Catherine, Elkridge: If reporters who have reached positions at very large papers are basically liars, why should the public have any faith that reporters at smaller papers are reporting the facts?
Folkenflik: Editors at small-town newspapers say they are far more likely
to be held accountable for mistakes or misrepresentations than their
counterparts at major national newspapers such as The New York Times or USA Today, the two that have suffered the worst credibility scandals of late.
Mistakes on the local level are keenly felt and spark outrage on the home
turf of editors (and publishers). That's one reason why many older
reporters questioned why Jayson Blair had written only for big papers such
as the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and the Times instead of learning the ropes through traditional means -- like covering nighttime crime for a small-city daily.
Albert, Clarksville: Do you think Jack Kelley, [formerly of USA Today] and
Jayson Blair [formerly of The New York Times] show that there is a problem
with the ethics division at the journalism school at the University of
Folkenflik: It is an astonishing and disturbing coincidence that both
attended the University of Maryland's journalism school. I tend to believe,
however, that it is just that -- a coincidence. Kelley graduated in 1982;
Blair attended from January 1995 through May 1999, though he did not
graduate. The school went through many changes between their tenures on
campus; it has become far more integrated into the profession, hiring
distinguished reporters and editors as faculty, and serving as the host of
the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the National Association of
Bill Kovach, former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who was on the panel that wrote a report that provided vivid examples of the failures of editors at USA Today to catch Kelley, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that he thought the proximity to Washington may have allowed both Kelley and Blair to get caught up in celebrity journalism. I'm not sure that I agree there is a
true connection. Kelley's career progressed entirely through his work at
USA Today. He joined the newspaper in 1982 before it published its first
edition and cultivated relationships with well-placed patrons there in
subsequent years. Blair, on the other hand, was reliant on the contacts and
support he received from faculty and administrators at College Park's
journalism school to advance from internship to internship and paper to
paper; I wrote about his relationship to the University of Maryland in this
story from Feb. 29.
Steve, Towson: Does hiring an editor at USA Today with a Gannett pedigree stand to perpetuate the problems that created this situation in the first
Folkenflik: I think that's a very valid question. Many of the people I
spoke to during the USA Today debacle wanted the newspaper to name someone like Kovach himself, who had also been a senior figure at The New York
Times but had never been a Gannett editor. Perhaps more than any other
newspaper company, Gannett has a very defined corporate culture, with an
overriding emphasis on profits and a specific way of managing staffs and
approaching the news. It was the very management of USA Today that came
under such fire from the panel reviewing the Kelley scandal. And Kenneth A.
Paulson, the new editor, is very much a Gannett editor who also trained at
USA Today and worked for founder Al Neuharth. But Paulson -- read his
biography here -- has been well-received by a staff craving credibility and reform and deserves a chance to show what kind of news report he envisions. His new number two, John Hillkirk, is highly respected within the newspaper industry.
Ronnie, Clarksville: How does Kelly write a story that he had an exclusive
with Elian Gonzalez that never happened? There wasn't a single person to
check that the meeting actually happened? How does this happen?
Folkenflik: Back in January 2000, Kelley wrote a story of visiting with
Elian Gonzalez's father at the father's home in Cardenas, Cuba. Last month,
a team of reporters for the newspaper found that he had made up the story,
that he had not visited the father there at all. My guess -- and it's simply
that -- is that the deception relied on two factors. First, I think Kelley
was trusted as someone who could deliver compelling narratives from far-off
places. And second, there's not a free flow of information between the U.S.
and Cuba. So even an article in USA Today might not get wide circulation
there. Had objections been lodged by officials of Fidel Castro's autocratic
regime, they might not have been taken seriously. And, as the story was
essentially sympathetic to Elian's father, who wanted the boy returned to
Cuba, there was not much grounds for protest.
Joe, Baltimore: Why does The Sun never include transgressions that have
appeared in its own pages when writing about fabrications?
Folkenflik: I wouldn't say never. For example, here's a passage from the
article I wrote last May after Blair was forced to resign from the Times:
"The problem of the fabrication or lifting of material has cropped up at
many newspapers. In recent years, The Sun fired a classical music critic
and reprimanded an art critic for appropriating passages from specialized
texts in separate stories. The Globe fired two columnists for pieces that
could not be verified. And the [San Antonio] Express-News itself
experienced two incidents in which writers reproduced information from
other publications without attribution."
I recognize we could do that every time we write about such issues,
but I'm not sure that's always the best use of our space. Context matters --
is the article about the industry, or about The Sun or about a specific
instance elsewhere? Have we put it on the record? Are we keeping faith with
our readers? These are reasonable questions. But, on balance, I think we do
a fairly good job. We certainly try and we talk about these issues
Rick, Westminster: Can changes at the top of an organization such as USA
Today really do anything to curtail renegade reporters? Why aren't people
with more direct contact with the reporter in question being affected?
Folkenflik: The three top editors at USA Today over Kelley are no longer
there -- Editor Karen Jurgensen hastily retired, Executive Editor Brian
Gallagher has been reassigned to run the editorial pages, and Managing
Editor Hal Ritter resigned after meeting with the paper's publisher. It
certainly sends an internal message that ultimately people are accountable
for what happens under their watch. Additionally, I wouldn't be surprised
if the new management team led by Paulson makes significant changes over
time at the editing positions below them. Some of the key editors, such as
former deputy managing editor Mark Memmott, are already in different jobs.
He's now a reporter, a position he voluntarily sought before the Kelley
scandal erupted. So I'd say reporters within USA Today are hopeful that
changes are real and the newspaper can work to restore its credibility. My
story from last week, when Paulson was named USA Today's editor and when
other newsroom appointments were made at the newspaper, can be read here.
Janice, Glenn Dale: Are there other journalists at USA Today who are
suspected of fabricating stories, too?
Folkenflik: Not to my knowledge. The review panel led by USA Today's
founding editorial director, John Seigenthaler, and the team of reporters,
led by Hillkirk, had a fairly broad mandate. But I haven't heard they
turned up anything on anyone else.
Chuck, Sykesville: The Sun wants us to consider it a trusted source of
information. But what steps is it taking to ensure that the kind of public
deception that occurred at The New York Times and USA Today doesn't happen?
Folkenflik: I think newspaper editors here and elsewhere are going to have
to rise to confront that challenge squarely. Since the Blair scandal, The
Sun's editors have spoken openly with reporters and staff about the
overriding need for precision, accuracy, fairness and integrity in our
reporting. Our internal guidelines about using unidentified sources, which
have always been relatively strict, have become even more rigorous, with
review at the highest levels of the newsroom in most instances. And the
paper's publisher, Denise Palmer, has appointed Paul Moore, a senior and
experienced journalist, to become Public Editor, a position he took over at
the end of last month. He's already been filing internal memos to the staff
about coverage issues -- some comments positive, some negative. He'll be
fielding complaints from readers as well as the subjects of stories to
determine whether the newspaper handled things fairly. And he'll be writing
a regular column about coverage issues. To guarantee that he's not beholden
to the newsroom, he'll be reporting to the publisher, not editors. In my
role covering the media, I've also tried to make sure to include the
newspaper when it seemed warranted, from overhype of the Ravens during the
Super Bowl run a few years ago to the prickly relationship between Maryland
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and The Sun last year.
Bill, Towson: Why, in your opinion, has there been so many instances of
fabricated stories in the last few years? With the exception of the Janet
Cooke case, you never heard of such things -- maybe they were hushed by the
news organizations involved. Now we've had reporters and columnists at the
Boston Globe, New York Times, USA Today and even your paper, The Sun, fired over such transgressions.
Folkenflik: I think newspapers once tended to handle things quietly. Print
reporters, save for a few high-profile columnists, aren't so well known
publicly. The only reason we all know Janet Cooke is because her story won
a Pulitzer -- had she been a metro reporter dismissed by the Post, we never
would have recognized her name. But now, with bloggers such as Matt Drudge
and Jim Romenesko posting such transgressions, it gets picked up by the
national news. So we all know more about these things than we once did.
In addition, it's probably easier to plagiarize and fabricate things than ever
before, thanks to Google searches. But it's also easier for someone else to
go back and check, whether to see if juicy quotes appear in previous
articles, or to reach people with first-hand knowledge of those places and
see if the accounts ring true.
Note from Folkenflik: That's it. Thanks for all the great questions.
David Folkenflik on USA Today debacle
Media critic answers readers' questions about Jack Kelley and reporting scandals at other newspapers
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