Defending the New York Times

I’m pretty hard on the media. Mostly because they earn it. But while many are saying the New York Times has egg on its face today, I just can’t muster any outrage on this one.

Editor & Publisher has a story about this latest “embarrassment” for the paper. It turns out someone the paper interviewed lied to a reporter during an interview and that made the paper unchecked.

Depending on the situation that may or may not be a sign of poor reporting. For example:

If someone were to (hypothetically of course) tell a media organization during an election that they had memos which proved the President of the United States was AWOL during the Vietnam era and the media organization ran them unchecked, that would be inexcusable.

But nothing near so important happened to the Times.

It turns out they got hustled by a scam artist. A woman who claimed she was from Biloxi, Mississippi and was a hurricane victim was not. She allowed herself to be profiled, no doubt, to help get thousands of dollars of hurricane relief money. She’s in jail now on multiple fraud charges.

What I find troubling though is the nature of the correction the paper felt forced to run.

The article was based on interviews with Ms. Fenton, caseworkers with the Salvation Army, employees of the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Queens, where Ms. Fenton lives, and Amanda McGee, who described herself as the fiance of Ms. Fenton’s oldest son. Ms. Fenton said that she lived at the hotel with her five children, and that her husband had come with her from Biloxi but was living elsewhere in New York.

A reporter originally obtained Ms. Fenton’s name from the Rev. Donald Hudson, a Queens pastor active in efforts to secure aid for Katrina evacuees in New York. Mr. Hudson had described her as an evacuee who might be willing to be profiled, after the reporter asked him for possible interview subjects. A reporter visited Ms. Fenton on two occasions, in late February and early March, and spent several hours with her, even watching her battle with FEMA officials on the phone.

And from an “editor’s note”

“For its profile, The Times did not conduct adequate interviews or public record checks to verify Ms. Fenton’s account, including her claim that she had lived in Biloxi. Such checks would have uncovered a fraud conviction and raised serious questions about the truthfulness of her account.”

I have a LONG, LONG history of demanding media accountability. But let’s be realistic. Is a media outlet supposed to run criminal background checks on everyone they quote in the paper?

The paper had no obvious reason to suspect she was not being truthful. Maybe I sound like an eBay commercial but our society is based on the fact that, as a rule, most people are basically honest. If a reporter is getting a credible story from a first hand source, demanding that level of fact checking is egregiously burdensome on the paper and really, just silly.

I’m glad to see the Times standing up and “admitting” to their “mistakes” but I don’t think anyone can credibly fault the Times on this one.

This was not a case of a reporter being sloppy or not bothering to check obviously suspicious facts. The reporter got lied to by a professional liar. Don’t blame him, blame the perpetrator.

Bloggers are right to hold the media’s feet to the fire but bashing the media for the sake of bashing hurts our credibility more than the media’s. If the Times felt obligated to write that correction the way they did because of bloggers, I don’t consider that a good thing.

If we demand responsibility of them then we too must be responsible with our criticism. Anything less is hypocrisy.

For Katrina Evacuee, Getting Help Is a Full-Time Job – [NYT]
Woman Claiming to Be a Victim of Katrina Is Charged With Fraud – [NYT]

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