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Media Crime & Punishment

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005; 9:03 AM

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.

"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.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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