I am dismayed by the continuing refusal of respected media companies to re-examine and correct their reporting when confronted with documentation of their errors.
I blogged about this problem in August, calling attention to puff pieces in the New York Times, San Francisco Examiner, CBS, NBC and other media, depicting Pari Livermore as a matchmaker who paired widowed and divorced middle-aged people in return for donations to “charities.”
None of the media checked out Livermore’s charities thoroughly enough to learn that her favored charity, Spotlight on Heroes, wasn’t registered as a charity at all. The person who did the digging to learn that was Nancy Levine, a potential client. Levine reached out to me after being blown off by media organizations she approached, seeking a correction or update to their old puff pieces, which showed up in Internet searches, lending credibility to Livermore.
Before my August post, I emailed Livermore, inviting response, and I received no reply. I emailed again for this post and Livermore said she “did mess up the paperwork” for Spotlight on Heroes, sending something to the wrong address. She did not explain why the paperwork didn’t get straightened out and did not answer when I asked her repeatedly whether Spotlight was registered now as a charity. She claimed to have sent me an email (she didn’t say when), but a search of my inbox showed no messages from her. (She sent one Monday, listing work she says her matchmaking donations have supported.)
I can almost, sort of, kind of, nearly buy some media’s initial response to Levine. The stories were old and you could, in the quick read that many complaints receive from editors and news directors, conclude that the errors weren’t serious enough to demand a thorough review or a correction this long after the fact.
But I can’t get there. Levine is thorough and persistent (she would make a hell of an investigative reporter). She provided these news organizations (and me) with extensive documentation that Livermore’s charity, at the least, was not registered properly. If the lack of registration was an innocent mistake, the charitable donations that these puff pieces virtually encouraged were not tax-deductible, and that oversight certainly needed to be corrected. The story demands more investigation by any organization that published puff pieces.
Levine did not approach these media outlets with speculation that an old story might be wrong. She showed them that their stories still show up in Internet searches and she presented the media with extensive documentation that their stories were wrong, not just in details but in their very premise.
I wouldn’t just correct a story based on the documentation Levine provided, but those documents would make new reporting pretty easy. So far, the Marin Independent Journal is the only news organization to publish a new story this year after publishing a puff piece on Livermore back in 2007-8, when she was promoting a book. BuzzFeed and the Daily Beast didn’t run puff pieces, but, at Levine’s prompting, documented that Livermore’s favored charity, Spotlight on Heroes, isn’t actually registered as a charity.
I can see that editors and news directors might find Levine’s persistence annoying (see my comment about her potential as an investigative reporter; investigative reporters can be intensely annoying, especially when they are on a hot trail). But she provided newsroom after newsroom with documentation that challenged the very premises of their stories. How is that not a code-red situation demanding immediate action, investigation and correction by the news organization?
I was joined in recent email exchanges with Levine by Deni Elliott, Eleanor Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Elliott has done considerable research on journalists’ gullible coverage of charities and other feel-good stories. This is the first of two related posts. Tomorrow I’ll have a guest post, compiled mostly from Elliott’s emails on this topic (with her permission).
Most egregious of the media’s continued dismissal of inquiries from Levine (and me) has been the New York Times, which I once regarded (and you might still regard) as the pinnacle of American journalism. The Times’ puff piece on Livermore still shows up high in Google searches, and the newspaper’s refusal to re-examine its own reporting truly appalls me. I’ll detail similar dismissiveness from other media later, but I didn’t hold any of them in as high regard as I held the Times, so I’ll start with the Times.
New York Times responses
Before I wrote my August post, and again more than a week ago when I started work on this post, I invited comment from four Times journalists — Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Standards Editor Phil Corbett, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan and travel columnist Stephanie Rosenbloom (who wrote the 2007 feature on Livermore).
Corbett and Sullivan responded to me both times. Baquet responded to Levine in August, but not to me either time. Rosenbloom’s email sent an autoreply in August, saying she was traveling. I got no reply in September.
Some thoughts on the responses and non-responses:
When Nancy Levine first contacted me about this, I sent her correspondence to the national desk and the styles desk at The Times. (She had at that time already heard from Dean Baquet directly.) As public editor, I can’t make story assignments, but I did suggest in a cover note that a followup story be considered. As far as I know, nothing came of that.
I haven’t written about this case in a post or column, but I am considering it. It’s a little out of bounds for me in that the original story is from 2007 and my practice is to look at coverage during the time I have been the public editor which began in 2012. (As you can imagine, if I start to look back at stories from many years ago, it would be overwhelming. But, as you have observed, there have been developments since then, and the overall question is an interesting one.)
I believe Sullivan’s response is reasonable. The needed Times response here should come from the other editors she mentioned. But the most important development since then has been the Times editors’ refusal/failure to re-investigate and report a story whose very premise at the time it was published has been challenged. That’s a current issue at the Times, and I hope Sullivan decides to address the topic.
It’s more important for the Times that editors who are in charge of things address this issue. Though Sullivan is not in charge of the Times or its corrections, she is an internal reporter/critic, and this story — and the weak response from Times editors — cries for internal examination.
Corbett’s response to me in August asked if I had done work that, in my view, the Times should have been doing:
Have you done more reporting about Pari Livermore? Have you confirmed that she stole or misappropriated money? (By my reading, Buzzfeed didn’t). If so, I’d be very interested to learn what you have unearthed. I’m less interested if you are just writing a speculative story about a puzzling buzzfeed story tangentially related to a nine-year-old Times story about someone who may or may not have done something that you don’t actually have any information about.
You don’t necessarily have to factcheck an email before hitting “send,” but for the accuracy of my own post, I should note that the Times story will be eight years old in November. But this fascinates me: Corbett is right that the BuzzFeed story didn’t confirm (or even allege) that Livermore stole or misappropriated money. What it did confirm is that at least some of the fund-raising that the Times story described as charitable (more on that shortly) was for an organization that wasn’t a charity. And Corbett was asking me if I had done more reporting on Livermore, when it was the Times that did the inaccurate reporting in the first place. But I had done (and was still doing) more reporting. So I responded (fixing a wrong word choice from the original message):
I am not finished with my reporting, but, yes, I have done some, and I have checked some of the documentation that Nancy Levine provided to Margaret and Dean (and perhaps you?). For instance, I have not yet heard back from Kristin Ford, press secretary for the California AG, but I have confirmed that the AG’s office regulates charities and that the email Levine sent the Times, saying that Spotlight on Heroes was not registered as a charity, was from Ford’s email address. I also have confirmed that the mailing address for Spotlight in the 2007 flier promoting Ms. Livermore’s Red & White Ball, is Ms. Livermore’s address. I have not confirmed that she stole or misappropriated money, but I will not allege that and neither did BuzzFeed. But I expect to confirm that she directed (and still directs) contributions to a charity that is not registered and that uses her home address. Quite a different picture from the Times puff piece.
My reporting is not finished yet, but I am pretty confident I have done more reporting on this charity than the Times did in 2007. Between my own reporting, the BuzzFeed reporting (which was actually quite solid) and the reporting by Richard Halstead of the Marin Independent Journal, I am doubtful that the Times vetted this story well at all in 2007. If someone challenged a story this way at a paper where I was editor, even an eight-year-old story, I would be investigating and correcting, if the investigation confirmed what I’ve seen so far. That uncorrected story is still the No. 4 hit on Google when you search Livermore’s name, 4 slots above the BuzzFeed story.
Also, here’s a passage from my draft:
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.
The $3 million claim is repeated in other stories, which I’ll detail at the end of this post. The stories show growing numbers of the marriages claimed from Livermore’s matches.
Does parroting authors’ publicity materials, without attribution, meet Times standards?
FYI, I have also emailed Stephanie Rosenbloom, asking questions about her reporting.
Thanks for your quick response,
Corbett’s response on Aug. 22:
Sorry if my reply was curt. 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. (As I recall, officials at the school or schools that were supposed to benefit said they did indeed get the donations, though again, the Times story didn’t cover that ground.) 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.
Thanks for being so forthright in your approach.
A few comments on this: I didn’t care about Corbett being “curt” in his initial response. He was, but I’ve been a journalist for 40-plus years. I’ve dealt with hundreds of curt editors and have been one myself. I expect a curt tone from editors and they often get one from me, without apology.
I was fascinated, and disturbed, though, by the content of both messages: the implication that someone else needed to prove malfeasance or theft in order for the Times to correct an inaccurate reference to a charity ball. And he didn’t even mention the parroting of promotional materials, so I guess that meets Times standards?
I also was fascinated at the dismissive attitude toward a BuzzFeed story that absolutely nailed the Times and other media who lavished Livermore with “glowing profiles.” BuzzFeed’s name is the very antithesis of the New York Times. Even the 2014 Times Innovation Report, which actually had lots of praise for BuzzFeed’s digital savvy and was exploring how the Times could make similar digital strides, couldn’t resist a dig at BuzzFeed’s “lackluster content” (page 63). But in this case, BuzzFeed has been the better watchdog. By far. That should have rung alarm bells for the Times Standards Editor. But instead, he was scornful that BuzzFeed had not confirmed actual theft (which it never alleged).
I got a much shorter reply from Corbett when I emailed him for this Post, asking if the Times had corrected the story or was re-examining it:
Thanks for the update. No new developments on this end.
I pushed Corbett for more explanation, so he sent another email yesterday:
I understand your concerns and I think you’ve raised legitimate questions. But you won’t be surprised to hear that I disagree with your conclusion that The Times doesn’t care about the accuracy or integrity of our reporting.
We have a full-time standards editor, a full-time public editor, a full-time corrections editor, and two full-time assistants working on issues like this. I know you think we’ve dropped the ball on this one (and you’re by no means the first person to question my judgment or basic competence), but I hope you don’t despair of The Times as a whole.
This may seem like excuse-making, but a bit of context here. The Times publishes something like 70,000 pieces of journalism a year. Over eight years, that’s more than half a million pieces. Certainly there are times when we would feel we have to re-examine or re-report an eight-year-old story — that’s half a million stories ago — but realistically the bar is going to be somewhat high.
You think this case crosses that bar, and you may be right. I decided that it didn’t, though I will try to keep an open mind and reserve the option of changing course. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Some stories prompt dozens, scores, even hundreds of questions, complaints or demands for correction or revision. This one, as far as I know, drew just one question, eight years or so after publication. It’s a legitimate and substantive question, but it didn’t seem to me to take obvious precedence over many other pressing and more current concerns.
You clearly disagree, and I respect the diligence you’ve brought to this.
I do disagree, though I appreciate the context and detail that Corbett added. I’m bothered by his lumping Levine’s detailed documentation with all those other questions and demands for correction, most of which, I’m sure lack documentation. I received lots of questions and requests for corrections myself through my 16-plus years as an editor, and I can’t recall as detailed and documented a complaint from a reader. While I am sure that my own experience with reader response is nowhere near the scale of the New York Times, I also am confident that the vast majority of those 70,000 pieces of journalism a year don’t generate documented challenges to their accuracy.
If the Times doesn’t think this old puff piece is worth further investigation, it doesn’t even have to investigate itself: It could update the original story to link to the BuzzFeed and/or Daily Beast stories, noting that new reporting has challenged the validity of Livermore’s favored charity (I wouldn’t expect a link to my blog). Once you know an inaccurate story is still showing up high in search results, you should update in some fashion.
I won’t address Corbett’s question about the reporting of apparently legitimate donations related to Livermore’s matchmaking. Deni Elliott will address that topic at some length tomorrow.
I also won’t address here Corbett’s hope that I “don’t despair for the Times as a whole.” This post will focus on the narrower issue of correcting old stories and responding to reader challenges to your accuracy. But I will explain my broader view of the Times separately in a later post.
Baquet did not respond to me in August or September. That would be OK if someone else were doing something. But, as I noted in the August post, Baquet did respond to Levine when she wrote him in August, so we know he is aware of the Times’ flawed story. The puff piece didn’t happen on his watch, but the error was called to the Times’ attention on his watch, and the uncorrected Times story is still generating page views and ad impressions for the Times on his watch.
I’m not saying that correcting an eight-year-old story is the executive editor’s job or demands much of his attention. But, in the time that he took to write his 125-word email response to Levine, Baquet could have and should have instructed Corbett and/or other appropriate Times journalists to investigate whether the story was flawed (it was) and needed to be rereported, updated and corrected (it does). Accuracy and integrity are worth whatever time they demand, however big or busy your newsroom.
Just nine days before Baquet’s dismissive response to Levine, the Times published multiple corrections on a horribly inaccurate story about Hillary Clinton. Baquet should not have regarded this as a trivial matter in an eight-year-old story. It was and is a symptom of a huge, current problem for the Times: accuracy and verification.
Except for the autoreply, I have received no response from Rosenbloom. I don’t know what her editors expect of her, or what her personal professional standards are. But apparently at either or both levels, they don’t include responding to challenges to the accuracy of her work.
That disappoints me. I can think of nothing more important for a journalist than accuracy and credibility. I’m not going to dwell further on criticism of Rosenbloom here, but clearly we have different personal standards for our journalism and how we respond to challenges to our reporting. You’ll get a response if you challenge the accuracy of my work from any point in my career: either documentation of my verification, questions about your challenge or a promise that I’ll get back to you after I do more research.
The Times’ error
I covered this matter in more detail in my August post, but this much deserves repeating here: In parsing whether to publish a correction in this case, the Times is hiding behind the fact that Rosenbloom’s story never mentioned Spotlight on Heroes (Corbett mentioned that in his Aug. 22 email to me). But the story made seven references to “charity,” “charities” or “charitable” donations. While some of those references might cover some actual charities, The Times should check out whether donations to Spotlight are included in each of those references. Charity was so much the premise of the Times story that the headline reflected it: “Fall in love for a good cause.”
But if it’s only specific facts, not the premise of a story, that merit corrections, the 2007 Red & White ball (check the invitation posted at right), earlier in the year that the Times published its story, purported to raise money for Spotlight on Heroes, inviting people to send their checks to Livermore’s home address. And here’s what the Times story said about that:
… Ms. Livermore’s Red & White Ball, a singles charity event held every other year in San Francisco that attracts up to 1,000 attendees.
That passage needs a correction. It used the word “charity” to refer to an event that raised about $175,000 (multiplying the Times estimate of attendance by the ticket price) for an organization that has never been registered as a charity in California. Even if it was just a paperwork error (and you’d think it would have been corrected in eight years), the Times needs to learn that and update the story.
I am completely mystified by the Times journalists’ failure to take this challenge to a story more seriously.
Other media responses
For both this post and my August post, I also contacted other media outlets who published or broadcast profiles of Livermore. As I noted in the previous post, I did hear back from GQ writer Alan Deutschman, whose profile in the 1990s predates Levine’s documentation, and Marin Independent Journal Editor Robert Sterling, whose newspaper re-examined Livermore and her charitable affiliations after the BuzzFeed piece. (Update: Sterling has blogged on this issue.)
CBS News, NBC’s “Today Show” and the San Francisco Examiner have not responded to my invitations for comment either in August or September.
George Osterkamp of CBS News, producer of the network’s 2008 puff piece on Livermore, did respond to Levine, but CBS has not updated or corrected its reporting on her.
Richard Greenberg of NBC also responded to Levine, but NBC has not corrected its story. I have written him as well (later than I wrote the others seeking response for this post) and will update if I hear from him.
This section applies to all the media, but I will return my focus to the Times. Corrections are important externally because they remind readers/viewers of your commitment to accuracy. Corrections are important internally because they remind staff of your commitment to accuracy, verification and integrity.
The bar you have to clear to correct a fact should be simple and not that high: Was a fact wrong? The Times recently misidentified Han Solo’s starship as the Millennium Force and quickly corrected, without, I presume, asking others to do any sort of reporting, as Corbett suggested I do for the Times (and as Levine had already done). It was a trivial point, but the original fact was wrong and the Times corrected.
The Society of Professional Journalists addresses this matter quite simply in its Code of Ethics, with two bullets in its “Act independently and transparently” section:
- Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
- Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.
Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist is similarly clear:
Acknowledge mistakes and errors, correct them quickly and in a way that encourages people who consumed the faulty information to know the truth.
The Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code project recognizes lots of different ethical issues on which journalists might disagree, but corrections are one of the “fundamentals” on which we think all journalists should agree:
Correct errors quickly, completely and visibly. Make it easy for your audience to bring errors to your attention.
ONA’s project includes a separate section on corrections, guiding news organizations in developing strong policies to implement that fundamental principle.
The newly updated Code of Ethics of the Radio Television Digital News Association:
Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had.
The New York Times actually goes into more detail than any of these codes (except ONA) in its own Standards and Ethics:
Because our voice is loud and far-reaching, The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small. …
We correct our errors explicitly as soon as we become aware of them. We do not wait for someone to request a correction. We publish corrections in a prominent and consistent location or broadcast time slot.
Here’s what the Times’ Ethics and Standards say about integrity:
Whatever else we contribute, our first duty is to make sure the integrity of The Times is not blemished during our stewardship. At a time of growing and even justified public suspicion about the impartiality, accuracy and integrity of some journalists and some journalism, it is imperative that The Times and its staff maintain the highest possible standards to insure that we do nothing that might erode readers’ faith and confidence in our news columns. This means that the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach.
I was contacted by a reader whose faith and confidence in the Times’ integrity was strong enough that she wrote out a check for $1,000 to an organization that is not registered as a charity, based in part on the credibility that a Times story about charitable fund-raising conferred on the person soliciting the check. Levine did a little more checking and ended up not mailing that check. But her faith and confidence have been shattered by the Times’ gullibility in this story and its continuing refusal, when confronted by documentation of the story’s inaccuracy, to correct it or even re-examine it.
And I’m sure she’s not the only person who’s written a check based on the Times’ incomplete reporting. The Marin Independent Journal’s 2007 story about Livermore, published just 10 days after the Times story, quoted Livermore saying she had received 143 calls from prospective matchmaking clients since the Times published its story.
And who knows how many more, like Levine, have found the story on search since those first 143 calls. That’s why it’s inexcusable that the Times doesn’t correct or update this story. And because someone else might find the story on search this week.
Here’s what I’d like to know (from other Times staffers, if you want to weigh in, since the responses from Corbett, Baquet and Rosenbloom have been so disappointing; but also from anyone at CBS, NBC or the San Francisco Examiner):
- Did I miss some statute of limitations in the Times standards that applies to corrections?
- How does this story not merit a correction or at least a re-examination to determine whether it needs a correction?
- How does the Times’ response to Levine meet the Times’ standards?
I won’t detail all my many exchanges with Levine on this topic. She’s not a journalist, but an executive recruiter, who does background checks on potential recruits. And she’s good at it. She illustrates a point I’ve long believed: That journalists can learn a lot from people in other fields who use some of the same skills that we use.
Here are some documents she has sent me links to that journalists should have found either in their original reporting in 2007-8 or in the new reporting they refuse to do today:
- A IRS 990 form documenting a 2006 charitable donation to Spotlight on Heroes from the J.V. Lowney Fund. On Page 11, the form lists a $2,400 donation and identifies Spotlight as a charity. (Journalists covering charities should always check for their 990 forms, which are public records, and which, of course, Spotlight on Heroes never filed, since it wasn’t a charity.)
- Another 990 form documenting a $2,000 “charitable” donation to Spotlight on Heroes in 2012 by the Seligman Family Foundation. Spotlight had been suspended in 2009 by the California Franchise Tax Board for non-payment of taxes.
- A 990 form from the California Study, reporting an $8,500 grant to Spotlight in 2009. Livermore claimed in an August interview with the Marin Independent Journal that Spotlight on Heroes that “Spotlight is part of The California Study. Our 501(c)3 number comes under their umbrella.” She did not explain how it would be legal for the Study to make grants to an organization with no standing as a charity. Marilyn Nemzer, executive director of The California Study Inc., told the Daily Beast that media coverage of Spotlight on Heroes’ non-registered status “have been misleading gossip.”
- A 2010 990 for the Sidney E. Frank Foundation reported a $2,500 donation to the California Study for Spotlight on Heroes.
I think Levine has shown without question that Livermore was seeking donations for an operation that’s not a registered charity. This year Livermore asked Levine for a check for Spotlight on Heroes, Levine says (and documents with screen grabs of an email exchange).
Am I the only journalist disturbed that an angry almost-victim is doing better investigation of this operation than the respected news organizations that boosted Livermore’s business with puff pieces you can still find online if you’re looking for a matchmaker?
Tomorrow: Deni Elliott discusses weaknesses in media reporting on charities.
Update: Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has blogged about the Livermore story.