Politics & Policy

Fooling the Times

Reporters at the newspaper of record get taken for a ride.

Last week, former Today Show host Jane Pauley filed a federal lawsuit against the New York Times for fraud, as well as misrepresentation, breach of contract, and other charges. According to the suit, Pauley, who admitted in 2004 to having bipolar disease and has since been an advocate for mental-health issues, was “tricked” into being interviewed for a special New York Times Magazine advertising supplement promoting companies making various psychotherapeutic drugs, such as Eli Lilly. Pauley alleges that the employee of the company producing the supplement, DeWitt Publishing, misrepresented herself as a New York Times reporter. She also alleges she was told that the interview would be part of a Times Magazine informational supplement on mental health. The advertising supplement ran in October 2005, with a picture of Pauley on the cover in what the suit charges was “essentially a paid advertisement” for Big Pharma.

#ad#The Pauley lawsuit speaks most directly to the problems inherent in allowing advertisers to buy space designed to resemble an editorial product (in this case, in the Times Magazine), something the wretched economic climate for newspapers has forced many of them to do. In November 2005, shortly after the Pauley pharmaceutical ad supplement ran, but before her indignation was known, current public editor Byron Calame wrote that he saw “a few worrisome indications that advertisers are being allowed to tap into the credibility of the news columns in ways that slip over the line.”

Yet no matter how serious Pauley’s charges and the journalistic issues associated with “advertorials” are, it’s far more common for the New York Times to be the victim of fraud than a perpetrator of it, at least in the legal sense. The Jayson Blair case in 2003, of course, was the most egregious example of this kind of fraud, worse because Blair did it from the inside, as a staff reporter. But post-Blair, the number of instances where Times reporters have been hoaxed, conned, or otherwise fooled by people seeking to manipulate or defraud the paper have been numerous. Such successful con jobs represent more evidence of the Times’s waning rigor and ebbing credibility. And many of them — not all but many — bear traces of the same PC soft-headedness at the heart of complaints about the Times liberal ideological bias, exposing unconscious reflexes and assumptions that have long-skewed Times’s news reporting on such hot-button political, social, and cultural issues as race, illegal immigration, gay rights, the war on terrorism, and U.S. military action in Iraq.

Brown Out

On January 17, 2004, for example, the Times ran a piece on the invasive ubiquity of surveillance cameras in public places in New York City. The piece focused on a 44-year-old self-styled privacy activist named Bill Brown. The cameras, Brown told Times metro reporter Sabrina Tavernese, who was somehow promoted thereafter to cover the Iraq war, were “warping human beings.” Within a week, however, other news organizations reported that the quotable social activist might not have been the most disinterested source; two weeks before the article had been published, Brown was the one caught on camera, then arrested by Long Island police for, making hundreds of obscene phone calls from inside a Manhattan law office where he had a temporary job.  According to a report in Newsday, Brown had allegedly threatened to rape one nine-year-old girl who answered the phone, telling her he would also rape her mother. The Newsday report also disclosed that this was not Brown’s first offense. As an assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design between 1990 and 1994, Brown was arrested six times in Rhode Island for calling random telephone numbers in hopes that a young girl would answer the phone, authorities there charged. 

Newsday also reported that investigators alleged that Brown had mapped out surveillance cameras in parts of several cities, knew the location of most cameras inside his office, and deliberately covered his face or averted his glance as he walked by. He apparently had missed one camera of critical import: a lobby camera, which recorded Brown entering the firm that night in the same blue knit cap and scarf he would be pictured wearing in the Times article. “I was absolutely appalled when I saw the article,” said the father of the sexually threatened nine year old.  “If you were doing a story, wouldn’t you at least do a basic background check? … If he’s leading people around on tours like he’s some sort of patron of human rights, they should at least know who they’re standing beside.”

In an obituary that ran in November of 2003, the Times’s Douglas Martin, a longtime metro-beat vet, reported that a prominent Harlem photographer had a twin brother to whom he was so close that when the brother died of testicular cancer in 1993, the photographer had his own testicles removed in solidarity with his sibling. An ensuring correction acknowledged, however, that the first brother had died of prostate cancer and, in fact, the photographer had not had his testicles removed in response. The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz called it the “Correction of the Month.”  Erroneous facts in response to the deceased — or not yet deceased, as the case may be — were reported just a few weeks later when the Times ran an obituary on the singer, actress, and dancer Katherine Sergava, who had appeared in the original production of Oklahoma!. The Times reported that the she had died November 11 in Palm Springs, California, “where she had settled in the mid-1960s.” As the New York Post reported, Katherine Sergava was not dead at all, but living in an Upper Westside nursing home. 

A BAD WEEK

In one week alone, the second week in March 2006, to be precise, a pair of hoaxes — both demonstrating an exceptional lack of reportorial skepticism and journalistic due diligence — required special “Editors’ Notes” to correct the record and were accompanied by articles deemed necessary to clarify the actual facts.

On March 11, 2006, in a long front-page article accompanied by several pictures, Times correspondent Hassan M. Fattah reported from Baghdad on the human rights activism of one Ali Shalel Qaissi. Qaissi, wrote Fattah, claimed to have been the American prisoner at Abu Ghraib photographed standing on a box, in a hood with wires dangling from his body. Under the headline “Symbol of Abu Ghraib Seeks To Spare Others His Nightmare,” Fattah called Qaissi’s picture “the indelible symbol of torture at Abu Ghraib.” Now a prisoner advocate who has joined a lawsuit against U.S. military contractors , and lobbies on behalf of those still in custody, then Qaissi was in the midst of barnstorming the major Arab world capitals to publicize U.S. mistreatment. Although Qaissi said he never wanted to be famous, Fattah wrote that he “is a prisoner advocate who clearly understands the power of image; the photo now appears on his business card.”  Qaissi held no grudge against the Americans, Hassan reported. Still, his literal “wounds [were] still raw,” especially his mangled hand, which had prompted American guards at the prison to nickname him “Clawman.”

Within days, Salon magazine posted a challenge to the veracity of the Times report, based on more than 250 images of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse it had obtained and related material. Qaissi was not the man in the hood, it claimed. After some checking, on March 23 the paper published an Editors’ Note, confessing to having been suckered. “The Times did not adequately research Mr. Qaissi’s insistence that he was the man in the photograph,” the note said.  The editors also admitted to having been wrong when Fattah reported that  representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International believed Qaissi was the man in the photograph. “While they said he could well be that man,” the note said, “they did not say they believed he was.” Even more damning, the editors confessed that a more thorough examination of previous articles in the Times and other newspapers would have shown that in 2004 military investigators had named another man as the one on the box, raising suspicions about Qaissi’s claim.

The accompanying clarification reported that Qaissi did finally admit he was not that man in the photograph; it also reported that “evidence suggests” he had never claimed to have been the man in the hood until months after he joined the lawsuit following his release from the prison. Total contrition was not all that pronounced, however. In citing lawyers who vouched for Qaissi, as well as the human rights workers, the editors said that Qaissi’s account “had already been broadcast and printed by other outlets, including PBS and Vanity Fair, without challenge.” Many critics found this an odd excuse for a paper that has set policies on doing its own original reporting and often brags about them.

The Qaissi hoax was a con job of the first order, lending some weight to accusations that the paper was more interested in presenting stories on such a powerful symbol of U.S. military wrongs than in fair, objective reporting. Embarrassingly, evidence to prevent the whole mess was in the Times’ archives, reported ombudsman Byron Calame shortly after. A Times article on May 22, 2004, had correctly identified the man in the photograph as Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh. Apparently, Calame reported, the paper’s foreign editors had missed it in a faulty keyword search, although Calame maintained that his  search, using exactly the same keywords, found other articles with evidence calling into question Qaissi’s claim. According to these two articles, the man in the photograph had been called “Gilligan” by guards at Abu Ghraib, not “Clawman,” as Qaissi maintained and the Times originally reported. “The contradictory nicknames, it seems to me, should have spurred more intensive search efforts and raised an overall caution flag,” Calame said. Calame also took the paper to task for the assertion, made in the Editors’ Note, that editors thought Qaissi’s claims were made more credible by prior reports in Vanity Fair and PBS. Readers of the original story, Calame scolded, “deserved to know that secondary sources were influencing The Times’ acceptance of Mr. Qaissi’s claims.”

Of this failure to examine its own archives thoroughly, blogger Tom Maguire wrote sarcastically: “Look, it is an understandable mistake — the rest of us don’t have a lot of confidence in the Times, either, so why should they?” All Foreign Editor Susan Chira could say was “Any time you talk to someone like this, you worry: Are they telling you some kind of story?”

CONFESSIONS

Three days before the Abu Ghraib picture hoax, there was a report demonstrating what was perhaps even more pronounced journalistic gullibility.  This time the subject was the fate of an alleged victim of Hurricane Katrina, said to be languishing in a kind of purgatory, induced by bureaucratic unresponsiveness, in a New York City welfare hotel. The reporter in on the story was Nicholas Confessore. Confessore had only joined the Times within the last year after stints at the American Prospect and The Washington Monthly, where he often wore his ideological liberalism quite proudly. Confessore was seen as a kind of “golden boy” to watch.  Within months of his coming aboard, his articles were receiving “good play” in the paper’s news columns, the magazine. and the book review.

According to Confessore, the victim, a 37-year-old black mother of five named Donna Fenton, had been a restaurant manager in Biloxi, Mississippi, a city hit hard by Katrina. Evacuating Biloxi, she and her family, including her oldest son’s fiancé and her husband, ended up in New York City, “with a change of clothes and a tapped out bank account.” The Red Cross placed her, her husband, and four of her five children in the Queens hotel, and gave to her a $1,500 debit card. Fenton also got several thousand dollars from FEMA , but that was soon used up on clothes, food, and transportation, as Fenton and family sought to put down roots in a new place.

The focus of the piece was on Fenton’s efforts to secure more aid, including a new place to live. According to Confessore, she was “polite, organized and determined” and had memorized the phone numbers for the Red Cross, FEMA, and the city welfare offices.  “I call them every day. That’s my job,” Fenton told the reporter.  Because of the bureaucratic ineptitude of the agencies involved, filing paperwork was a constant headache; faxes to and from agencies seemed to disappear regularly. “Everything they asked for, I sent in,” she said. “I sent it in the second time, and then I sent it in a third time,” Fenton claimed. Confessore quoted a FEMA spokesperson as saying that the process could be “pretty tough for anyone who has been traumatized like these people have.”

Fenton’s woes went far beyond mere bureaucratic frustration, however, Confessore reported. Fenton has lupus, and had collapsed at a Manhattan welcome center last September after filling out paperwork from half a dozen agencies and charities. The stress of fleeing Katrina had “worsened her condition, producing an enlarged heart and an irregular heartbeat” resulting in “four days in the hospital.” In October, a hotel maid found her unconscious in her room, Confessore added. “More hospital stays followed, six in all, as she battled to control her lupus. Then, in February, her appendix burst, resulting in a two-week hospital stay.” Her kids were suffering psychologically. According to Confessore, the oldest “was told by doctors that he had post-traumatic stress syndrome stemming from the hurricane” and a daughter had recently disappeared from the hotel “and was found wandering the streets nearby.” As if all this wasn’t enough, two weeks before,  an unlicensed driver slammed into their car, destroying the family’s means of transportation.

Fenton would have had both a job and a place to live but for all the bureaucratic snafus. “With all the time she spends on the phone, she said, she cannot start the job waiting for her at a Brooklyn check-cashing business,” he reported. Twice she had found apartments, “but was afraid to sign leases because she was not sure FEMA’s promised rental assistance would arrive.” A real-estate agent had lined up a new apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and the owner had encouraged her to move in. But the FEMA rent check had been “lost in the mail” and a replacement could not be issued until it was found.  “I know I can’t live there for free,” she said. “I don’t want to get us there and then stick this lady with not being able to pay the rent.” 

Fenton may have been, as Confessore depicted her. “polite, organized and determined.” but she was also a thieving fraud and long-term con artist. In fact, even as Confessore was doing his reporting, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office had had Fenton under investigation for a month, tipped off by welfare department caseworkers suspicious of her when she dealt with them some months before. After Confessore’s piece ran, The DA’s office, in turn, made a call to the Times , alerting them to facets of Fenton’s story that the reporter had missed. In fact, Fenton was not a Katrina victim from Biloxi, had never lived in Biloxi, and had a long record of fraud and other criminal activity. Indeed, she was currently on five years probation for a check forging charge committed a little more than three months before in December 2005. Much to the paper’s embarrassment, very little of what Confessore had reported was true, making this single article one of the most egregious instances of misreporting — and journalistic gullibility — to afflict the paper since the Blair scandal.      

The result was yet another Editors’ Note, which ran on March 23. The note said that Fenton had been arrested the day before on several counts of fraud and grand larceny. “For its profile, The Times did not conduct adequate interviews or public record checks to verify Ms. Fenton’s account, including her claim that she had lived in Biloxi,” the note conceded.  “Such checks would have uncovered a (prior) fraud conviction and raised serious questions about the truthfulness of her account.”

The accompanying article, this one too written by Confessore, admitted that “The Times did not verify many aspects of Ms. Fenton’s claims, never interviewed her children, and did not confirm the identity of the man she described as her husband.” In fact, it said, her children were not even in her custody, and that prosecutors in the case against Ms. Fenton, said they had either been placed in foster care or adopted.

Apparently Confessore had not talked to doctors, nurses, or hospital administrators to verify claims Fenton made about her health and that of her children. He did not interview anyone in Biloxi, anyone from the Red Cross, or anyone from the welfare office Fenton said she collapsed.  He failed to confirm that the real-estate agent who she said found her an apartment and the building owner who she said had encouraged her to take it (despite the FEMA rent check having gotten “lost in the mail”) actually existed, or, for that matter, the there was actually that check-cashing job she said she had secured.

When Confessore finally did do a public-records search, he found that Fenton had at least two criminal convictions, for fraud and for grand larceny, and has left behind her a trail of creditors and angry landlords. In addition to being on probation for the check forging charge, she had an arrest warrant out for her in connection to a 2001 assault charge on Long Island. Confronted with these disparities, Fenton said she was a victim of identity theft. There was another Donna Fenton, she told Confessore. “I found that out when I tried to set up an e-mail account.”

“She was expert at spinning a web of deceit, layers upon layers, that we’ve only just begun to untangle,” a Brooklyn prosecutor was quoted as saying. As for Confessore, he was benched for three weeks before his byline again appeared in the paper. Retired Timesmen remember reporters who made mistakes on par with Confessore being sacked or, at the very least, being sent to any one of a number of career Siberias, such as covering Proctor & Gamble in Ohio.  According to former Times reporter Pranay Gupte, who was Abe Rosenthal’s news clerk for almost three years, under Rosenthal Confessore “would never have gotten to write again for the paper. Abe’s feeling would have been that if you are so negligent to get so much wrong on such a significant story as something to do with Katrina, then you shouldn’t be a reporter for the Times.”

On a somewhat less serious, at points even humorous, note, there were a string of literary hoaxes in which the Times played a sucker. In September 2004, for example, the Times ran a front-page story citing the discovery of a new and previously unpublished story by Ernest Hemingway that was written more than 80 years ago. The story — really a sketch — might have been the germ of the Sun Also Rises, wrote reporter Allan Cowell. The story was being auctioned by Christie’s, Cowell reported, referring to it as a “one of a kind.” A few days alter, the Times was forced to run a correction. In fact, there were two copies of the unpublished manuscript, both of which have been archived in the Hemingway collection of the JFK Library in Boston since 1982.

Another hoax, this one in 2006, involved James Frey, author of the bestselling “memoir” of addiction and recovery called A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s memoir, which became a multi-million bestseller after being featured on Oprah, turned out to be largely fictional. He had not had a criminal past, and had not been in jail for several months, but had only been detained on a traffic violation for several hours. And, according to the facility he was in, the prestigious Hazelden in Minnesota, he would never have been given a root canal without anesthesia as Frey had claimed. Yet, at the time Frey’s book was reviewed, the reviewer took many of these facts at face value, including the preposterous assertion of anesthesia-free dental work. Instead the reviewer focused on Frey’s prose, which, he said, related these facts in such a way as to make an off-putting reader experience.

Yet another Times-abetted hoax involved the literary persona of J.T. LeRoy, a 25-year-old former transvestite truck-stop prostitute and drug addict who became an underground cult novelist with celebrity admirers like Madonna and Courtney Love and Bono and literary luminaries like Michael Chabon, Tobias Wolff, and Mary Gaitskill. In 2006 it was disclosed that the cult novelist in fact had not been a cross-dressing hooker, did not come from West Virginia, had not been rescued in San Francisco by a bohemian couple with connections to a prominent psychiatrist, and had not overcome his past through years of therapy to “shed the Warholian wig and sunglasses” that had become his public mask — all of which were reported as true in a November 2004 piece by Warren St. John headlined “A Literary Life Born of Brutality.” In fact, according to January 2006 piece describing the hoax, this one too written by St. John, J.T. Leroy wasn’t even a man. “He” was, rather, a twenty-something woman pretending to be a transgendered man who had been enlisted to play the public persona of Leroy by her half brother, who, along with his girlfriend, had concocted the whole scheme. (It was the girlfriend who did the writing.) 

This piece may have been even more embarrassing for St. John to write than one might imagine. For the 2004 article, he had lunched with LeRoy at the trendy downtown restaurant Nobu. During the lunch, he had sat right across the table from the woman playing Leroy, apparently thinking she was a he. It’s interesting to note in hindsight that St. John did have the journalistic acumen to note: “In person, the 5 foot 5 Mr LeRoy speaks in a quiet, girlish voice.”

HOW DOES IT HAPPEN?

It’s tempting to blame inexperience, which was certainly operative in cub-reporter Confessore’s gullibility involving the Katrina “victim.”  But even veteran “hacks” like Alan Cowell and Douglas Martin have fallen prey. A more likely culprit is the tide of PC thinking that has washed over the newsroom in recent years, fed by soft-headed idealism, righteous naiveté, and unconscious, though corrosive, double standards. The seeming rise in journalistic credulousness is a function of the paper’s preoccupation with diversity, too. Many of the examples cited above involve blacks, illegal immigrants, Muslims, the transgendered, and other designated minority “victim” groups who are the object of the kind of journalistic sensitivity that often becomes solicitude. The paper’s embrace of “soft news” is also to blame at some level, encouraging the hiring of reporters who are more adept at identifying trends in the world of style than at differentiating fact from fiction in the real world and whose growing ranks in the newsroom dilute, à la Gresham’s Law, the currency of serious reporters. Not to be discounted too is the paper’s enduring “unwillingness to admit error,” as the Times first public editor, Daniel Okrent phrased it. Former Executive Editor Max Frankel once said that publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. never made “the same mistake three times.” The same could be said about the paper as a whole, and then some; the learning curve is flatter than it should be, reflecting a long-standing institutional resistance to criticism that lives on — no matter what public pledges the Times has made, post-Blair, to encourage greater accountability, transparency and accuracy.    

Whatever the case, it’s clear that as the public grows more savvy about manipulating the media, the journalistic street smarts needed to defend against this have weakened — at least at the (former) newspaper of record, now cynically referred to in some quarters as “the newspaper of wreckage.”

– William McGowan’s Gray Lady Down: How the Times Broke Faith With America will be published next year.

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