Getting it wrong, letting it slide

October 15, 2007

Why is it that the mightier the news organization, the likelier it will stand by ethical blunders that would shame a first-year reporter? Apparently, along with industrial mastery comes the right to deny, evade, whine and nitpick instead of owning up to what you did wrong and making sure you don’t do it again.

Today’s first case involves The New York Times Sunday Magazine and concerns allegations of gross distortions in what appear to be verbatim interviews. The second concerns CBS News Sunday Morning and as flagrant a conflict of interest as I can recall in network news. What’s galling in both cases isn’t the wrongdoing; it’s the preposterous insistence that there was none.

The Times magazine runs a regular Q&A feature titled “Questions for…,” handled by a seasoned journalist named Deborah Solomon. Solomon’s interviewing is sharp and nimble, a little snarky, and her questions seem to flow from her subject’s responses.

Despite the column’s title, however, some of her subjects say questions they’re apparently answering in print aren’t ones they were asked, and things they said were sliced, reshuffled and published out of sequence and out of context. While reporting a profile of Solomon, a writer for the New York Press, a Manhattan alternative paper, stumbled onto some seriously disgruntled interviewees. (See http://www.nypress.com/20/40/news&columns/feature.cfm.)

Among them was Amy Dickinson, who took over the advice column formerly written by Ann Landers, and Ira Glass, creator of Public Radio International’s “This American Life.” Glass said Solomon ignored lavish compliments for his new patrons at Showtime TV and carved out a minor comment that belittled them and embarrassed him.

Those weren’t the first complaints. A year before, NBC News heavyweight Tim Russert complained that the published version of his Mother’s Day interview was “misleading, callous and hurtful,” and inaccurately had him extolling his father at the expense of his mother, who had recently died.

After days of stroking its chin, the Times responded: “The editors of the column assure themselves that the Q-and-A … reflects accurately the gist of the whole conversation and contains actual quotes, both questions and answers.”

“Contains actual quotes?” Sure, but what else does it contain? Were questions inserted that were never asked? Worse, if the speakers say they’re represented as saying things they did not mean, on what basis can the Times say “the gist” of their conversation is reflected?

In the CBS News case, correspondent Rita Braver last week presented what by most accounts was a sympathetic profile of author Lynne Cheney, the vice president’s wife, coinciding with publication of her memoir. The problem is that Braver’s husband is the Washington lawyer who negotiated Cheney’s book deal.

That means Braver, assuming she shares in her husband’s prosperity, profited directly from publication of the book she was featuring.

Braver mentioned the connection between Cheney and her husband on the air, and CBS cited that disclosure to deflect criticism. CBS also said that unlike other agents, Braver’s husband got his money upfront and won’t make any more if the book benefits from its CBS exposure.

(CBS is nothing if not consistent, having previously let Braver interview Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John, and Hillary Clinton  all three were clients of her husband’s.)

The notion that if an agent isn’t getting any royalties he has no stake in his client’s success is plainly ridiculous. Beyond that, though, it’s hard to overstate just how egregiously CBS misunderstands conflict of interest. Braver was covering somebody who, essentially, had paid her money, and might do so again. Indeed, the prospect of an inside line to CBS News might well induce others to seek out his services.

Disclosure is a limp response, a last resort. Braver shouldn’t have been within 100 miles of a Lynne Cheney story. If ordinary reporters are sacked for letting a source buy them a beer, the notion that a top-tier national correspondent can cover somebody who has paid her husband five- or six-figure fees is beyond ludicrous.

The implication of these cases is that when it comes to standards, who you are matters. If you’re the country’s top newspaper, your functionary may sculpt people’s words into zippy Sunday morning amusements unrelated to the plain meaning the speakers intended. If you’re a major network, your talent may operate within a clubby world of richly lucrative, off-screen relationships and you’ll still defend their independence with a straight face.

Then you can get back to wondering why the public doesn’t trust you.

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