PODIUM

Just tell it like it really is!

'Newspapers shouldn't reserve all their skepticism for outside’

George Bain July 13 1981
PODIUM

Just tell it like it really is!

'Newspapers shouldn't reserve all their skepticism for outside’

George Bain July 13 1981

Just tell it like it really is!

PODIUM

'Newspapers shouldn't reserve all their skepticism for outside’

George Bain

"He was shrewd, volatile and filled with a sense of

the dramatic. He never saw things exactly as less imaginative reporters saw them but his visions were always interesting and looked well in print.” As, say, Janet Cooke’s in The Washington Post in the story about Little Jimmy, the eight-year-old heroin addict, which won a Pulitzer Prize the Post had to renounce when it turned out there was no Little Jimmy.

The writer of the words at the top, about a colleague, was Robert J. Casey, a reporter in Chicago during the ’20s and ’30s. In 1943, Casey wrote a book called Such Interesting People. It was about newspapers and was dotted with stories about stories that were fakes. At this point, I sense readers poised to say I suffer from an undernourished sense of outrage. Not really. I think the Post—forget Janet Cooke—performed badly. It was disinclined to look too closely at a Good Story, which is the main reason why, I think, these things happen.

But it seems to me that for the sake of historical accuracy it should be said that anyone who thinks we have recently witnessed an appalling falling away from some earlier day’s loftier standards of journalism is, well, out of touch. The Casey book wasn’t an exposé; it was written for laughs. Nobody in the business laughed at the Post’s fake. News people all felt damaged by it. Because the post-Watergate Post has been so high-and-mighty, some may have smirked to see it brought down, but the thing itself hurt.

Still, what we have seen in the Post case and several others, including most recently The Toronto Sun, isn’t a new form of editorial sin, but a throwback to bad old days when improving on fact was so common as to not be worth talking about, except to chortle over in the press club bar. When the Post fell, it followed by laying bare the whole affair in an 18,000-word story in the next Sunday’s edition. That’s a lot of laying bare. When the Montreal Gazette was caught out on what had happened—hadn’t, actually—at a meeting of eight provincial premiers, it confessed its error in that most public of public places, on page 1.

By contrast, Casey tells the story of how Lowell Thomas, who became a most august figure in the news business, once as a young reporter dropped his newspaper into a libel suit because of what, in Casey’s words, “was, as it is called in the trade, a fake.” No public admission of a moral lapse was made by the paper. Thomas wasn’t fired, as was The Toronto Sun’s Donald Ramsay. He didn’t quit, as did Michael Daly of the New York Daily News recently when he was accused of having embellished a story from Northern Ireland. Thomas was told to get the paper out of being sued, somehow—which, incidentally, he did. And that was that.

I’m not, then, being Pollyannaish in saying things aren’t

worse, but better. The generality of newspapers are more responsible. It’s out of fashion to admire fabrication, or to wink at it. Nobody, or nobody I know, calls working for newspapers “the newspaper game” anymore because they don’t think of it that way.

So how to account for a Little Jimmy? What causes the Daily News man in Ulster to create and name a British soldier as the vehicle for his story on fighting in Belfast? How does a reporter for The Village Voice come to write a story so that at least some people are led to believe she was saying she had interviewed a murderer, when the essential facts were obtained from third parties? Or, back home, what’s to account for The Gazette saying eight premiers were ready to accept a charter of rights but René Lévesque and Sterling Lyon queered the deal, something all eight say never happened?

Some of the answers are dead simple. Reporters are terribly vulnerable to being misled by “usually reliable sources,” especially when they take information “not for attribution.” They are also capable, of course, of getting things just plain wrong. We journalists have a failing for being skeptical about everything except our own stuff. Also, it’s a competitive business and some people, bent on getting ahead, won’t cavil at improving on fact if they think that will do ïïit. It’s also true that, being competitive in another way, ¡¿¡papers do like to win awards that they can boast about. u But the root of the problem lies in what might be called The Good Story Factor. As with gift horses, news people have a terrible disinclination to look a Good Story in the mouth. Everyone who has been in the business 10 minutes knows a good story on sight. It’s the one they read and say, “Wow, that’s a good story!” and, if they are editors, mark for page 1. The Cooke, Daly, Teresa Carpenter {The Village Voice) and Gazette stories were Good Stories, obviously. In the first two cases, the Pulitzer Prize judges thought so, too. It is significant, and sustains the point about resistance against inquiring into the antecedents of Good Stories, that, in the Daly case, his editor says that tighter enforcement of editing standards is needed, that reporters and columnists haven’t been supervised enough, that “one of the faults . . . was to have been too permissive at the editing level....” In other words, that papers shouldn’t reserve all their skepticism for outside.

A distinguished Washington correspondent (of the London Times) once lamented, tongue in cheek, that “altogether too many good stories have been ruined by over-verification.” What the editor of the Daily News was saying— and others, notwithstanding improvement, should be saying—is that not nearly enough have been.

George Bain is director of the school of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax.