BY MANNY PARASCHOS
Verification on Request
The Washington Times recently dismissed Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul from his position as a weekly columnist after he was accused of several incidents of plagiarism and the paper felt it had to apologize. The Times said Paul took responsibility for the errors that were “caused by [his] staff providing him background materials that were not properly footnoted.” But Paul told CNN he felt he was being held to a higher than usual standard because “They’re now going back and reading every book from cover to cover” looking for erroneous footnotes, lack of “quotation marks” or when “we didn’t indent correctly.”
An adviser to the senator told the Times that Paul had relied on his staff for “supporting facts and anecdotes—some of which were clearly not sourced or vetted.”
“Footnotes presenting supporting facts were not always used,” he told the Washington Times. “Going forward, footnotes will be available on request.”
If verification practices are so low on the senator’s list, he should not be practicing journalism—even for the opinion page. Doesn’t the Washington Times have a responsibility to “request” citations?
India’s “Good News” a Good Source for Profit
One of the biggest problems that has been facing the Indian media during the last five years is the practice of “paid news.” A 2012 report to the Indian national parliament, according to the French News Agency, said “newspapers, television channels and radio stations” allegedly took money “for positive news coverage.” The report said the practice undermined democracy and the media’s self-regulation measures were inadequate. On December 2, 2013, the Press Council of India (PCI) concurred.
The PCI report used as an example the assembly election in the province of Gujarat, after which the Election Coverage Monitoring Team received 444 complaints of “paid news” coverage and was able to confirm 126. Sixty-one candidates even admitted to having paid for such news coverage in “print and electronic media,” the PCI report said.
Some news media throughout India, including national media headquartered in New Delhi, admitted to having received an “equity stake” in an advertiser’s company instead of money for promoting good news. The parliamentary report said that one of India’s largest media companies, Bennett Coleman and Co. which owns The Times of India, India’s largest circulation English daily, had about 600 such arrangements.
An executive of the Hindustan Times dismissed the accusations saying the separation between news and advertising was clear. She told United Arab Emirates’ The National Website, “… our editors don’t know the companies in which we have stakes.”
Since when has it become appropriate to give positive coverage to the highest bidder in exchange for any sort of favors?
Lara Logan and CBS’s Standards
In placing 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan on leave last November, CBS admitted that its staff had not followed the network’s own standards of source vetting. In her story, Logan accepted—unchallenged—a key source’s version of the Benghazi events during which the American ambassador to Libya and several aides were killed. It soon became obvious the source had given different versions to the FBI and CBS. Logan apologized and the network’s chief of standards said the story’s other version was “knowable before the piece aired,” and that “the wider resources of CBS News were not employed in an effort to confirm his [the source’s] account.”
To make matters worse, the CBS report also took issue with a Logan speech to the Better Government Association in which “she took a strong public position arguing that the U. S. Government was misrepresenting” Al Qaeda’s threat. CBS said this was an inappropriate comment for Logan to make while she was “continuing to report on the story.”
It appears as though Logan was trying to make a point.
News for Cash, Cash for News . . . Revisited
It is not unusual for networks to throw caution to the wind during “sweeps” ratings periods, so NBC decided to pay for exclusive footage and interviews with the surviving skydivers involved in a mid-air collision of their two planes. The footage was shown on Dateline NBC, the Today show, and the NBC Nightly News.
One of those involved in the accident said the agreement was that “NBC has the exclusive rights,” The Washington Post reported. “We can do print and radio interviews, but no TV interviews (other than for NBC) for two weeks,” the source told the Post. Network sources said NBC paid the group (including the pilots of both planes) $100,000, but the Post could not confirm the figure. (Apparently, relatives of the survivors had to wait for the first broadcast to find out if their loved ones were alive or not.)
An NBC News spokeswoman said “NBC News is proud to have this remarkable footage of human survival… Our licensing of this footage is standard industry practice and is the result of a very competitive process with other major broadcast outlets.” An ABC News spokesperson said ABC pulled out of trying to obtain the footage “as soon as it became clear that these interviews were tied directly to cash payments,” the Post said.
How “remarkable” does a news item have to be to have a price on it? This practice is even starting to look like an established NBC habit: on March 5, 2014, as part of its coverage of the killing of Reeva Steenkamp by Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, The Washington Post published a report headlined “NBC News to pay family of Reeva Steenkamp for interviews.” Is it time to establish a “zero tolerance” policy?
The Spanish Not-so-Civil War
One of Spain’s top editors, El Mundo’s founder-editor Pedro J. Martinez, was relieved of his duties recently, without a public explanation. The owners, Italian conglomerate Unidad Editorial, thanked Martinez for his service and replaced him with his second-in-command who was tasked with improving the paper’s “hard copy circulation and further strengthening its digital leadership,” Reuters said. Although El Mundo’s circulation is the second largest in Spain (1.1 million), it was down by 14% in 2012, according to Reuters.
But many in Spain and abroad see Martinez’s dismissal as the result of pressure by the Spanish government, which has come under severe scrutiny by El Mundo recently. The paper was instrumental in revealing information about corruption in Prime Minister Rajoy’s government, which resulted in his party’s former treasurer going to jail for fraud. Rajoy accused the paper of manipulation and slander.
But an anonymous Milan, Italy, media observer might have the best explanation of what went on. He told Reuters that a good new editor might be detrimental to “the firm’s other media interests.” "Clashing with the government could be counterproductive on regulatory issues relating to TV spectrum or advertising,” he said. This way, the conglomerate and the government can both get back to business as usual…but what’s in it for the people of Spain?
AP Plays by the Book
The AP recently announced it had discontinued its relationship to freelance photographer Narciso Contreras after he told his editors he had digitally removed an object from the corner of one of his photographs from the Syrian conflict. AP’s photography director said that “Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable.”
Contreras admitted his action, but said he thought the object (a fellow journalist’s video camera on the ground) would distract the viewer. “I feel ashamed for having done that,” he said, and “I have to assume the consequences.”
At least, Contreras didn’t try to stonewall his acknowledgment that a camera sometimes lies.
WaPo Sets the Record Straight
An October 14 story in the Style section of The Washington Post said that the image the world has of the U. S. Guantanamo Bay military prison was the result of the prison’s Public Affairs Unit, which is in constant battle with Al Qaeda’s propaganda machine. The print and electronic version of the story, according to Media ITE, referred to the unit’s head as a “tall,” “thickset” man “with glasses” who “talks about his work in big, broad terms.” Soon after the story appeared, however, the Post ran a correction saying it “incorrectly referred” to the Navy captain as “thickset.” “He should have been described as muscular,” the Post said.
Although one has to wonder what necessitated the correction or whether a physical description was necessary in the first place, we are grateful the record is now set straight and muscular.
- This column is a regular feature in Media Ethics. Readers with verifiable contributions for future issues (all subject to editing), or comments on the entries chosen for this issue, should send them to Manny Paraschos, c/o Media Ethics at 186 Tremont Street, Boston MA 02111-1014.