By Jim Hanas
JULY 13, 1998: After last weeks retraction-fest that saw both The Cincinnati Enquirer and CNN/Time recant major investigative stories, critics are positively giddy. Added to recent revelations of fabricated stories at The Boston Globe and The New Republic, media-bashers figure they have enough fuel to crank up the spanking machine and keep it running. In their excitement, however, a lot of the licks are missing the mark.
Last Friday, for example, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas managed to somehow make inaccuracy a particular pitfall of liberalism. Those with a conservative worldview will not be shocked at the recent reports of lying by some elements of the mainstream press, he said, mightily, eventually getting around to blaming recent slips on the medias alleged liberal slant, including laughably its biases against big corporations. Cal has apparently forgotten that Time Warner, which owns Time and CNN, and Gannett, the owner of The Cincinnati Enquirer, are big corporations.
Thomas extravagance, however, is indicative of the rush to proclaim a declining trend in journalistic standards, leading even the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Fred Brown, to defend his profession with a meek, Its good, at least, that these problems are being aired.
But all retractions are not equal. Some dont even work.
In the cases of Patricia Smith of The Boston Globe, who admitted fabricating events in several columns, and the almost-certainly-pathological Stephen Glass of The New Republic, who fabricated a good deal more than that, there can be no excuse. Deliberate deceit is and should be career-ending. But contrary to Thomas gloss that all four cases involve lying, that doesnt seem to be true in the case of CNN. And The Cincinnati Enquirers story might not even be false.
In the 54-page report CNN released detailing its decision to recant a story about the use of nerve gas during the Vietnam War, the network said, Although the broadcast was prepared after exhaustive research, was rooted in considerable supportive data, and reflected the deeply held beliefs of the CNN journalists who prepared it, the central thesis of the broadcast could not be sustained at the time of the broadcast itself and cannot be sustained now.
Between the report, prepared by an independent investigator, and Times own investigation into the story, the handling of the slip is a textbook case for setting the record straight. Better late than never.
Its worth noting, of course, that fired producer April Oliver denies the story contained any factual errors.
If we made any factual error of any kind, we should correct that. I continue to be unaware of any factual error in the script, she wrote in a letter to CNN, which was released to Reuters over the weekend. We did not lead the interviewees, we did not put words in their mouths, we did not set out with a sarin gas/defectors thesis. At any rate, there is no allegation of fraud. The story was not so much misreported as under-reported, which is quite a bit different from the farications of Smith and Glass.
The Cincinnati Enquirer case is even more complicated, not to mention more poorly handled. The retraction the paper ran for three days last week renounced a series of articles about the business practices of Chiquita Brands International and apologized for their untrue conclusions.
It did not, however, elaborate on what the untrue conclusions were, as CNN and Time did, and the reason given for the retraction that the story was in part based on voice-mail tapes possibly stolen by investigative reporter Mike Gallagher doesnt even come close to making any of the reporting false. Unethically and perhaps illegally conducted, yes. But not false.
As John Fox the editor of CityBeat, a weekly newspaper in Cincinnati points out in an extensive article on the affair, much of the series didnt even rely on the allegedly pilfered tapes. The paper in effect agreed to say the stories were false, even if they werent, in exchange for not being sued. Or as Fox observes, the settlement looks like nothing more than a complex business deal.
Contrary to Cal Thomas analysis, then, its the big business that media has become, rather than a bias against same, that seems to be obscuring the truth here. If truth came first, Gannett would stand by its reporting and take the licks for whatever criminal acts were executed on its behalf, no matter the cost. A retraction might stop a lawsuit, but it cant change the facts. Unfortunately, The Enquirers vague renouncement leaves readers more in the dark than ever.
Meanwhile, theres a big old Pulitzer just lying there for anyone whod care to rewrite the series, this time by the book.
In todays age of media consolidation, synergy is the name of the game. Owning outlets in different media allows cost-cutting and cross-promotion impossible just a few years ago. In that respect, WREG-TV Channel 3 is at a distinct disadvantage, since it is the only big-three affiliate in town without cross-ownership in radio. Both WMC-TV Channel 5 and WPTY-TV Channel 24 have sister news/talk stations to get their news products out to radio listeners. Channel 3 does not, but until this week its news was simulcast on WKNO-FM 91.1. WKNO dropped the simulcast to make way for more NPR programming, including a welcome evening broadcast of Fresh Air, although WKNO director of radio Susan Westfall says the increasing commercialism of the TV product and of the sweeps process in general were also factors.
Enter WOWW-AM 1430, a station in the process common among stations owned by local radiologist Dr. George Flinn of finding itself. Recently, it abandoned a love/relationship talk format to go straight news/talk, a bold move without TV backup. In essence, WOWW has the reverse problem of WREG. WREG needs radio; WOWW needs TV. In a match made in synergy heaven, the two have teamed up, with WOWW picking up WKNOs dropped simulcast at 6-7 a.m. and 6-7 p.m. Channel 3s noir newsman Mike Matthews will also host a show from 9 to 11 a.m., following shock-jock Thaddeus Mat-thews (no relation) from 7 to 9 a.m.
So who has the most to gain from the partnership? While Channel 3 is surely glad to maintain the status quo, simulcast-wise, they are a close number-two in the market while WOWW is, well, a Flinn station. Perhaps WOWW general manager Lonnie Treadaway put it best.
I wanted to tie with a real quality news station such as Channel 3, he says, to give my station integrity.
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