Repeating rumors is not the newspaper's job

February 20, 2005|By Paul Moore

ON THE DAY Mayor Martin O'Malley denounced rumors he had had an extramarital affair - rumors that became public when a state employee and longtime aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich was discovered spreading them on the Internet - reader Neal M. Smith asked: "Why is it that The Sun has not reported on the specifics of these rumors? Everyone in Baltimore knew about them. Do your job!"

Reporters and editors have been doing their jobs. They had been pursuing rumors and tips about O'Malley but could not confirm them. Because The Sun does not report unsubstantiated rumors in the news pages, no matter who or what the subject is, no article about the O'Malley rumors was ever published.

Sun reporter Laura Vozzella noted in the Feb. 13 front-page article, "Every news organization in town had tried to nail the O'Malley story, scouring courts for divorce filings or paternity suits, seeking records of the mayor's travel and security detail. They all came up empty-handed."

Mr. Smith was still not convinced. "It is The Sun's apparent lack of performance that I question. There are too many unanswered questions. There is a saying, `History is nothing but a fable agreed upon.' It seems that your reporting of this story is nothing but a fable agreed upon. ... "

The implication is that The Sun was not aggressive in reporting about the rumors because it did not want to embarrass O'Malley.

Other readers questioned why the newspaper did not write about the woman alleged to be involved. Again, The Sun could not substantiate any of those rumors. "We have no interest in putting her name in the newspaper only to satisfy some of our readers' curiosity," said Deputy Managing Editor Sandy Banisky. "There is too much at stake."

Because anonymous figures can use Web sites to make accusations that can destroy reputations and careers, a newspaper cannot allow competitive pressures or any other reason to lower its standards. Although some might question this, The Sun takes these standards very seriously.

While investigating the O'Malley rumors last year, reporters and editors discovered that rumors had appeared on The Sun's own Web site bulletin boards (also called forums). After failing to find any truth to the rumors, Web site managers deleted the postings about O'Malley and banned users who had posted them, citing violations of the user agreement.

That agreement specifically bans postings that are threatening, disparaging, misleading or "contain gross exaggeration or unsubstantiated claims." Tim Windsor, deputy general manager for interactive, said reminding users of the terms of the agreement greatly reduced the number of posts about the rumors. "However, there was also a marked increase, both through e-mails and postings on the boards, in claims by readers that we were showing O'Malley favoritism by deleting the posts," Windsor said. "We responded that we would apply the same rules to any post making unfounded claims of such a personal nature."

After the story about state worker Joseph Steffen and his Web site postings about O'Malley broke this month, The Sun investigated its own Web site to see if Steffen had posted any messages on its bulletin boards. He had not.

Vozzella's Feb. 13 story also mentions the rumors of an extramarital affair that surrounded Gov. Parris N. Glendening during his final years in office. The Sun pursued the story - which proved true - that Glendening had a personal relationship with a staff member, whom he later married.

A key issue was whether the relationship had caused the staff member to be promoted and whether the governor's relationship was an abuse of public trust or public dollars. "In the end, we could never establish that," Banisky said. "We did not write the story until the governor himself discussed the situation."

On Feb. 15, The Sun's David Nitkin advanced the rumor story when he reported in a column that another participant on the Web site where Steffen operated might have enticed him into spreading rumors about O'Malley.

Steffen's most damaging comments came in e-mail exchanges with MD4BUSH, the username of a Web site member who, Nitkin reports, could be a Democratic operative or even an O'Malley ally. Nitkin points out that minutes after The Washington Post broke the Steffen story on its Web site, "MD4BUSH gathered all exchanges from NCPAC [Steffen's username] and posted them in a convenient place on the Web site." This indicates prior knowledge of the content and timing of the Post story.

Reader Paul Stancil said: "After reading Mr. Nitkin's fine piece, I have a newfound respect for your reporting. I would imagine that you are following up with the Web site owner. I can't wait for you to solve this `political question.'"

Reporters call it "rumor patrol," and chasing leads in pursuit of what is fact and what is not can consume a significant amount of their time. The search is worth it, however, if their efforts bring facts to light or lay rumors to rest.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

The public editor

Readers who have concerns or comments may contact The Sun's public editor at 410- 332-6364 or toll-free at 800- 829-8000, ext. 6364; by fax at 410-783-2502; or by e-mail at publiceditor@baltsun.com.

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