We inspect, you decide?

Fox News is asking the United Nations for permission to send reporters and camera crews along if U.N. weapons inspectors return to Iraq.

"This is a serious proposal," Senior Vice President John Moody told U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in a letter sent Friday. Having broadcast crews along "would make it easier for U.N. inspectors to do their work and would underscore the credibility of the U.N. mission in Iraq. . . . Viewers could decide for themselves if the inspectors are being allowed to do their jobs."

Of course, Saddam Hussein might have something to say about this. And the stodgy U.N. bureaucracy might veto the idea. But in an age when war, terrorist attacks, presidential depositions, murder trials, coal mine rescues and mothers slapping children in parking lots are televised, why not weapons inspections that might or might not avert a military conflict?

"Some television outlet ought to volunteer to eat the cost of showing everything worldwide," says Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. "Why not let the world in on what's going on? . . . If the American people can see the U.N. live and working, I don't see it hurting the U.N."

Rupert Murdoch, the network's owner, approved the move, even though it may cost millions of dollars to follow as many as 12 inspection teams. Ailes says Fox would share the footage with any legitimate news organization -- "We don't believe this is something you can pretend to own," he says -- but would like to have television partners to help split the cost.

While war always boosts ratings, the process of inspectors methodically visiting buildings would be less-than-scintillating television -- an important but molasses-like story.

Iraq, which has not reached final agreement with the U.N. over admitting inspectors, could well balk at the prospect of Western camera crews. The Baghdad government last week ordered correspondents for CNN, ABC and NBC to leave by today after growing upset with their coverage of a protest at the Information Ministry. Fox correspondent Greg Palkot was not among those expelled.

Ailes insists there could even be benefits for Hussein: "If he is serious that they don't have weapons of mass destruction and want to cooperate with the U.N., there's no better way to demonstrate that than to open it up to cameras."

Donating to the Cause

ABC News is working with mystery writer Patricia Cornwell on a Diane Sawyer special about a serial killer in Louisiana.

The plot took a surprising twist, though, when Cornwell donated $25,000 to a reward fund established by the family of one of the victims -- the same family that Cornwell had been interviewing for the network. ABC was not pleased.

"Clearly, I was unaware of the standards and practices of ABC," Cornwell says. "I did this without their knowing. I had honorable intentions. It just didn't occur to me that it could be a conflict. I've given millions of dollars to crime-fighting throughout my career."

ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider says that "we understand Patricia's extraordinary sense of charity," and have talked to the author so that "not even the appearance of a problem could arise in the future."

Cornwell had interviewed the husband, son, mother and other relatives of Pam Kinamore, who was killed in July in one of a number of unsolved murders in the Baton Rouge area. Cornwell spoke at a rally for the victims eight days ago and, "on the spur of the moment," she says, pledged to boost a $75,000 reward fund to $100,000.

"I was simply doing something from my heart," says Cornwell, a forensic research expert. "This is all new to me, working with a major network."

AP's Fiction Guide

When China was holding a Navy crew hostage last year, the Associated Press quoted Edward Briar, an analyst with the Military Research and Study Group, as saying that President Bush "is already beginning to look a little weak, a little ragged. An apology would be unseemly and embarrassing for the nation."

That story -- and 38 others -- proved embarrassing for the AP, which later discovered that Briar, and his group, did not exist. The wire service promptly fired reporter Christopher Newton, author of the stories, which included more than 45 people and plenty of impressive-sounding organizations whose existence could not be verified.

The Newton fiasco has garnered only a fraction of the publicity of past fabrications by New Republic writer Stephen Glass, Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith, Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke and New York Times Magazine contributor Michael Finkel, whose portrait of a young Ivory Coast laborer was a composite.

One reason is that AP reporters tend to be little known, and newspapers often run their pieces without bylines.

But the sheer volume of Newton's inventions over 2 1/2 years, detailed by the AP last week, is stunning: One of his stories quoted Angelica Victor of the Education Alliance. Another cited Lynne Hallard of Civil Liberties Focus. Still others featured the comments of Jennifer Talles of the Western Association for Immigration Rights, Hugh Brownstone of the Intergon Research Center, and Thomas Jakes, president of People for Civil Rights.

One difficulty for his editors: Made-up people tend not to complain about their quotes.

"If you look at the material story by story," says AP Senior Vice President Jonathan Wolman, "you'll see the questionable quotations are all tucked into the middle of the story. They're not very snappy or snazzy. All are plausible by name or attribution. They didn't raise any flags."

Newton, an eight-year AP veteran who worked in the Washington bureau until his dismissal last month, says only that "I'm not going to comment any further." In a statement to the New York Times, he denied any fabrications, saying he "was not given an opportunity to account for the names of those people the AP did not find. . . . I am no longer pursuing the situation with the AP, but rather with an attorney."

Wolman says Newton "had the opportunity, and we were all hoping and expecting he'd be able to verify his material." In the future, he says, editors will check the existence of unfamiliar organizations.

Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism says the wire service won't be hurt by an isolated incident because "their record has been pretty extraordinary over many years." Besides, he says, "their system of relying on the veracity of their individual reporters is the way every other organization engaged in daily journalism works. The biggest issue is why it went on so long, why they didn't catch it sooner."

Wolman remains puzzled, since the Newton stories also contained legitimate reporting: "I'm just nowhere in understanding how this would occur."

That Didn't Take Long

"What stocks might benefit if Republicans gain control of the U.S. Senate? I know many of you feel that might be a cynical question to ask in this tragic incident, but that is the way Wall Street works." -- CNBC reporter Bob Pisani on Friday, one hour after reports that Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone had been killed in a plane crash.

"Why not let the world in on what's going on?" says Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. At right, mystery writer Patricia Cornwell, who says she's learning the hard way about the networks' ethics rules.