A year of media missteps in rewind

Roundup: Jayson Blair and The New York Times weren't the only ones guilty of journalistic sins. Here are the top 10 blunders of 2003.

December 28, 2003|By David Shaw | David Shaw,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Thanks to Jayson Blair, Howell Raines and several of their colleagues at The New York Times, it would be relatively easy to compile a Times-only list for this year's report on the worst moments in American journalism. But as another famous, unindicted co-conspirator once said, "It would be wrong."

Well, OK, maybe it wouldn't be wrong. I mean, just look at the year that was on West 43rd Street:

Blair's serial fabrications. Raines' arrogant reign and forced resignation. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger's bullying The Washington Post into leaving their partnership at The International Herald Tribune.

Judith Miller's dubious weapons of mass destruction reports from Iraq - and the equally dubious ground rules under which she obtained those reports. Rick Bragg's lazy use of stringers to do his reporting for him.

Photographer Ed Keating leaving the paper under fire after having been accused of staging a photo of a boy with a toy gun. The Times obituary on Katharine Sergava, a singer and actress who appeared in the original production of Oklahoma! - and who was very much alive when The Times reported her death on Dec. 4.

The Times story that said a prominent Harlem, N.Y., photographer was so close to his twin brother that when the brother died of testicular cancer, he "had his own testicles removed" - except that, as a subsequent correction acknowledged, the first brother died of prostate cancer and the second brother did not have his testicles removed.

That's almost a full top - bottom? - 10, right off the top of my head.

But its manifest shortcomings notwithstanding, The New York Times remains - day in and day out - the best newspaper in America. So in the interest of fairness - and to avoid picking over incidents that I and others already have spent a forest worth of newsprint on - I think I'll leave The New York Times out of my list of the Terrible 10.

With that in mind, I can't really call the list the 10 worst, so here are 10 among - alas - many, in no particular order:

Just because we're giving The New York Times a pass, there's no reason to be equally charitable to the second-most-talked-about Manhattan daily, the New York Post, of "Headless Body in Topless Bar" headline fame. Indeed, a list of this sort without at least one Post entry would be as unimaginable as it would be illegitimate.

So for 2003, how about the Post reporting that a certain Hall of Fame baseball pitcher "cooperated with a best-selling biography only because the author promised to keep secret that he is gay." Both the author (Jane Leavy) and the pitcher (Sandy Koufax) said there was no such deal, and the Post apologized - but not before Koufax severed ties with the Dodgers because they're owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which also owns The Post.

Now that Murdoch is severing his own ties with the Dodgers, maybe Koufax will return - and not just as a coach or consultant. Even now, just shy of his 68th birthday, he would be better on the field than that collection of losers and spoiled brats that Murdoch's executives have assembled.

The aptly named Michael Savage, responding to a gay caller on his MSNBC Savage Nation show, said, "You should only get AIDS and die, you pig!"

MSNBC termed Savage's comment "extremely inappropriate" and canceled his show.

The Washington Post was one of several U.S. news organizations to swallow the Pentagon's public relations hooey on how Jessica Lynch was "fighting to the death" and "did not want to be taken alive" in Iraq. The Post, citing unnamed U.S. officials, said Lynch fought fiercely after her unit was ambushed, shot several enemy soldiers and continued firing until she ran out of ammunition and had sustained multiple gunshot wounds. The Post also said she was stabbed by Iraqi soldiers. As a subsequent Post story acknowledged, none of that happened.

Oh, well, it could have been worse. The Post could have said Lynch personally captured Saddam Hussein. Of course, then President Bush would have said that she caught Saddam and Osama bin Laden together but that bin Laden slipped away - with the help of the Democratic National Committee.

Bob Ryan, a sports columnist for The Boston Globe, didn't like it when Joumana Kidd, whose husband, Jason, is a star guard with the New Jersey Nets, brought her young son to a Nets game. "She wants face time on camera," Ryan said on a Boston TV show. "The great way to get face time is to bring the cute, little, precocious kid. Oh, great. I'd like to smack her."

Globe editors suspended Ryan for a month. They should have had Jason and Joumana Kidd smack him. Simultaneously.

Brian Walski, a Los Angeles Times photographer since 1998, used his computer to combine elements of two photographs, taken moments apart in Iraq, into one photograph that was published on the front page of The Times. That's a no-no. Times policy prohibits altering the content of news photographs. So The Times altered Walski's career. He was fired.

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