one. And when they go that direction, they better be 100% sure of their facts.

At this point, the MSM has cried wolf to many times for me to take them credibly. They have done this to themselves. I wish it wasn't true and see a real opportunity for an organization to provide the news gathering function without the bias. Such an evenhanded news gathering would meet a huge unmet need and likely be very financially rewarding to the company that could pull it off. But its clear that the NYT is not that organization.

NED>1) "Therefore ... (Below threshold)
Paul:

NED

>1) "Therefore it seems that SOME level of checking her story should be done, since that IS the story, "


DUDE? Did you miss the reporter talked to her case working for the Sal Army? And mutiple other witnisess???? There was SOME level of checkign the story a few days worth.

#2 I already covered. She was scamming FEMA too. Besides a federal agency isn't going to give out private info.

You're grasping at straws.

--------------------------------

Faith+1

>The problem, Paul, is in the first part of your sentence. Who determines "credible story".

The reporter.... Is the story internally consistant? Does it smell like a line of bull? We all have BS detectors.

If a reporter has to go thru life assuming that everyone is leading a double life and lyign to them, they'd never get any work done, they just be snoops.

>If the story was intent on being a hatchet job on FEMA and you accepted her word because her claims went along with the bias that FEMA was guilty then it becomes MORE important to double check things.

In a way it does not matter if she was real or imagined. (follow me) FEMA was jerking her chain eother way. That she was a fraud does not make FEMA any better. FEMA is clueless. They've wasted BILLIONS of dollars in this. If the NYT wants to do a hachet job on FEMA they can find THOUSANDS of people to profile. This woman's "case" was not unusual.

--------------------------------

ed, So being an idiot is OK if they do would do the same if they were in our shoes?

--------------------------------

and John read my reply to Faithy... That this woman was scamming FEMA doesn't change the fact that FEMA is the most screwed up agency in goverment. (well except the Corps) It is/was so bad down here FEMA people were not wearing FEMA t-shirts.

(think for a second) If the facts abuout FEMA were correct it does not matter that this woman was a fraud... She could be the pink panther if FEMA was not doing its job it was not doing its job.

Forget politics for a second and use your brain.

Besides, the Times can run 10 stories a day on FEMA and still not cover it all... Don't make me do any FEMA blogging, it won't be pretty. ;-)

Paul, all the reporter woul... (Below threshold)
Willie:

Paul, all the reporter would have to do after spending severals hours with her is ask what her address was in Biloxi and check it. Maybe 10 minutes worth of phone time. Face it, reporters in the MSM are lazy.

I think that it is clear th... (Below threshold)
docjim505:

I think that it is clear that Confessore wrote his story in good faith. Might he have done a bit more checking? Well, perhaps. But yetanotherjon raises a very important point: the MSM in general and the NYT in particular have been caught out several times recently for shoddy reporting, and one would think that the editors at the Times would be EXTREMELY careful to avoid more such events in order to rebuild their reputation. Caesar's wife, you know...

Maybe I sound like an eBay commercial but our society is based on the fact that, as a rule, most people are basically honest.

A reasonable philosophy, unless you're a police officer or a banker... or a news reporter.

Faith+1 is also bang-on:

It seems the press is more willing to determine a story is "credible" if it happens to be a story that runs in the same direction as the reporter's bias.

We are all guilty of this; it's only natural to believe information that supports opinions that we already have. My guess is that Confessore agrees with "the fact that FEMA is the most screwed up agency in goverment". If he had taken the opposite view, might he have been a bit more cautious about taking Fenton's word, or even written off her problems as one of those regrettable but absolutely normal instances where people get shafted by the bureacracy?

>Paul, all the reporter wou... (Below threshold)
Paul:

>Paul, all the reporter would have to do after spending severals hours with her is ask what her address was in Biloxi and check it. Maybe 10 minutes worth of phone time.

Willie, perhaps you don't understand something. It is not a complete exageration to say Biloxi ain't there no more. Nobody is going to be able to verify anything down there.


Hmmm.ed, ... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

ed, So being an idiot is OK if they do would do the same if they were in our shoes?

How on earth you got that from what I wrote I'll never understand.

My point is that NYT, along with the rest of the MSM, constantly hammer on blogs and alternative media over issues of fact checking and grossly exaggerate any mistakes made. These same organizations also make the specific point of contrasting their professional journalists, editors and the whole editorial/review process as the superior example to which bloggers could not hope to hold a candle to.

So.

My point was that were the situation reversed, i.e. you had made serious factual error and brought up short by the NYT, they wouldn't afford you the graciousness of giving you an out but would instead attack you.

So how you got that idea from my writing is a complete mystery frankly.

Paul,The story is ... (Below threshold)
NewEnglandDevil:

Paul,

The story is that she isn't getting FEMA benefits. If she isn't getting FEMA benefits, why not? Go to the person handling the case and you find out.... that file is on hold pending further investigation, perhaps?

You say they're not going to give out personal information - but federal agencies give out all kinds of information - FOIA. Also, if this is an investigative story designed to effect an outcome (just resolution), perhaps she gets a notarized assent from the subject for FEMA to release personal information. I don't think we're moving mountains here.

FWIW - I like what you and the rest of the crew write here. I'm a civil engineer and have thoroughly appreciated the work you've done on the levee issues. I wasn't attacking you. I believe that there's room for disagreement. You don't have to freak out.

NED

Also, the reporter that wro... (Below threshold)
SCSIwuzzy:

Also, the reporter that wrote the story also wrote the retraction, without mentioning his own role in the screw-up. Only the 3rd person references to the Times.
Still, unlike 60 minutes, the Times fessed up, so that is still worth some recognition.

Paul, I agree with Ed. I h... (Below threshold)
willie:

Paul, I agree with Ed. I hit this blog a couple times a day. Enjoy it and it is well written. I know Biloxi is not there. The State of Mississippi is, as well as google earth, many sources. I just disagree with you. You are defending the NYT for sloppy, lazy work.

The problem I had with Katr... (Below threshold)
Jim:

The problem I had with Katrina reporting, in general, is that the press got so much wrong and the President is constantly badgered because of it.

If the NY Times wants to do something constructive, perhaps they could expand on a story, in Popular Mechanics, on the Myths of Katrina. Of course they wouldn't want to do that because it would take away a Bush Bash Point.

Perhaps we'll have to wait for the Ladies Home Journal, or some other basttion of news, to do that story.




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