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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Ethics Pressure Squeezes a Few Out the Door

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005; Page C01

Has journalism become an ethical cesspool, or just been forced to adopt greater standards of cleanliness?

In the past month alone, four reporters for major newspapers have been ousted, and a columnist was suspended, for ethical missteps. The drip-drip-drip of disclosures about sloppiness, fabrication and plagiarism have further eroded the media's reputation, leading to a one-strike-and-you're-out policy at many outlets.

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"There are people in important jobs, well respected by their colleagues and readers, who've made mistakes like this, but they made the mistakes 30 years ago and didn't get their careers destroyed," says New York Times ombudsman Dan Okrent. In today's climate, he says, "we're hypersensitive because we have to be hypersensitive."

Julia Wallace, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says of such cases: "My gut is that we are more aggressive about pursuing them and more aggressive about talking about them openly." Wallace recalls how the Chicago Sun-Times editorial page editor was bounced in 1995 for plagiarizing from The Washington Post -- and quietly given a top circulation job. (The executive, Mark Hornung, resigned last year in a Sun-Times circulation scandal.)

Media bosses are getting tougher on wayward staffers not just because of a greater sense of professionalism, but because outsiders -- led by bloggers and other critics -- have stepped up the pressure. In the Internet age, there's no rug under which to sweep these problems.

"Because we are self-policing so much better, it makes it seem like there's a tremendous cascade of ethical violations," says Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's journalism school. "There used to be a lot more in the way of shenanigans and monkey business that we either didn't know about or, if it was caught, it was winked at. There was a boys-will-be-boys quality about it -- they were mostly boys -- and they would get a slap on the wrist at best."

Last week, the Tampa Tribune accepted the resignation of Brad Smith after he admitted fabricating a story about a woman emerging from a night of club-hopping to find her Jeep towed. The woman was home, having lent the car to a friend with whom Smith was socializing when the towing took place.

Also last week, the Journal-Constitution said reporter Al Levine never spoke to the fans and area residents he had quoted at the Daytona 500, lifting material in February from the Daytona Beach News-Journal and last year from the Orlando Sentinel. Wallace says she had to fire the 23-year veteran, who apologized, because he committed plagiarism twice.

Earlier, the Los Angeles Times dismissed Eric Slater over errors in a story about fraternity hazing at California State University-Chico, though he strongly disputes the paper's suggestion that he never visited the school. The Boston Globe dropped freelancer Barbara Stewart for writing about a scheduled seal hunt as if it had happened, though she says her only mistake was failing to confirm that the event, which wound up being delayed, had taken place.

In the highest-profile case, the Detroit Free Press reinstated its suspended sports columnist, Mitch Albom -- and took unspecified action against four editors -- after he apologized for writing about two alumni at a college basketball game before it took place. The ex-players never showed up. (Albom wrote yesterday that he "went from sorry, to shocked, to saddened, to silent," feels "terrible" at the impact on his newspaper and considered his mistake "a humbling reminder to slow down.")

In recent weeks, the Boston Herald severed its relationship with columnist Charles Chieppo, who had contracts with the Massachusetts governor and a state agency, and Florida television reporter Mike Vasilinda was reported to have earned more than $100,000 from contracts with Gov. Jeb Bush's office and state agencies.

The transgressions take many forms. The Miami Herald fired a critic last year for plagiarizing his own earlier work at the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Macon, Ga., Telegraph ousted a reporter for attributing information from a Ringling Bros. Web site to a circus spokesman.

A few decades ago, it was not unusual for journalists to accept Christmas gifts from sources, take junkets from organizations they covered or collaborate with government officials.

In 1945, legendary columnist James Reston helped Sen. Arthur Vandenberg with a speech on foreign policy. In 1960, then-Washington Post Publisher Philip Graham helped broker John Kennedy's selection of Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. In the early 1970s, says Kunkel, he knew an Indiana sportswriter who routinely made up quotes from the coaches he covered.

Okrent, who got his Times job in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, says a new era of journalistic aggressiveness -- inspired, in his view, by the Watergate film "All the President's Men" -- has spawned corner-cutting and worse by would-be stars. He also cites what Slate's Jack Shafer has dubbed "the Romenesko Effect" -- the immediate publicizing of what would have been purely local flaps on the Poynter Institute media Web site run by Jim Romenesko.

Some of the transgressors "wouldn't have gotten fired five years ago, pre-Romenesko," Okrent says.

Romenesko says new technology enables him to discover far-flung incidents. By plugging certain search terms into Google News, the all-computer/no-humans service, he gets e-mail alerts about journalistic misbehavior -- such as the two staffers for the Kalamazoo, Mich., Gazette fired last week for drinking while reporting a story on a game called "beer pong" and other alcohol use by young people.

"With the Internet and the ability to expose these scandals, both mini- and maxi-, we just know more about them," Romenesko says.

When he was at the Milwaukee Journal in the 1970s, "there was one guy who just fabricated stuff," but "nobody knew outside the newsroom." As for the overall state of media ethics, "it may have been worse in those days, considering half the people in the newsroom were drunk."

The Gannon File

Jeff Gannon's seamy past leaked out months before he asked President Bush a loaded question during a news conference.

As a correspondent for the now-defunct Web site Talon News, says the forthcoming issue of Vanity Fair, Gannon was hammering Tom Daschle during the South Dakotan's campaign to hold onto his Senate seat. Daschle aides traced an e-mail -- ostensibly from a constituent who wanted reaction to one of Gannon's stories -- to an Internet profile of Gannon, wearing only dog tags and boxer shorts. "The Daschle campaign spread the word, but no reporters bit," the magazine says.

Gannon doesn't deny advertising online as a $200-an-hour gay escort, but describes himself as the victim of "a full-scale jihad" by liberals. Vanity Fair says he falsely told friends he had been a Marine -- Gannon says he displayed military paraphernalia and "didn't disabuse anyone of that notion" -- and owes nearly $21,000 in back taxes. Gannon believes God bestowed a White House assignment on him so that he could atone for past transgressions, Vanity Fair says.

In defending his name change, the man born as James Guckert says Jeff Gannon has a "nice ring to it -- like Wolf Blitzer, which isn't his real name either." Actually, Mr. Guckert, it is his real name.

Tabloid Television

Will TV's newest reality show bear any relation to reality? The New York Daily News will be the subject of six one-hour episodes that "will provide a true 'fly on the wall' look at the inner workings of a leading daily newspaper," Bravo President Lauren Zalaznick told the News. In that case, Bravo (which is teaming with Hearst Entertainment) had better do some fancy editing to turn this into a watchable "Queer Eye for the Journalist Guy."

"If they're not careful," says News Editor in Chief Michael Cooke, "it could be a lot of shots of people typing and having long conversations and moaning about their boss. You're rolling the dice with TV. TV can make you look extremely smart or stupid. But we're excited about it."

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