How long after publication should a news organization be responsible for correcting a story whose very premise appears later to be bogus? And, if new documentation challenges the premise of an old story, should a news organization start its reporting over, either to correct the record or to confirm the integrity of its original work? How thoroughly should journalists check the credibility and claims of sources they feature in stories?
Those questions arose in a string of emails sent me recently by Nancy Levine, a San Francisco area executive recruiter who has been unsuccessful in seeking a correction to a 2007 New York Times story. Levine has exposed the premise of the Times story as apparently bogus. She is campaigning for a correction, and I think in an age when stories live online for years, the story needs a correction and a new examination by the Times.
This will be an extraordinarily long post, even for me, but I think the level of detail here is important. It’s discouraging to see how little verification too many journalists have done, and how reluctant news organizations can be to correct their errors. Is anything more fundamental to good journalism than getting facts right and correcting errors when we fail? The number of journalism organizations that fell down on this story, and continue to fall down, is shocking and discouraging.
And, if you’re one of those journalists who looks down your nose at BuzzFeed, prepare for your nose to be surprised.
A NY Times puff piece
Times reporter Stephanie Rosenbloom profiled Pari Livermore, a matchmaker who, according to the Times, raised about $3 million for charities by charging wealthy single men $10,000 or so in donations “directly to a charity” for attending her Red & White Ball and other singles events in the San Francisco area.
The piece depicted Livermore as a philanthropic version of Yente or Dolly Levi, its headline inviting, “Fall in Love for a Good Cause.” It was what journalists call a “puff piece.” Every organization, including the Times, has published too many of them and rare is the journalist who hasn’t written one. (I’ve been guilty, though not often, I hope.) But even in puff pieces, we should not be suckers. Verification is the heart of good journalism, even in a puff piece. And sometimes verification can turn the puff piece into an investigative story.
In a telephone interview, I asked Levine how she learned about Livermore. Her answer: Google. A divorcee in her 50s, Levine was interested in a relationship but leery of online dating. She started searching to see if a matchmaker might hook her up with a good relationship. So she started Googling. I didn’t ask her if she was humming or singing “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match,” as she typed her searches (Update: Levine confirms that she “totally” was), but that’s how I picture her involvement in this story starting, even though she was closer to the age of the mother in “Fiddler on the Roof” than the daughters. That’s Livermore’s specialty, matching up middle-aged divorced or widowed people with some money to spend.
“The first thing I came across was the New York Times story,” Levine said, though she didn’t recall what terms she searched and how the story showed up. A former New Yorker, Levine immediately thought Livermore must be credible. “You read something in the Times and you know it’s true. I can say the New York Times and the CBS Evening News are the most trusted news sources on the planet.” (After reading the Times piece, she Googled Livermore and found a CBS puff piece; as you’ll see later, puff pieces beget puff pieces.)
Levine called Livermore, ready to seek her match. She heard a twofold pitch, for the matchmaking service and the attention Livermore gives to finding someone who will suit her clients, and for the charities to which clients donate.
Livermore’s fee for Levine, $1,000, was not a small sum for the executive recruiter, but the charitable aspect made it somewhat easier to swallow. She figured, “If I meet somebody, great; if not, at least I’m helping somebody.”
Levine wrote out her check, and asked Livermore if her donation was tax-deductible. Livermore’s June 8 email response, “It is definitely tax-deductible.”
Levine is an executive recruiter, but I think she could be an investigative reporter. She routinely does background checks of executive candidates, so she knows how to find facts quickly. And she has a great bullshit detector, which every reporter and editor needs.
That BS detector was starting to sound an alarm, and Levine asked one more time by email: “Just to clarify: Is Spotlight on Heroes a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization with a tax ID I can give my accountant? It’s okay if it’s not, I just want to report it correctly, so that I don’t make a mistake on my taxes.”
Again, Livermore reassured her: “Yes. They will send you a thank you.”
Update: See Livermore’s Oct. 4-5 response at the end of this post.
Debunking ‘glowing profile’
Levine decided to do what good journalists (but not enough of us) do when our moms tell us they love us: She checked it out.
“It took me 15 minutes to research and find that her charity has never been a charity,” Levine wrote this month in a letter to Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet. “I think the New York Times may want to consider re-examining its ‘glowing profile’ of Ms. Livermore in light of the facts.”
The Times has declined to revisit the story, nearly eight years old now. But BuzzFeed investigated at Levine’s urging, The BuzzFeed story cited “glowing profiles of Livermore in the Times and GQ, but documented that Spotlight on Heroes, one of her favored charities, “is not in fact a charity.”
Even now, nearly a month after the BuzzFeed piece published, the Red & White Ball website features Spotlight as one of its two charities, saying that it “produces television and radio programs and public service announcements as well as web sites, brochures, and newsletters highlighting the accomplishments of charitable organizations and volunteers in the San Francisco Bay Area.”
Update: Kenneth Nemzer, an attorney for Livermore emailed me Oct. 5, saying that a web engineer had published a draft website in error. Nemzer said the Red & White ball has not been held since 2007. I’m curious how a website stays online for years without someone paying hosting fees, but I’ve deleted the screenshot of the website originally posted here. I left the link above because clearly the “website engineer” Nemzer blames for the error got the information from somewhere.
Spotlight on Heroes, Levine says, “is not really anything but a bank account.”
The BuzzFeed story also challenged details of Livermore’s personal history, finding that the universities she claims degrees from have no record of her receiving degrees under either her birth or married names. “Asked about the discrepancy, Livermore hinted that the degrees were granted under a third name, but she declined to say what it is,” wrote BuzzFeed’s Kendall Taggart. (Taggart declined to comment for this post.)
As I began to study the documentation Levine sent me, and the time lag since the Times story, I wondered whether Livermore’s charities were legitimate in 2007, when the Times did its reporting. The Times story did not mention Spotlight on Heroes but it did mention Livermore’s “Red & White Ball, a singles charity event held every other year in San Francisco that attracts up to 1,000 attendees.”
An attachment Levine sent to Baquet and later to me, promoting the 2007 Red & White Ball, invited prospective guests to send checks for $175 to Spotlight on Heroes at Livermore’s home address. So it appears that her charitable solicitations were bogus when the Times did its puff piece. This is not a new development, but a hole in the original story.
Should reporters do background checks?
In an Aug. 3 reply to Levine, Baquet wrote:
Unfortunately, no newsroom in the country has the capacity to do ‘background checks’ on everyone it writes about. If you pick up The Times for a day you will see there are hundreds of article quoting thousands of people.
I disagree. Reporters at news organizations large and small routinely check the credibility and claims of their sources. Another word for “background checks” is “reporting.” If you have the capacity to hire reporters, you have the capacity to do background checks. I’m sure Times reporters do quick or extensive checks on their sources hundreds of times a day, not to the same depth on each of the thousands of people quoted, but certainly most reporters vet key sources who are the focus of stories. And some of that vetting no doubt happens when skeptical editors ask questions.
If you were to ask Baquet or any other Times editor or reporter in a different context than asking them to correct an old puff piece, I think they would boast at length about Times standards of verification and the time they spend checking out sources and getting their facts right.
As I have noted here before, (and as the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics now states) journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories. “Verify information before releasing it,” the code says in its first point under its first principle: “Seek Truth and Report It.”
The extent of verification varies by reporter and story. You always should seek to verify key facts. The 15-minute check it took Levine to debunk Spotlight on Heroes is a small slice of a reporter’s work on a 1,200-word story such as the Livermore profile.
Levine checked, as any reporter could, with the California attorney general’s office and got a quick email response from Press Secretary Kristin Ford:
Spotlight on Heroes has never been registered with our office.
After looking into Livermore more closely than Rosenbloom did, Levine tore up her check, so she didn’t lose any money. But she was outraged at having come so close to being a victim of what she regarded as attempted fraud, so she contacted news organizations, law enforcement authorities and commentators on journalism ethics (Google brought her to me, just as it did to Livermore).
Journalists must verify facts
Verification is one of the hardest, most important aspects of journalism. Sometimes it’s also one of the most boring aspects of journalism, but it can be especially rewarding at times. Verification can expand a story whose primary source was humble and self-effacing. Or it can debunk a story that started as a puff piece.
Sometimes your first step may seem to provide verification, especially if a source connects you with friends or allies who trust her. The Times story quoted four people who had paid for Livermore’s matchmaking services. The story doesn’t identify the “charities” the people gave to, focusing instead on personal details of their matches.
Ever since I caught a purported engineer lying about his education credentials in 1984 (my BS detector was working that day), I have made it a routine practice to verify in my reporting whether sources held degrees they claimed that might be relevant to a story.
I have heard advice at many journalism conferences at least since the 1980s about how to check out the validity of charities through such resources as Guidestar, Charity Navigator and IRS 990 forms, which are public records. Taggart, the BuzzFeed reporter, provides some good advice in an IRE tip sheet. I’ll bet lots of Times reporters have checked 990 forms in their reporting on charities. I hope Times editors will be distributing the tip sheet to reporters for checks on any future charities the Times reports on.
Editors need to have strong BS detectors, too. I have both been asked by editors and have asked reporters: “Are we sure this charity is legit?” It’s a basic question in the tradition of if-your-mother-tells-you-she-loves-you-check-it-out. Usually the charity is legit, and a quick call or online check confirms it.
I did a little checking on Livermore and Spotlight on Heroes myself. It didn’t take that long.
Daniel Tahara of the California Franchise Tax Bureau, said in an email to me:
I can tell you that Spotlight on Heroes was suspended by FTB on 09/01/2009 for non-filing of tax return and nonpayment of taxes. I can also let you know that they do not have tax-exempt status for California purposes.
He would not comment on whether the bureau is investigating Livermore or Spotlight.
Livermore has moved to Montgomery County, Pa., and solicited Levine from there. Wanda Murren, press secretary to the Pennsylvania Secretary of State (and a former colleague from my Digital First Media days), said Spotlight on Heroes is not registered as a Pennsylvania charity. Charitable fund-raisers must register with the state in Pennsylvania, and Livermore is not registered.
Murren also could not comment on whether the state is investigating Livermore or Spotlight.
Parroting promotional blurbs
I don’t know how much research Rosenbloom did for the 2007 Times story, but some of the information in her story closely matches Livermore’s Amazon author blurb.
From the Times story:
In the last 19 years her introductions and singles parties have resulted in more than 200 marriages and raised about $3 million for nonprofit organizations including the American Cancer Society, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the American Heart Association.
More than 200 couples have been married as a result of her efforts and fundraising parties. … During the past 17 years she has raised more than $3 million collectively for such organizations as the American Cancer Society, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the Family Caregivers Alliance, Children’s Garden, and the San Francisco Boys & Girls Club.
I’m not suggesting that’s plagiarism. But it’s pretty clear to me that the Times story parroted the author’s promotional material without attribution. Sometimes you use promotional material directly from a source, but it should be attributed. If you’ve verified facts, state them as facts. If you’re dropping some promotional information into a story, acknowledge where you got it.
The $3 million claim is repeated in other stories, which I’ll detail at the end of this post. The claimed amount was up to $5 million by the time Levine inquired about Livermore’s services. Various stories over the years also show growing numbers of the marriages claimed from Livermore’s matches.
I emailed several questions to Rosenbloom, now the Getaway columnist for the Times travel section. An autoreply said she was out of the country. If she responds, I will update this post.
Should you correct old stories?
It’s easy to second-guess a reporter’s work eight years later. Certainly if someone pointed out flaws in a story shortly after publication, you need to correct the story, and I think the Times and most news organizations usually do that. But should you correct seven years later?
I think you should. Levine read the Times story in considering paying for Livermore’s services, so eight years later the story was bolstering the matchmaker’s credibility as a legitimate charitable fund-raiser.
A Google search of Pari Livermore still yields the uncorrected 2007 Times story as the fourth result. You need to scroll down to the eighth result to find the BuzzFeed story debunking Livermore and her “charity.”
Levine failed to get a Times correction after emailing her documentation to the executive editor, public editor and standards editor. I emailed questions to all three editors. Baquet has not responded.
Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said she passed the matter on to Standards Editor Phil Corbett, who supervises the Times corrections process. As public editor, Sullivan generally confines her inquiries to contemporary Times stories. She told me in an email:
I would say, though, that The Times will be doing little else if it regularly adds notes to stories from many years ago in which there have been new developments, since each such note or correction requires some reporting and there would be something new to say about almost every story that has ever been published
I did review this when it first came up a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t see any specific challenge to the facts in the Times story, which did not mention this particular charity. It also was not clear to me that there was any major scandal or malfeasance here, based on the reporting I saw. … I didn’t see any indication that the authorities were investigating or pursuing allegations of wrongdoing. On the whole, I wasn’t convinced that this called for re-reporting this old story.
I will certainly read your post when I return to New York on August 31, and will reconsider if it seems necessary.
Corbett recalled correctly that the BuzzFeed story did quote an official from a school helped by donations from Livermore clients.
I disagree with Corbett on the need for more reporting of this story. And I disagree with Sullivan that this inquiry relates to a new development. It relates to inadequate reporting in the original Times story, and that is always something a news organization should revisit. The new development is exposure of a hole in the Times’ original story.
Neither Levine’s documentation nor BuzzFeed’s reporting contradicted the facts of the Times story, but they certainly contradict the premise and exposed holes in the Times’ original reporting. The Times story didn’t mention Spotlight on Heroes, but did describe the Red & White ball as a “charity event” in a year that the ball raised money for Spotlight on Heroes.
The Times published a puff piece about a matchmaker who purportedly raised millions of dollars for charity, a claim the Times not only didn’t check out but didn’t attribute to the author’s promotional materials. This story didn’t meet Times standards (I think and hope), and I believe that calls for new, in-depth reporting in place of the shallow reporting that still lives online and pops up in searches.
Profiles of Pari Livermore
Alan Deutschman, author of the GQ piece, is now a journalism professor at the University of Nevada at Reno (we met there a couple years ago when I was a candidate for a position there). I asked Deutschman about Livermore and his profile:
I was interviewed for the Buzzfeed piece (but not quoted in it). My GQ piece was from 1996 or 1997, way before Spotlight on Heroes. When I did my story we checked that Pari’s Red and White Ball did indeed support well-known, legitimate charities. The GQ piece isn’t available on the web or online news archives and it’s almost 20 years old. But if a media source had done a recent story and then the Buzzfeed piece came out, of course they should look at updating their story or at least linking to the BuzzFeed story.
While it’s true that GQ archives aren’t available online that far back, the profile is available online at PariLivermore.com, quoted and pictured on the home page, with a pdf available under the “press” link. Deutschman said he didn’t give her permission to republish the story, and couldn’t. Conde Nast owns the story and he didn’t know whether the publisher had given Livermore permission to use it.
Livermore or her publisher did a great job promoting the publication on Nov. 6, 2007, of her book, How to Marry a Fabulous Man. Before and after publication, the book and Livermore received a string of unskeptical media coverage:
- The March 31, 2007, profile of Livermore in the San Francisco Examiner. The Examiner mentioned the college degrees debunked by BuzzFeed.
- The Times story, published Nov. 4, 2007, two days before the book’s release.
- A Marin Independent Journal story by Paul Liberatore, Nov. 14, 2007. That story quoted Livermore as saying she “got 143 calls” from the Times story.
- A Dec. 18, 2007 appearance on the Today Show.
- A Feb 14, 2008 Valentine’s Day story by CBS News (which did confirm the validity of one local charity helped by Livermore’s matchmaking).
Until the 2015 BuzzFeed story, I didn’t see any stories that questioned the validity of Livermore’s charities, though all the stories stressed that her matchmaking fees went directly to charities. I think each of the stories that’s still available should carry a note at the top, summarizing and linking to the BuzzFeed story, unless the news organization is going to do its own reporting to update the story. I will update if CBS, NBC or the Examiner respond to my inquiries to them.
The BuzzFeed story prompted some more attention to Livermore and Spotlight on Heroes:
- The Chronicle of Philanthropy and Charity Navigator have published notices about Spotlight on Heroes, based on the BuzzFeed story.
- Richard Halstead of the Marin Independent Journal reported more details on the case, including that promotions for “charity” balls in 2007 and 2010 listed Spotlight on Heroes as the beneficiary and “prospective ticket buyers were directed to send their payments to Livermore’s San Rafael address.” Update: The 2010 promotion mentioned in the Marin IJ story was the same website mentioned above that Nemzer says was published by mistake.
The Marin Independent Journal’s 2007 story remains uncorrected. I spent a week at the IJ back in my DFM days and emailed Editor Robert Sterling, a friend, asking him whether he planned to correct the story:
I don’t think there’s anything to correct or update in the Liberatore story; the Halstead piece added new information calling into question her fundraising for one of her charities, but it doesn’t seem to call for any changes to the earlier, more general personality piece we did eight years ago. However, had I known about the earlier story I think I would have added it as a link to the Halstead piece and vice versa.
The 2007 piece did mention the Red & White ball and highlight Livermore’s charity fund-raiser, so I would favor updating it with a link to the current debunking story. But Sterling pointed out that the IJ has changed content management systems since then, so updating could be problematic.
Sterling added, though, that he agrees journalists and news organizations might be too unskeptical in writing light feature stories:
I do think reporters tend to believe claims regarding charities and don’t consistently check them out as thoroughly as they should. Usually these charities are doing great work and we tend to focus on that — the thrust of the good work — and we don’t always take the time to make sure the charity itself is a registered nonprofit and otherwise legit. However, we have indeed done stories over the years examining the legitimacy of charitable organizations, and there are times we haven’t pursued stories — or have handled them differently — when we’ve questioned the legitimacy of the fundraiser or the organization. … I would expect that whenever an IJ reporter focuses on a particular nonprofit that he/she would check it out to make sure it’s valid.
Levine thinks, and I agree, that news organizations that did stories on Livermore’s charitable fund-raising need to correct and update their stories, especially those that still are available online, lending credibility to the matchmaker.
“Obviously a lot of people have been scammed in the past and I don’t want that happen to again.” Even a puff piece, she said, needs to be updated. “If she wasn’t too trivial to write about in the first place, it’s not too trivial to write about now.”
Seeking responses. I have messaged Rosenbloom, Livermore and various media organizations cited in this post, as well as law enforcement agencies to whom Levine has reported her experience and findings. I will update if I receive responses.
Update: In an Oct. 4 phone call, Livermore blamed Spotlight on Heroes’ lack of charity registration on a paperwork error. In an Oct. 5 email, Nemzer sent this quote from Livermore:
I do not wish to cause trouble; I would only like to clear my name and stop the lies and misunderstandings. I have spent 30 years serving my community with no compensation. Most years my husband and I contributed our own funds to help the organizations we supported.
Personal note: I typed much of this post one-handed when my left hand was not working well before brain surgery Saturday to drain a hematoma (I might have made that sound kind of casual, but it was scary as hell). If you see typos I haven’t corrected, I would appreciate your pointing them out.
Commentary from journalism ethicists
This is a sidebar, but I’m placing it with the main story because this isn’t print and I think digital readers (if any have persevered this far) would appreciate having everything together in one post.
Levine has expanded her research in pushing for a correction, asking some journalism ethics experts what they think. She shared their responses with me, and I am sharing parts of them here, with the authors’ permission:
Kevin Smith, former chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee:
Unfortunately, you’ve stumbled onto a rather persistent problem within journalism, even at the very highest levels. All the ethical cajoling can’t seem to convince media outlets to make thorough repairs to damaged reporting and take accountability for what’s been erroneously shared with the public.
Without going into great details, this has been a notable, persistent problem at the New York Times. The pat answer that is often used is “We stand behind our reporting.” There isn’t anything wrong with that so long as you’ve done an exhaustive review of that reporting and are convinced it’s correct. But, typically that’s the first response one gets. I’ve dealt with more than a few cases over the years as SPJ’s ethics committee chair to know that the NYT should spend a bit more time reviewing before defending. These cases are sadly more and more common, especially in the last five years. The fact that the public editor/ombudsman brushed this off to the section editors, shows a complete breakdown in their internal review system. …
In a case such as this, one would rightfully think that revisiting the story and correcting it holistically would best serve the public. Rarely is that done. …
Say you got it wrong, write a story that says the charity you heaped praise upon is actually a sham and reconstitute the story, revealing the new facts. Simple. I think this enormous information shift requires more than a correction. The whole premise of the original story was wrong. They should have a reporter revisit the story and use the same time and resources to write a corrected version. I think if you took an informal poll of journalists, they’d tell you the same.
SPJ Ethics Code talks about accountability and says journalists take responsibility for their work, individually and as a company. It also says to correct mistakes and explain them. That’s been in the code for years. What we added last year says that there is an extended reach and long-term implications to stories like never before. You don’t need to subscribe to the Times or the networks to see these stories and know their lifespan is enormous given the Internet and social media. Stories don’t end when you’re tired of writing them. They live on more than ever and ethical journalists provide updates to stories and complete the stories as appropriate. In my opinion, if the new facts significantly change the original story, they have an obligation to completely correct those in a way that rivals the original reporting and, at a minimum, apply corrections prominently.
Another issue we are constantly addressing is having newspapers connect any corrections to the original stories they archive online. Most don’t, so years into the future, you will rarely read a story online in which corrections are added to the original text. They might have corrected it in print or on air, but those won’t live side by side with the original content. We are working to improve that and you’d think journalists would understand and accept that fundamental premise, but the companies don’t.
Andrew Seaman of Reuters, current SPJ ethics chair sent Levine a shorter response, noting that he didn’t know details of the Times story or other media coverage of Livermore’s matchmaking:
What I can say, is that – at the very least – the news outlets should probably ask one of their reporters to spend time looking into Livermore’s recent history for possible editor notes on the stories.
We provide some information in our Code of Ethics to help journalists in the task of updating stories.
Scott Libin, University of Minnesota professor and ethics chair of the Radio Television Digital News Association:
I’m surprised, and not pleasantly, that reputable news organizations including CBS, NBC, the Examiner and the New York Times declined to correct, clarify or report further. Even more surprised that the Times’ public editor declined to review.
Isn’t it interesting that Buzzfeed, not always known for lofty journalistic standards, went after the story. At the risk of sounding cynical, I suspect that might be specifically because doing so makes those “mainstream media” outlets look bad. (I may be misreading it, but it looks like Buzzfeed didn’t do a profile of Livermore in the first place, but got interested when it emerged that she may have fooled some of the biggest names in the news business.)
Dean Baquet’s comment about no newsroom in the country having the capacity to background check everyone it writes about is indisputably true. On its own, however, that does not address the issue of his newsroom’s obligation to correct inaccurate information it has passed along — whether that inaccurate information could reasonably have been caught in advance or not. The Times has certainly done such follow-up work on other cases, and it routinely corrects errors far smaller. I can’t help wondering why not this one.
I always assume there’s more to the story, even though you have already shared a great deal of material about this one. …
By the way, in addition to my teaching duties, I serve as chair of the RTDNA Ethics Committee. Our newly adopted Code of Ethics contains two segments that may be relevant to this case:
- Facts change over time. Responsible reporting includes updating stories and amending archival versions to make them more accurate and to avoid misinforming those who, through search, stumble upon outdated material.
- Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had.