CAMERA OP-ED: Journalists Behaving Badly

In a remarkable series of articles in late May, Geneva Overholser, the outgoing Ombudsman at the Washington Post and formerly the editor of a major Midwest newspaper, offered her observations about the state of journalism generally and conditions at the Post specifically. Overholser described the dilemma readers often face in bringing substantive criticism to the attention of the Post.

She wrote: “I’ve passed along substantial comments [to Post staff] from thoughtful readers, only to hear: ‘The letter writer is a dope.’ Or, ‘That reader is an idiot, and frankly I’m surprised you don’t think so.'” Overholser also stressed the importance of reporters hewing to ethical journalistic standards. She urged them never to think they have “outgrown the basics: separating news and opinion; attributing quotes; writing with clarity; being fair, accurate, balanced and comprehensive.” When mistakes are made, she said, “correct errors readily and thoroughly.”

Unfortunately, Overholser’s candor about Post attitudes and her emphasis on the importance of accuracy and public accountability have had little discernable impact on the influential newspaper. A May 31 column by syndicated columnist Mary McGrory blasting House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his statements in support of Israeli policy in Jerusalem contains numerous errors the newspaper has refused to correct.

McGrory wrote: “Even so sloppy a student of history as the speaker has to have noticed the radioactive quality of real estate in Jerusalem. He should know that 66 people died when the Israelis by night built a tunnel under a temple site holy to both Jews and Arabs.”

  • The Israelis, of course, did not build a tunnel (in September 1996); they opened a new exit to an existing tunnel, parts of which were more than two thousand years old. Other, modern sections of the tourist tunnel had been open for more than a decade.
  • The Israelis did not build under any structure; the tunnel runs along the outer, Western wall of the Temple Mount. The opening of the new door had no impact whatsoever on any structures and was, moreover, several blocks away from Muslim shrines, none of which suffered the slightest effects from Israel’s action.
  • The Israelis did not harm any sites holy to Arabs. In claiming they had McGrory, whose record of espousing Arab views goes back decades, repeated a false charge that had violent consequences when it was used by Palestinian Authority and Islamic officials to incite Arab anger during the 1996 crisis.

  • McGrory also got the casualty figure wrong with regard to that crisis. She cites 66 dead, but the number of Arabs killed is put variously at 58 to 70, and the number of Israelis killed at 15. McGrory has apparently cited a figure that excludes Israeli losses because 73 is the minimum possible total if the lowest Arab casualty figure of 58 is added to the 15 Israeli dead. (Ignoring the Israeli victims is consistent with McGrory’s singular lack of interest in and all but nonexistent commentary on the many bloody terrorist assaults against Israelis.)

McGrory had previously written similar muddled nonsense about the tunnel.A year earlier, in a column attacking Israel, McGrory had claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “ordered a midnight construction of a tunnel under the Wailing Wall”!

A survey of McGrory’s writings turns up many other errors; the question is why her editors at the Post are so blithely indifferent to them. McGrory herself ducked phone calls and ignored letters about the tunnel inaccuracies. Her editors promised to “check with her” on the issues, but in the end the publication took a pass. The false statements remain, uncorrected. Sadly, news databases store McGrory’s columns, which means the public may be further deceived as other journalists, students and researchers read and repeat the inaccurate claims published by the Post.

But Overholser’s call to ethical journalism is as urgently warranted at other media outlets as at the Post. CNN, for example, in a sensational blunder, recently aired a story alleging that Americans used Sarin nerve gas against US troops in Laos. When it turned out the report hinged on the unsubstantiated “recovered memory” of a soldier who only recalled the event during a conversation with CNN, the story unraveled. CNN’s military advisor resigned in angry protest at not being consulted about the specious report.

Did CNN swiftly acknowledge its derelict reporting in a straightforward correction and move to restore public trust in the network? On the contrary, rather than owning up to its mistakes, CNN acted instead as though the falsehoods purveyed were a matter of discussion and debate. The network proceeded, in effect, to “spin” its own blunder.

Not until two weeks later, under intense pressure from media reports that exposed CNN’s embarrasing blunders, did the the network concede the nerve gas story was baseless and fire some, not all, of the journalists involved.

An even greater arrogance about public accountability has been evident in CNN’s coverage of Israel. However obvious and unambiguous the error, officials have refused to issue corrections. Thus CNN’s Walter Rodgers has deplored Israeli policies in Jerusalem and claimed they are decimating the Arab population of the city. The truth is the Arab sector is growing four times faster than the Jewish community. Nevertheless, despite CNN’s having been supplied abundant corroboration of the facts, the error stands uncorrected.

Why the widespread failure to admit error and provide corrections, a failure that fuels public cynicism about the media? The answer is to be found not just in the natural human reluctance to admit fault; it has to do with the absence at newspapers and networks of any efforts to vet reports through serious fact-checking mechanisms. Likewise, the correction process is frequently ad hoc, with little or no system in place to investigate complaints and move toward a public retraction. Most newspapers and networks rely almost entirely on their reporters’ assessments of criticism, offer no independent appraisal of the issue in contention and back up their correspondents regardless of the substance of the public challenge.

In the case of Mary McGrory’s error-riddled writing, one Washington Post editor declared that the paper would not “presume” to make judgements about the accuracy of her articles. The decision on whether corrections are required is up to…Mary McGrory! So much for responsible editorial oversight.

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