Friday, July 01, 2005
On journalism: The Sacramento Bee's Diana Griego Erwin quit a couple months back after questions were raised by editors about one of her columns. The results of an investigation into Griego Erwin's work show that she created dozens of columns from whole cloth.
An internal investigation into the published work of former Bee columnist Diana Griego Erwin found 43 cases in which individuals named by the writer could not be authenticated as real people.
Griego Erwin, whose column ran three days a week on The Bee's Metro page, resigned May 11 after she failed to substantiate details from several recent columns. She has denied fabricating any information.
The Bee investigation - conducted by reporters, editors and researchers - initially focused on Griego Erwin's work during the previous 16 months.
From Jan. 1, 2004, until her final column on April 26, Griego Erwin wrote 171 columns. The Bee's investigation found 30 names in 27 separate columns that could not be verified during that time period. The people could not be found in voter registration rolls, property records, telephone books, identity databases or through scores of phone calls.
In light of those findings, the review expanded to include a sampling of columns spanning her 12-year tenure with the newspaper, and 13 additional cases in another 10 columns were found.
Many of the columns in question fit a template: essays, often with a surprising O. Henry twist, about a singular person who faces a challenge and surmounts it. Their stories frequently reflect a theme taken from current headlines - wildfires, for example, or prison brutality, school shootings, murderous road rage or a high-profile trial.
Unlike The New York Times' Jayson Blair, Griego Erwin got her position because she had worked as part of a team on a story that won a Pulitzer Prize at the Denver Post. It appears as though Griego Erwin got where she was through hard work -- and then got lazy.
Earlier this month, Chris Cecil of The Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Ga., was fired for plagiarizing from syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts.
Unfortunately, the ethical problems don't stop there. Time magazine announced yesterday that it would be buckling under to a government subpoena and providing a federal prosecutor with reporter Matt Cooper's notes regarding the Valerie Plame leak investigation. (This is a mistake Time and The New York Times -- along with just about every other media outlet -- brought upon themselves in an effort to "get" the Bush White House.)
The press -- especially the closer you get to the Washington beltway -- uses far too many anonymous sources (and too often for the most trivial of reasons/information).
However, once that promise is given, the debate is over.
The courts, over the decades, have properly been reticent to force reporters to reveal their sources -- the practice can have a chilling effect on newsgathering. So, when it comes to this point, reporters and the media organizations they work for are not above the law.
As rare as it is for me to write The New York Times is doing the right thing here in refusing to name names. Time magazine is doing the wrong thing. Times reporter Judith Miller should be spending some time in prison and Pinch Sulzberger will be a little poorer, but that's the way the system works.
Time's reporters are going to have a very difficult time getting information from reticent sources for a long time -- and they have only themselves to blame.
There is some talk on Capitol Hill about new legislation that would prevent the situation Times reporters Miller and Cooper find themselves in today. As much as I'd like to embrace legislation that would probably protect me (I have a journalism degree and work at a major metropolitan newspaper), I am loath to put judges in a position where they determine who exactly deserves the protection of a so-called "shield law" and who does not. I'm already troubled by the Federal Elections Commission's hearings on the possibility of regulating bloggers. Imagine the wrath, not to mention lawsuits, that would be unleashed if the FEC were considering similar regulations for TV news, newspapers or newsmagazines.
The system works, even if sometimes it doesn't work the way we'd like it to.