The risks of reporting on reporting of others

September 19, 2004|By Paul Moore

AS THE MEDIA landscape grows more diverse and standards begin to bend, newspapers face even greater challenges maintaining credibility. A recent high-profile example illuminates the problems of reporting on other people's reporting: presenting stories without full knowledge of the news-gathering procedures and the viability of the sources that were used.

On Sept. 8, CBS' 60 Minutes broadcast a report that President Bush sought and received preferential treatment during his Texas Air National Guard service during the early 1970s. The Sun, as it did when the CBS program broke the story about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse, produced a staff-written story about the 60 Minutes report and published it on the Sept. 9 front page. Many other newspapers did the same.

Almost immediately, the authenticity of the documents used by 60 Minutes was questioned. Beginning with reports on independent Web sites and moving quickly to mainstream media outlets, the veracity of the sources was challenged. The issue of document authenticity, which primarily focuses on whether the typeface and spacing of the 1970s' Guard memos were available on typewriters of that era, is not yet resolved.

Since then, The Sun has published a number of articles, mostly by media reporter David Folkenflik, about the expanding examination of 60 Minutes' procedures and the sources used in its report. Some of these stories appeared on the front page, some inside the A section and one on the Today section front.

The confusion this created for readers was partly a result of the confusion The Sun seemed to experience in determining the essence of the story. "It has become a story about the media," Mr. Folkenflik said in an interview, "and the issues that CBS raised have become obscured."

For example:

On Sept. 10, The Sun published an Associated Press report about the authenticity of the documents inside the newspaper - without a front-page notice of the article. Some Sun readers were frustrated. Linda Youngworth of Mount Washington said it showed bias not to put the second story on the front page as well. "It was very newsworthy, and The Sun was being very unfair to President Bush," she said. Other readers simply assumed the documents were forgeries and blamed the newspaper for "burying the truth."

As the number of detractors grew, CBS anchor Dan Rather made a vigorous defense of the story. Mr. Folkenflik's article about Mr. Rather, CBS and other developments ran on the Sept. 11 front page. Reader John C. Howard, who said he is an Air Force veteran from the Vietnam era, wrote: "I am most thankful for your printing this story on the front page, for it shows impartial reporting by The Sun and should help put to bed any charge of bias."

The Sun published a Sept. 12 wire reports article on the front page when a source for the 60 Minutes report admitted he now believed the documents were fake. On Monday, Mr. Folkenflik wrote another story that reported in detail some questionable procedures used by 60 Minutes.

On Thursday, Mr. Folkenflik's article "CBS agrees to try to resolve document dispute," which reported the network has begun its own review, was placed on Page 10A. Paula Mullis of Joppatowne said, "I'm not surprised that The Sun did not put this story on the front page where it belongs, but I think readers see there's no sense of consistency here."

CBS is a credible television network and 60 Minutes is a credible program. The Sun considers CBS' reporting reliable. Still, when any news organization is not doing original reporting, there is less control over the content. After questions arose, The Sun should have done its own investigative reporting, as it did when the Abu Ghraib story broke.

The influence of a heated and contentious presidential campaign also affects how a news organization reacts. "It's at the intersection between the media and politics," Mr. Folkenflik said. "Both sides have contributed to the blurring of the lines. But there still must be a clear pursuit of the facts."

The pursuit of facts cannot be obscured by the debate over whether the Air National Guard service story is fair to President Bush. The effort to determine whether the president did indeed fulfill his service obligations is not a partisan effort, despite protestations to the contrary.

Readers or viewers, however, cannot be expected to trust 60 Minutes, The Sun, The Washington Post, The New York Times or The Washington Times solely because of their traditional institutional standing. Only demanding strict adherence to reporting and editing standards will give readers reasons to trust us.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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