Truth-telling rules should ap­ply to all

Albany Times Union - - PERSPECTIVE - Rex smith

There is such a thing as fake news, and it’s a scourge. This week brought a fresh ex­am­ple of the genre and how it should be fought. But the les­son didn’t come from that place where a lot of loose talk about fake news orig­i­nates th­ese days, namely, a White House podium.

No, this fake news emerged in Texas, where peo­ple take pride in be­ing straight talk­ers. It was spot­ted and swat­ted down in a news­room, with the con­tempt for un­truth that you have a right to ex­pect from se­ri­ous jour­nal­ists — and which, con­trary to the as­ser­tions of our cur­rent pres­i­dent, you al­most al­ways get.

In the state capi­tol of Texas, a place not all that dif­fer­ent from that big build­ing with the mansard roof in down­town Al­bany, Mike Ward has for years been a top jour­nal­ist. Four years ago, af­ter a quar­ter-cen­tury of re­port­ing, he left the Austin pa­per to be­come the chief state capi­tol re­porter for the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle. (The Chron­i­cle, like the Times Union, is owned by Hearst.) He had one of the Ed­i­tor’s An­gle

■ Rex Smith is ed­i­tor of the Times Union. Con­tact him at best re­port­ing jobs in Texas, ap­par­ently earned by dis­play­ing great pro­fes­sional skills.

But sev­eral weeks ago, a Chron­i­cle col­league raised a con­cern with the pa­per’s ed­i­tor: Some of the sources named in one of Ward’s sto­ries couldn’t be found. And a check of sev­eral other pieces he had writ­ten yielded other quotes at­tached to names of peo­ple who seemed not to ex­ist. Pressed for an ex­pla­na­tion by his ed­i­tor, Ward quit. The Chron­i­cle hired an in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter and a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor to look deeper, and this week they is­sued a re­port: Ward seemed to have a habit of in­ter­view­ing peo­ple “who were pre­sented as or­di­nary Tex­ans” whom no­body else had ever heard of and who couldn’t be found in any data­base. The Chron­i­cle pub­lished that re­port on its front page. It re­tracted eight sto­ries that de­pended heav­ily on sources who couldn’t be ver­i­fied, and it will cor­rect other sto­ries that in­cluded quotes from those mys­te­ri­ous and in­vis­i­ble Tex­ans.

“The re­la­tion­ship be­tween a news­pa­per and its read­ers if one of trust,” said Nancy Barnes, the Chron­i­cle ed­i­tor. “This in­ves­ti­ga­tion points to an egre­gious breach of that trust that is an of­fense to read­ers and jour­nal­ists alike.” She of­fered an apol­ogy to the news­pa­per’s read­ers and the com­mu­nity. Some may say this backs up Don­ald Trump’s re­peated as­ser­tions that reporters are dis­hon­est and can’t be trusted. He often calls the me­dia “the en­emy of the peo­ple,” echo­ing words used by Rus­sian dic­ta­tor Josef Stalin. Last month, af­ter one of his sup­port­ers sent pipe bombs to top Democrats and Trump crit­ics, the pres­i­dent partly blamed the me­dia, claim­ing that anger in the coun­try was “caused by in­ac­cu­rate, and even fraud­u­lent, re­port­ing of the news.”

That’s not the con­clu­sion I would draw, ob­vi­ously. What the Mike Ward in­ci­dent re­veals, in fact, is the depth of the com­mit­ment se­ri­ous jour­nal­ists have to truth-telling. It was Ward’s own or­ga­ni­za­tion that un­cov­ered and re­vealed the fal­si­ties in his work, and there’s not a chance he will work an­other day in a news­room.

Mike Ward isn’t the first jour­nal­ist to con­coct con­tent, of course. You may know the names of oth­ers: Jayson Blair of The New York Times, Stephen Glass of The New Repub­lic, Janet Cooke of The Washington Post. The very fact that th­ese names are fa­mil­iar, many years af­ter their last fake words were pub­lished, sug­gests how rare the crime of fab­ri­ca­tion is in my line of work, and how ag­gres­sively my col­leagues work to ex­pose and oust those who mis­be­have.

Of course, that’s not what the pres­i­dent means by “fake news.” He’s up­set about news that por­trays him in a bad light, and he be­lieves reporters who cover him, ex­cept for a few from avowedly con­ser­va­tive out­lets, un­fairly dis­tort what he says. He is un­trou­bled that The Washington Post “Fact Checker” col­umn has found he made 6,420 “false or mis­lead­ing claims” over 649 days. More fake news, he says.

This week Trump or­dered the Se­cret Ser­vice to bar CNN’S Jim Acosta from White House cov­er­age af­ter Acosta asked him a tough ques­tion. If you look at a full video of the in­ci­dent — not the doc­tored ver­sion re­leased by the White House — you may think that Acosta was too in­sis­tent. But hear what he was prob­ing: Was it ac­cu­rate, he asked, for the pres­i­dent to de­scribe the mi­grants walk­ing hun­dreds of miles from our south­ern bor­der as “an in­va­sion”?

It’s a fair ques­tion. Is it a fact that we are be­ing in­vaded? No ed­i­tor I know would al­low that term in a fac­tual re­port about the so-called mi­grant car­a­van, be­cause it’s an ex­ag­ger­a­tion — an un­truth. In my line of work, you can’t get away with that.

Imag­ine how much stronger our democ­racy might be if the stan­dard of truth-telling that’s rightly ex­pected of jour­nal­ists ap­plied in the White House.

Some fab­ri­cated quotes in Texas re­veal the depth of the com­mit­ment se­ri­ous jour­nal­ists have to truthtelling. Imag­ine how much stronger we’d be if that stan­dard ap­plied in the White House.

Photo il­lus­tra­tion by Jeff Boyer / Times Union

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