When journalists are caught in an ethical lapse, the story they were working on becomes like a dead and rotten thing that has washed up on the beach. Other journalists might poke it with a stick, but nobody wants to get too close. And it is everyone's fervent hope that the tide will carry the carcass back out to sea so that nobody has to deal with it.
It is understandable that journalists want to distance themselves from the behavior of a colleague who strays: The misdeeds of one undermine the credibility of all. But when the story the errant journalist was investigating gets treated as if it were contaminated as well, the public may remain in the dark about an issue or incident that it ought to know about.
Students in my journalism ethics class look at two examples of what I call "stinking fish syndrome." One is Operation Tailwind, the CNN report that alleged that U.S. troops had used nerve gas on American defectors hiding in Laos during the Vietnam War. The other is Mike Gallagher's report on Chiquita Brands for The Cincinnati Enquirer
Coincidentally, the Tailwind and Chiquita stories appeared within weeks of each other in 1998-and within a few months of fabrication and plagiarism scandals at The Boston Globe and The New Republic. One commentator, Katherine M. Skiba of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, echoing Queen Elizabeth II when the British royal family seemed to implode in scandal, called it journalism's "annus horribilis."1
With major embarrassments at The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, the year 2003 might have been just as horrible-which suggests that not much came of the 1998 calls for journalism to put its house in order. But the ethics case studies of 2003 are not about to supercede the case studies of 1998. Jayson Blair fabricated and plagiarized in The New York Times. Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski digitally altered a photograph. The moral of these stories for journalism students: Don't do those things. The lessons of Tailwind and Chiquita are more complex. Here, courtesy of Nexis, is a look back at how stinking fish syndrome played itself out in these two cases.
In ethics class, we watch the original CNN report, the retraction and then the follow-up Newsstand program that asked, as Bernard Shaw put it, "How could this have happened?" The follow-up does a nice job of juxtaposing "as aired" interview excerpts that buttressed the case for claiming that the American military used nerve gas, with more equivocal comments from the same source that were not broadcast in the original report. The students learn a nice lesson about the dangers of taking quotes out of context and "falling in love with your story."
But then I caution them: Just as not finding a defendant guilty of a crime is not the same as finding him or her innocent, concluding that CNN failed to prove that nerve gas was used in Laos does not mean that nerve gas was not used in Laos.
But did anyone try to definitively answer the question that CNN only asked? Not to my knowledge. Most of the major newspaper stories were clustered around the CNN retraction of the story in June 1998 and the Pentagon's assertion that there was no truth to what CNN reported. A barrage of "whither journalism?" columns quickly followed. Some of these columns not only bemoaned the sorry state of the profession, but demonstrated it, by playing fast and loose with the facts. After summarizing what the Tailwind story was about, George Jonas wrote in The Gazette (Montreal): "The story wasn't true."2 Jean Otto, the readers' representative at the Rocky Mountain News, wrote that "the story proved false."3 David Frum, whose column appeared in The Toronto Sun, was even more emphatic. The Tailwind story, he wrote, "was exposed as a lie within hours of being aired."4
A second set of stories tracked the fall-out from the story-the departures of CNN News Group Chairman Tom Johnson and correspondent Peter Arnett and the lawsuits filed by Tailwind producer April Oliver and some of her sources. The smallest number of stories returned to the original question: Was nerve gas used in Laos in 1970, or wasn't it? Writing in the Los Angeles Times in June 1998, Clay Bowen and Jonathan B. Tucker called on President Clinton to appoint an independent commission to investigate the allegations, rather than accept the word of "Pentagon bureaucrats."5
In a column in The Ottawa Citizen, Danny Schechter, author of The More You Watch, the Less You Know, noted that "controversy over media crimes received substantially more press attention than the original tale of war crimes." Schechter added, "To my knowledge, no in-depth follow-ups have been done on the history of the U.S. nerve gas program, or what the Vietnamese now say about the deadly arsenal used against them."6
The Cincinnati Enquirer's 18-page package of stories based on a yearlong investigation-one that apparently involved unauthorized access to Chiquita Brand's voicemail system-into Chiquita's business practices ran on May 3, 1998. The paper retracted the stories and announced it was paying $10 million to Chiquita on June 28. During the almost two months between publication and retraction, no mainstream newspaper either reported on the Enquirer's findings or launched its own investigation.
The "real news," apparently, was the retraction and settlement. As with Operation Tailwind, the Enquirer's Chiquita stories were lumped in with the Patricia Smith and Stephen Glass fabrication scandals as instances of journalists not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story. James N. Thurman's journalism scandal roundup in The Christian Science Monitor began thus: "Truth is stranger than fiction, except when the truth turns out to be fiction, as it has in several reputable media outlets in recent weeks."7
In casting about for a cause, Thurman, astonishingly, cited the news media's preoccupation with lurid celebrity news "at the expense of more substantive issues." Enquirer reporter Mike Gallagher may have been too eager to make a splash when he undid a year of investigative work by hacking into Chiquita's voicemail system, but one can scarcely argue that an examination of Chiquita's business practices is anything other than substantive.
The New York Times' coverage of the Chiquita/Enquirer story repeatedly reminded readers that Gallagher's reporting went well beyond the voice mail messages and that the authenticity of those messages was not in doubt. But the Times only summarized the Enquirer's findings; it did not attempt to verify them independently. Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Af
fairs told the Times that "Chiquita got the luckiest break in the world when the messages turned out to be stolen."8
In late July, Newsday writer Rita Ciolli noted that the Enquirer never said "what exactly is inaccurate or untrue about the stories, which were painstakingly reviewed by teams of Gannett lawyers and top company executives for months before publication."9 She buttressed this assertion with quotes from two Chiquita watchers. One, Larry Birns, attested to the accuracy of the stories; the other, a stock analyst who tracks Chiquita, said the factuality of the stories had not been challenged, only the reporter's methods. Ciolli also pointed out that Chiquita chairman Carl Lindner had been Gannett's second-largest shareholder until 1985 and that some of the same business practices investigated by the Enquirer were also under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor John G. Craig Jr., drawn as I was to the metaphor of the fish "stinking up American journalism," argued that "the Enquirer story, while not without its shortcomings, was factually correct and important. It was, in short, journalism worth more of a defense than it got."10 Birns told me that he knew of no major papers that pursued the Chiquita story after June 1998. "It is true that the press on that issue took an on-bended-knees position," he said.
Means and Ends
Operation Tailwind and Chiquita are two of the more striking instances of business or government being spared further scrutiny as a result of an ethical lapse by reporters; they are not the only ones. One tempting explanation for the news media's backing away from stories once they have been tainted by a lapse in journalistic ethics is that the news media back away from all stories that challenge powerful institutions. The central premise of Into the Buzzsaw, a collection of writings by investigative journalists who were pressured to tone down or scrap their findings, is that-according to editor Kristina Borjesson-stories having to do with "high-level government and/or corporate malfeasance" are routinely spiked.11
Leaving aside whether the corporate media are too much a part of the power structure to operate independently of it, I think reporters' reactions to tainted stories are more visceral. Via a kind of contagious magic, the unethical behavior of the journalist contaminates the object of the journalist's attention. Maybe nerve gas was used on American defectors in Laos in 1970. Maybe Chiquita is guilty of all the nefarious business practices Mike Gallagher investigated in 1998. Unless some reporters and editors overcome their repugnance and revisit these stories, we may never know.
atherine M. Skiba, "Truth Is Becoming Fiction in Media Scandals," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 8, 1998, p. A8.
2 George Jonas, "You Read It Here First," The Gazette (Montreal), August 16, 1998, p. A11.
3 Jean Otto, "Media Misconduct Tars Innocent, Too," Rocky Mountain News, July 26, 1998, p. 9B.
4 David Frum, "Boneheaded Mistake Was, Unfortunately, Mine," The Toronto Sun, July 14, 1998, p. 17
5 Clay Bowen and Jonathan B. Tucker, "Nerve Gas Allegations Must Be Investigated," Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1998, p. B7.
6 Danny Schechter, "Today's News Is Losing Its Way," The Ottawa Citizen, August 29, 1998, p. E13.
7 James N. Thurman, "Get It Right Vs. Make A Splash," The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1998, p. 1.
8 Douglas Frantz, "Chiquita Still Under a Cloud after Newspaper's Retreat," The New York Times, July 17, 1998, p. A1.
9 Though Rita Ciolli writes for Newsday, I found a wire version of her story in Lexis-Nexis under the headline "Enquirer-Chiquita Settlement Stirs Questions about Ethics, Responsibility," Buffalo News, July 26, 1998, p. 9A.
10 John G. Craig Jr., "Fish Wrappers: The Continuing Stink Coming from Journalistic Quarters," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 9, 1998, p. C3.
11 Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into the Buzzsaw. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), pp.1,12-14.