Media scandals tarnish all journalists It's been a rough year for the Fourth Estate

August 30, 1998|By Gerald P. Merrell

A few weeks ago, three newspaper editors were invited to speak before one of the large law firms in the city. The tenor of the meeting was quickly set: William Donald Schaefer welcomed us with remarks that were both good-natured and acrimonious. That was hardly shocking; the former governor has never let pass an opportunity to disparage the press.

Everyone laughed politely, but everyone in the crowded Center Club ballroom also knew he was saying what many of them, as well as millions of others in homes and offices around the country, think about the media.

That became clear a moment later when an attorney in the audience prefaced a question to me by observing: "You just write want you want to. You don't care what the facts are."

I responded, of course, with proper indignation. "You may think that, but you're wrong," I protested vehemently. "Reporters don't write their opinions. And if they tried, their editors wouldn't let them. We work very hard to be fair, accurate and balanced."

As a smile slowly formed across his face, it was obvious he wasn't buying a word of it. The attorney (I don't know his name) is probably laughing uncontrollably today. And who could blame him?

Beginning this spring, the profession that I cherish and have devoted 28 years to has been scandalized by revelations that some of the most respected and gifted people in the news media have violated sacred journalistic principles:

* The Cincinnati Enquirer apologized and agreed to pay $10 million to Chiquita Brand International for an expose accusing the company of, among other things, spraying Costa Rican workers with toxic chemicals and bribing Colombian officials. It also fired the reporter for stealing hundreds of voice mails at Chiquita's headquarters.

* The New Republic revealed that its star reporter, Stephen Glass, had fabricated all or parts of 27 stories. Glass quit.

* CNN and Time magazine were forced to retract a joint story charging the U.S. military with using deadly gas on American defectors in Laos in 1970.

* The Boston Globe had to admit that many of the tragic characters in award-winning writer Patricia Smith's columns were sheer fabrications. Smith resigned.

* If that wasn't enough, the Globe's star columnist, Mike Barnicle, resigned amid allegations that he plagiarized a book and fabricated a heart-wrenching account of two families, one white, one black, whose sons became friends in a Boston hospital cancer ward.

Someone observed long ago that reporting the news is writing a first rough draft of history, to be revised as more facts emerge and with the clarity that comes with time.

At its best, journalism exposes wrongdoing and abuses of office among public servants, such as former state Sen. Larry Young, the first to be removed from the General Assembly in two centuries. Or it points out appalling working conditions ignored or, worse, sanctioned by government, that destroy the physical and emotional health of men and women, like those who break down this country's old ships whose only value is for scrap iron. Or it reveals a social problem, like The Sun's series examining why 89 percent of the third-grade students in Baltimore's public schools read below satisfactorily levels.

With such stories, reporters shine the big spotlight of the newspaper on issues of public importance and serve to prod mayors, governors, even presidents into corrective action.

Journalism, though, is not always at its best. Indeed, it is imperfect on most days. Sometimes we can't even spell someone's name correctly or get a simple title right or the correct date or place. At The Sun, the staff has more discussions about accuracy and fairness than any other subject. Our editors are quick to reprimand us when we make careless and maddening mistakes, rightfully observing that these errors erode our credibility and wondering how readers can believe us on the major issues when we can't get the small details right.

However, the recent disclosures about our industry aren't so simply assailed. They aren't just abrt everyone in journalism, even those who would never think of corrupting themselves for the sake of making a story more vivid, compelling or readable. The effects of the recentid disclosures aren't limited to only those reporters who committed them or to vert.

The media won't recover that easily.

Gerald P. Merrell is The Sun's Business Editor.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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