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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 06:13 PM ET, 06/26/2012

Wall Street Journal intern busted for quote-fabrication

Journalism scandal of the day comes out of the Wall Street Journal, which issues an editor’s note about the work of an intern named Liane Membis. Here’s the text:

Note to Readers: “Bridging a Local Divide,” published online on June 17, has been removed from the Journal’s web sites. Many of the names contained in the article about the re-opening of the 103rd Street Pedestrian Bridge in Manhattan were fabricated by reporting intern Liane Membis, and the quotes couldn’t be independently verified. Ms. Membis is no longer working at The Wall Street Journal.

Though the Wall Street Journal has yanked the story from its site, the Internet will not allow it to be unavailable. Though it’s not clear what’s for real and what’s fake, we’ll just excerpt a few of the story’s quotes to provide a feel for how the story framed local reflections on the bridge’s impact:

“Sometimes I just come up on this bridge and stop and look around, right up here on the top,” said Katrina Maple, 64 years old. “It’s calming and relaxing. It feels like we finally got our backyard back.”

Do people talk like that?

“A lot of people in the neighborhood have been concerned about them shutting it down. It seemed like the city didn’t want black folks in the park, you know?” said Saniqua Dimson, 17 years old, of East Harlem.

Do people talk like that?

“It’s been a long time coming for the bridge to be open, but I really like that I can come here by foot. We’re always stuck in subways, taxis, and cars,” said Jonqueil Stevens, 40, who has taken his son to Randall’s Island five times. “It feels good to be able to get to a natural space by walking. And it’s not like it’s a nasty dirty path, either. The bridge is so clean and just a straight shot.”

Do people talk like that?

Andrew Beaujon of Poynter corralled a statement from the Wall Street Journal:

Liane Membis was an intern for the Journal for less than three weeks and wrote or contributed to five published pieces – one of which has been removed from our online archives and two of which have been edited to remove quotes that were provided by the intern and that cannot be confirmed. Notes detailing the actions taken have been placed at the original URLs. Ms. Membis is no longer working at The Wall Street Journal.

What distinguishes the quotes in the story — with the possible exception of the racial comment in Dimson’s statement — is nothing. Nothing at all. They’re all commonplace assertions about a bridge, cementing together a forgettable piece of community reportage.

Which is why it reminds me of the Christopher Newton episode at the Associated Press (AP), perhaps my favorite instance of journalistic wrongdoing. In 2002, Newton’s bosses at the wire service discovered that he’d been making up sources who’d served as experts in his news stories. He managed to get away with it for quite a while because the quotes were so neutral, so legitimate-sounding. In a Slate piece, Jack Shafer rounded up a few in an excellent Slate piece about Newton:

“Anyone who has used a database knows it is not an exact science,” said John Martin of Consumer Reports.
“This is great because it will hopefully embarrass the Bush administration into action,” said researcher Tim Dale of the Malen Clinic in New York. “At the very least it will make them explain themselves.”
“If you don’t have money, you can wait.” Jennifer Talles, a spokeswoman for the Western Association for Immigration Rights said, “Why do we need a program that tells immigrants we value them based on how much money they have?”

The Membis-Newton parallel runs out of gas once it gets beyond the ho-humness of the quotes. Whereas Newton was conjuring experts whose thoughts were tangential to the story, Membis was conjuring community folks — people who would have a real stake in the story of a pedestrian bridge and who might have more interesting thoughts than the ones attributed to them in Membis’s piece. Had Membis done the easy work of hanging out on the bridge and talking to some actual individuals, she might have come upon a tip or two for the next story. The next story, that is, that won’t be happening now.

By  |  06:13 PM ET, 06/26/2012

Tags:  wall street journal, liane membis, quotes, fabrication, jack shafer, wall street journal, andrew beaujon, poynter, 103rd street pedestrian bridge

 
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