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NewsboyWhen I was visiting Toni Momberger‘s office at the Redlands Daily Facts (one of my favorite newspaper names) in California a few years ago, Toni had to be out of town. But I got to use her office briefly. This cartoon, on display in her office, fit well into the slides I was using that day, so I shot a quick photo and added it to the slides (below).

I’ve used it in some other slides since, and I had been meaning to ask Toni (Digital First Media’s Journalist of the Year for 2013) the story behind the picture.

When I used the cartoon in a recent blog post about newspaper carriers (and Facebook), I wrote her asking the origin, because I wanted to credit it appropriately (and use with retroactive permission).

Toni connected me with Al Hernandez, owner of Citrograph Printing Co. in Redlands, who provided this explanation:

The original crate label is from our archive of crate label images.  If you notice the newsboy is carrying copies of the Citrograph Newspaper under his arm.  The Citrograph is the oldest continuously operating Print shop in California and it was the original newspaper in Redlands.

As far as we know, the original label is now in the public domain.  This piece was created in celebration of our 125th Anniversary in 2012.

Thanks to Toni and Al for that help in identifying an image I really enjoy.

Jonathan Landay

Jonathan Landay

I was perhaps not detailed enough in my criticism of Judith Miller’s memoir/fantasy book The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.

Jonathan Landay, a Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) Washington reporter, nailed the story that Miller tragically botched in 2002-3 — pre-war intelligence about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He provided by email some details that I didn’t bother to round up.

It was self-abuse enough to read Miller’s book. I didn’t want to dig back and find the stories in question to check any of her claims in the book. And, after a quick read, I wanted to pump out my review, so I didn’t take the time to check exactly what was in the two Knight-Ridder stories she cited dismissively (or the many she ignored entirely).

Landay kindly filled in some gaps in an email exchange thanking me for my post (links added by me; I did finally look up those stories):

Just another thought: the story to which she referred in her book eviscerated — I like that word — her aluminum tubes story. She obliquely criticizes me for using only one named source, David Albright, despite the fact that virtually all of her sources were anonymous, especially on her tubes story.

OK, I just checked and in an article of nearly 3,500 words, Miller cited just two named sources. But one of the names was a pseudonym, “Ahmed al-Shemri,” an Iraqi defector who claimed to work in Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. He was quoted at length. Most of the rest of the article is attributed to various “Bush administration officials.” In The Story, Miller claims to have used lots of named sources in her WMD reporting. I’m not going to check all of her stories, but that wasn’t true of this one.

On Page 220 of The Story, in recounting how Times editors took her to task for failing to report the doubts revealed in a Landay article about whether the aluminum tubes could even be used as centrifuges to make nuclear weapons, Miller dismissed the Knight-Ridder story (though she attributed it to McClatchy) as based on unnamed sources: Continue Reading »

Cover of The Story: A Reporter's Journey, by Judith MillerJudith Miller clearly reflected in great detail on her rise to prominence in working on her memoir, The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.

She appears to have reflected very little, though, on her failures in reporting on intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when the Bush administration was rushing the United States into that disastrous war.

Here’s how little The Story reveals about any examination by Miller of the weaknesses of her own reporting about WMDs: In her only reference to either of the Knight-Ridder reporters who reported extensively on the intelligence community’s doubts about Iraq’s WMDs, Miller identifies Jonathan Landay incorrectly as being with “the McClatchy newspaper chain.” McClatchy would not buy Knight-Ridder until 2006, but the context of the discussion Miller was recounting was 2004.

Landay and Warren Strobel worked for Knight-Ridder when they did the journalism that Miller and her New York Times colleagues should have been doing: reporting on doubts within U.S. intelligence agencies about the claims that Iraq was making weapons of mass destruction.

Because the Times and other media were all parroting the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had WMD’s, even some Knight-Ridder editors often didn’t run or buried the Landay-Strobel stories that countered that narrative. As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post noted in 2013, “They published dissenting material, though their voices didn’t pierce the compliant noise from their peers.”

Miller, chief among those compliant peers, mentioned Landay in the context of a conversation with Times editors Bill Keller and Jill Abramson, who were preparing an editor’s note acknowledging the weaknesses in the newspaper’s pre-war coverage of intelligence about WMD’s. The two paragraphs in The Story about Landay (on Page 220) are fascinating and telling: Continue Reading »

A key issue in the Columbia School of Journalism’s report on Rolling Stone‘s botched rape story is the use of pseudonyms to identify key characters in the story.

I strongly endorse this conclusion of the Columbia report:

Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch — it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them.

I made a similar point in December in my post (after the story began falling apart) about interviewing rape survivors and verifying their stories: Continue Reading »

Investigative reporting is about discovery of a story, not confirmation of your notions.

That is the key mistake Rolling Stone made in its false, and now retracted, story “A Rape on Campus,” as I read the Columbia School of Journalism report on the fiasco.

Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” wrote the Columbia authors, Sheila Coronel, J-School Dean Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz.

The failure started, though, with a preconceived notion of what the story should be. Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely; Sean Woods, the primary editor of the story; and Will Dana, managing editor; had too strong a vision of what the story should be and not a strong enough commitment to learn what it really was.

I worked on a series on rape in 1993 for the Omaha World-Herald. We started out pursuing a notion about rape, focusing on rape by strangers, prompted by a series of rapes in an Omaha neighborhood.

We did report on that series of rapes and about stranger rape, but our series focused more heavily on two surprising factors that we found in our wider study of the issues: the startlingly low number of rapes that actually result in rape convictions and the startlingly high percentage of rape victims who were younger than 18.

The series we produced ended up being significantly different from the series we planned. That should be the case in most investigative stories: You make a plan to investigate a topic, not to support a premise. A good story investigated well takes you directions you didn’t anticipate.

If Rolling Stone had been trying to discover the story, the reporter and the editors would have insisted on talking to the friends of their primary source, whom they identified as “Jackie.” They would have insisted on talking to her date on the night in question, and to other men and women who attended the supposed “date night” at Phi Kappa Psi, the University of Virginia fraternity smeared by Rolling Stone‘s story.

Unlike Rolling Stone, we didn’t focus in our 1993 series on a single “emblematic” rape situation to tell in detail. We told stories of multiple rape survivors. Some profiles told more about circumstances of the rape. Others focused on the trauma the person experienced or the treatment she received. They told the story together, rather than burdening a single story with representing everything that we found in our investigation.

It is difficult to prove details of a rape, because accounts of what happened invariably conflict and witnesses to the actual crime are rare, unless they were participants, as Jackie alleged in the Rolling Stone story.

However, you can find confirmation (or conflict) in the circumstances surrounding a rape. In my various stories about rape, I have confirmed details about circumstances by obtaining police and medical reports and by interviewing friends, family members and attorneys of suspects and accusers.

Erdely did seek details, the Columbia report said:

In the end, the reporter relied heavily on Jackie for help in getting access to corroborating evidence and interviews. Erdely asked Jackie for introductions to friends and family. She asked for text messages to confirm parts of Jackie’s account, for records from Jackie’s employment at the aquatic center and for health records. She even asked to examine the bloodstained red dress Jackie said she had worn on the night she said she was attacked.

For all that, though, the report concluded, Rolling Stone failed to pursue multiple opportunities to confirm details of Jackie’s story (or learn of the weaknesses in the story):

There were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her. Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi’s social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans. But three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.

Those three critical failures were:

  • Erdely did not contact the friends Jackie said she talked with shortly after the assault that she described. Jackie never asked the reporter not to contact her friends independently.
  • Erdely asked the fraternity for a comment late in the reporting process, but never provided details of the story for them to address.
  • Erdely’s efforts to track down the alleged assailant were not diligent enough even to determine that no member of the fraternity worked at the aquatic center where Jackie was a lifeguard.

The one lifeguard at the pool who had the name Jackie used for her assailant was “not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, however,” the Columbia report said. “The police interviewed him and examined his personal records. They found no evidence to link him to Jackie’s assault. If Rolling Stone had located him and heard his response to Jackie’s allegations, including the verifiable fact that he did not belong to Phi Kappa Psi, this might have led Erdely to reconsider her focus on that case. In any event, Rolling Stone stopped looking for him.”

One of the most disappointing aspects of the report is Rolling Stone‘s response. Woods continues to point the finger at Jackie: “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” he told the Columbia investigators.

That’s bullshit. As I’ve noted before, journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories. To me, one of the most disturbing aspects of the report is that Rolling Stone doesn’t recognize that this was a systemic failure, identifying problems the magazine must address. The reporter and editors just see the story as a result of mistakes they need to avoid repeating.

The Columbia report says:

Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position.

Nothing in this Rolling Stone fiasco was the fault of Jackie. Whether she was a victim of some kind of sexual assault that she exaggerated, or was just a liar, she didn’t give the magazine enough to go on. Beyond confirming that the university had received a report of her allegation, Rolling Stone didn’t take any of the steps it could have taken to investigate her story.

You investigate a rape survivor’s story not just out of suspicion (but journalists should always be suspicious), but to bolster her story and yours. Rape accusers will be viciously attacked (I saw that happen in a case where the defendant eventually plead guilty). Even if you believe a story, you need to investigate it to confirm your belief and to strengthen the story.

Other responses to the Columbia report:

Jay Rosen‘s analysis of the report is far more detailed than mine.

So is Erik Wemple’s.

Ben Mullin of Poynter rounded up journalists’ reactions to the report.

My earlier post with advice on interviewing rape survivors and verifying their stories.

Steve Buttry interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev

An interview with Mikhail Gorbachev was one of many memorable stories for the Omaha World-Herald. Photo by Kent Sievers.

I left the Omaha World-Herald for the second time 10 years ago. After sharing some lessons earlier this year from my much shorter time at the Cedar Rapids Gazette, I started reflecting on my time at the World-Herald and what I learned there.

I spent longer at the World-Herald than anywhere else in my career, 10 years, four months in two hitches of roughly five years each, 1993 to 1998, and 2000 to 2005. I was a reporter the whole time, though I was also a writing coach the second time around.

Here are some lessons I learned in my two tenures in Omaha (or lessons I had already learned that were underscored or relearned):

Get back to work

This was my World-Herald file staffer mug. I  think Jim Burnett shot it. I was much younger then.

This was my World-Herald file staffer mug. I think Jim Burnett shot it. I was much younger then.

As I’ve noted before, I was fired as editor of the Minot Daily News in 1992. In terms of getting my career back on track, it didn’t matter a lot whether I was fired because I screwed up (I didn’t) or fired because the company was cutting costs to prepare for a sale (it was). I was without a job and without a paycheck and the newspaper job market was tight (newspapers were in much better shape than today, but closings of afternoon newspapers had resulted in lost jobs and it felt like a bleak time). Even though I was willing to take a step back to resume working, many employers were reluctant to hire me for a downward move. And no one was interested in me for a step forward. In my late 30s, my career was in jeopardy, and I was exploring jobs outside journalism as well as some newspaper jobs. Continue Reading »

Glamann Award for Steve ButtryFriday evening was an incredible time for me.

After waiting most of the day to work out details of how I would receive intravenous antibiotics at home, I finally left the hospital about 7:15, ending an eight-day stay to treat an infection that arose because chemotherapy had damaged my immune system. It was great to get home.

As I started opening packages that arrived in my absence, Mimi said I needed to open my laptop. We were going to Skype with our granddaughters before they went to bed. Sounded like a nice welcome-home. I had no idea.

The Skype callers were not my granddaughters, but Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society, and the 500 copy editors gathered for the ACES conference in Pittsburgh. Teresa and Mimi had conspired to Skype me into the conference, so ACES could give me the Glamann Award. Mimi had the plaque and Teresa said some kind words about my contributions to journalism. Continue Reading »

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