Fall­ing Short on Fair­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters To The Editor - Deb­o­rah Howell

Fair­ness is a bedrock prin­ci­ple of good jour­nal­ism. Two sto­ries this past week and past sto­ries about rape charges against three Duke Univer­sity lacrosse play­ers are worth ex­plor­ing for that rea­son.

The Duke story was a tan­gle of is­sues — racism, sex­ism and eco­nomic priv­i­lege. Many African Amer­i­cans, es­pe­cially women, could iden­tify with the wo­man, who said she was raped by welloff white col­lege ath­letes at a March 2006 party; she had been hired to per­form as a strip­per. The three ath­letes who were de­clared in­no­cent of rape charges, as well as their fam­i­lies, sup­port­ers and Duke alumni, were ou­traged that charges had been filed. They cited an ab­sence of DNA ev­i­dence, in­con­sis­ten­cies in the wo­man’s story and an ear­lier rape al­le­ga­tion she made that wasn’t pur­sued.

Many of the sto­ries ran in Sports and were straight­for­ward, leav­ing open the ques­tion of guilt. But ma­te­rial sup­port­ive of the play­ers was some­times too far down in sto­ries. A May 24 Style story by Lynne Duke cen­tered on black women’s re­ac­tion to the charges. The head­line that edi­tors wrote — “The Duke Case’s Cruel Truth” — went too far.

Over­all, cov­er­age of the Duke case suf­fered from a com­mon jour­nal­is­tic mal­ady: de­pen­dence on “the au­thor­i­ties”; in this case, pros­e­cu­tor Michael B. Ni­fong, who now faces ethics charges. Jour­nal­ists al­most al­ways de­pend first on the of­fi­cial ex­pla­na­tion, whether of po­lice, prose­cu­tors, gov­ern­ment spokes­men, the mil­i­tary or “ex­perts.” That is jour­nal­ism’s Achilles heel, whether it in­volves intelligence on Iraqi weapons or a rape charge in Durham.

The best of The Post’s cov­er­age was a skep­ti­cal col­umn on June 28 by edi­to­rial writer Ruth Mar­cus and two ter­rific sto­ries by Na­tional re­porter Anne Hull on May 7 and June 10. The first of Hull’s ar­ti­cles was set on the his­tor­i­cally black cam­pus where the wo­man went to school and delved into her life; the sec­ond told of the dis­tress of the play­ers’ fam­i­lies and sup­port­ers. Both showed the an­guish of real peo­ple.

Though they were de­clared in­no­cent of rape, the lacrosse play­ers’ sea­son was ru­ined, their coach was fired and their le­gal prob­lems took a year out of their lives. In hir­ing strip­pers for their mid­night drink­ing party, they were not in­no­cent of bad judg­ment.

Last Mon­day, a front-page story by John Solomon and Alec MacGil­lis im­plied that Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date John Ed­wards couldn’t have con­sulted for a hedge fund, Fortress In­vest­ment Group, or taken con­tri­bu­tions from its em­ploy­ees with­out putting his lib­eral prin­ci­ples at risk.

Like all hedge funds, Fortress is for wealthy in­sid­ers, and Ed­wards is a rich trial lawyer. The facts are em­i­nently worth re­port­ing, but the tone of the story im­plied that con­sult­ing for a hedge fund, whose off­shore tax havens he has de­cried, is in­com­pat­i­ble with car­ing about the less for­tu­nate.

Deeper in the story, we learned that all the ma­jor can­di­dates have taken con­tri­bu­tions from hedge funds; that hedge fund money and ex­ec­u­tives are im­por­tant to the cam­paigns of for­mer New York mayor Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani (R), Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton (DN.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.); and that Sen. Christo­pher J. Dodd (DConn.) got more such con­tri­bu­tions than Ed­wards. A gen­eral lead para­graph on all the can­di­dates — or a lead that fo­cused on Ed­wards op­pos­ing hedge funds’ tax havens and then con­sult­ing for a fund that had one — would have been bet­ter than the lead that ap­peared on the story.

Susan Glasser, as­sis­tant man­ag­ing ed­i­tor for Na­tional news, thinks my crit­i­cism is un­fair. “It is our job to weigh what politi­cians say against what they do. We be­lieve it is our job to un­earth and put be­fore the pub­lic as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble about as­pi­rants to the pres­i­dency — surely our read­ers are well equipped to judge the rel­e­vance of in­for­ma­tion such as that pre­sented in our story about hedge funds and the 2008 po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates.”

Reader Terry Ste­ichen of Fair­fax ques­tioned an April 21 ar­ti­cle on the Busi­ness sec­tion front page head­lined “Fed­eral Over­seer of Stu­dent Loans In­vested in Lenders.” The story, by Amit R. Pa­ley, said that Sara Martinez Tucker, the No. 3 of­fi­cial at the Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment, had re­ported in fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure forms filed in Oc­to­ber that she owned stock in Bank of Amer­ica, Cit­i­group, Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase and Wa­chovia, five of the six largest stu­dent lenders. All of the in­vest­ments were in the $1,000 to $3,000 range, well within ethics rules.

The story said: “The dis­clo­sure comes in the midst of a widen­ing stu­dent loan scan­dal ex­pos­ing fi­nan­cial ties among lenders, univer­si­ties and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.”

Ste­ichen felt the story was “in­cred­i­bly mis­lead­ing. . . . What the ar­ti­cle didn’t men­tion is that th­ese five are each very large pub­lic cor­po­ra­tions that do a huge amount of busi­ness in var­ied fields . . . Why was the story pub­lished and . . . with such an ac­cusatory head­line? Why was it placed on the front page of the Busi­ness sec­tion?”

The in­vest­ments were small and the story was prob­lem­atic, of in­ter­est only be­cause of the stu­dent loan scan­dal. An Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment spokesman called Pa­ley back a few days later to say that she had learned that the stock be­longed to Tucker’s hus­band as part of a 401(k) re­tire­ment sav­ings plan and was sold as Tucker went to work at the de­part­ment. That was re­vealed in the last three para­graphs of an April 24 story on an­other facet of the stu­dent loan scan­dal.

The first story was on the cover. The roll­back of it was buried. The sec­ond story should have had its own head­line and more prom­i­nent dis­play. Busi­ness edi­tors agreed. Deb­o­rah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at om­buds­man@ wash­post.com.

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