The Public Editor: The Bee deserves answers to ensure its credibility
By Armando Acuña -- The Public Editor
Published 2:15 am PDT Sunday, May 15, 2005
Here we go again. Another veteran journalist who should know better stands accused of reader fraud, deceit and fabrication.
Again, the wounds are self-inflicted. Again, the credibility of the industry is called into question. Again, critics of the newspaper are given new ammunition to fire away. Again, readers are asked for forgiveness.
The difference this time around is that the journalistic malfeasance occurred right here at The Bee. Or did it? To read Diana Griego Erwin's statement printed in Thursday's paper, she did nothing wrong, the sources in her columns that the editors can't find do in fact exist and that they will show up eventually. Yet she resigned, the trust destroyed between her and the paper.
My response to her: Show us the goods.
Think about the newspaper and your colleagues. Why have their hard-earned credibility besmirched - directly or indirectly - if you have the power to stop it, if you have the answers to the questions?
I spoke to Griego Erwin by phone briefly Thursday morning, the same day the paper published executive editor Rick Rodriguez's column announcing her resignation while in the midst of an internal inquiry into her columns. She said she had company at her home and promised to talk later at an appointed time. Minutes before we were to talk, she sent an e-mail, declining to speak after all. Instead she sent a statement, which read:
"I loved writing a column for the people of Sacramento and I stand completely by my stories. The thousands of people I interviewed over the years know I do my job. This investigation came during a string of personal crises in my life when I wasn't at my best to deal with it and, frankly, I didn't have the emotional reserve to answer The Bee's questions quickly enough. I haven't set a timeline to answer the unanswered questions because I desperately need some time off to deal with private, personal matters."
What can't be left dangling, however, is the paper's credibility. No one is above that.
"This is a critical time for credibility in our industry," Rodriguez told the dozens of reporters and editors who gathered at 6 p.m. Wednesday in The Bee's newsroom to hear the announcement of Griego Erwin's resignation and some details of the internal inquiry.
And he is right.
The litany of journalistic misdeeds in the last several weeks alone is enough to make you wonder whether we are in the midst of some dastardly epidemic that is destroying healthy journalistic brain cells or whether, like a bad remake of the horror movie "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," aliens have rewired journalists' circuitry nationwide. Preposterous, of course, but at least there would be something that poses as an explanation.
From the suspension of columnist Mitch Albom at the Detroit Free Press for writing a column about events that never happened to the firing of Los Angeles Times reporter Eric Slater for a story about Chico State that contained sources that may not exist to the resignation last week of USA Today reporter Tom Squitieri after his editors said he lifted quotations from other newspapers without attribution, the list of infamy grows longer.
What's perhaps most troubling is that because of the Internet and popular media Web sites such as the one run by Jim Romenesko, at Poynter.org, the glare of scrutiny has never been so bright.
You can't fake it or confine it to your town anymore. A breach of ethics in Sacramento is now immediately known in Miami, or Philadelphia, or New York, or Fort Huachucha, Ariz.
It's the new media landscape. Journalists who don't understand that or think they aren't being watched or held to higher public standards are naive and risking their credibility and integrity as well as that of their newspapers.
The smart journalist is more vigilant about his sources, more careful with his facts, more attuned to ethical circumstances, even when, as is the case here, the first warning came not from the Internet but from an assistant city editor editing Griego Erwin's column on April 23.
"I think we have to have a higher standard," Rodriguez said in an interview. "This is one thing the (newspaper) industry has to stand up for ... (the thing) that will set us apart is enforcing standards and having people trust us."
"This is gut-wrenching to air our dirty laundry, absolutely, but we're trying to be as straight as we can."
As was described to the staff Wednesday, the editors said that after questions arose about the April 23 column, they asked Griego Erwin to verify the accuracy of other columns and the existence of sources she had cited. They picked sources in Griego Erwin's columns that were considered the easiest for her to verify, that were in the paper most recently and that had names, ages and neighborhoods of residence clearly described.
When she failed to provide the information that the editors had requested, the paper's inquiry went up another notch, and more sources and columns were questioned, eventually leading to Wednesday's resignation.
What makes the pain worse is that The Bee had been on a roll.
So far this year, it had won several of American journalism's highest awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, a Polk award for stories about the hierarchy of the California Highway Patrol abusing the state's disability retirement system and a Robert F. Kennedy prize for international photography for pictures of Hmong refugees. That's a very good year, especially for a regional paper like The Bee.
Columnists at this paper lead a hectic and, for some, a grueling professional life. Griego Erwin was among the top-rated columnists in the paper's readership surveys.
The pace is demanding, perhaps too demanding.
Griego Erwin wrote three columns a week, a schedule that tends to keep writers on a fast-moving treadmill, quickly moving from column to column, a stress compounded when much reporting is involved. That invites the temptation to cut corners, to take short cuts.
Perhaps the paper should throttle back its demands to two columns a week for those columnists who write three or more columns a week, minimizing the temptations to cheat and potentially leading to better reported and better written columns. It is at least worth a temporary trial.
Meanwhile, we go back to where we started: Show us the goods.
About the writer:
- The Public Editor deals with complaints and concerns about The Sacramento Bee's content. His opinions are his own. You can contact the Public Editor by mail at P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, 95852, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call directly at (916) 321-1250.
- Below are stories written by Diana Griego Erwin that have been reported as fabricated:
- April 26, 2005: Senseless tragedy raises questions about sports fans and aggression
- April 7, 2005: A broken connection, a lingering concern, as paths of two lives part
- March 31, 2005: Mixed opinions on Johnnie Cochran reflect racial divide in America
- Feb. 20, 2005: Woman who fought off would-be rapist draws collective cheers
- Feb. 8, 2005: Callous comments by Marine general anger father of soldier in Iraq
- Jan. 16, 2005: One man's plea in the name of a young victim: Stop the killing, now
- Jan. 4, 2005: Mother Nature's gift - a lesson in timing, family trees, contentment
- Nov. 11, 2004: Mom knows anguish of calling police to deal with mentally ill son
- Oct. 19, 2004: For her, a fire cleared out the clutter, leading the way to simpler life
- Oct. 14, 2004: For many Americans, health care is a reason to tune in to politics
- Oct. 12, 2004: Reeve became her Superman not in the red cape, but in the wheelchair
- Sept. 26, 2004: Mementos of former owner find a home in niches of her old house
- Sept. 12, 2004: Folsom woman makes annual pilgrimage to help N.Y. friend on 9/11
- Sept. 9, 2004: Hey, dudes! Rock the country with your political cool and vote
- Sept. 7, 2004: A break's not part of the bargain for many workers on Labor Day
- Sept. 5, 2004: School violence hits close to home
- Sept. 2, 2004: Mighty oak bears witness to most humble of human circumstances
- July 29, 2004: 'Porn star' ball misbehavior a symptom of wider problems in firehouses
- July 11, 2004: Fan with a lifelong love of running is in his glory at Olympic Trials
- June 27, 2004: One man's nightmare: If U.S. engages in torture, 'then all is lost'
- June 15, 2004: Summer won't seem endless if kids have ways to stay busy
- June 8, 2004: River's dangers shatter a great-grandfather's quiet day of fishing
- May 20, 2004: Cherry pie and a notebook - a missed connection she can't forget
- May 18, 2004: Outrage spreads over beer billboards that stereotype Latin women
- April 4, 2004: Tough-guy personas aside, youths flock to Arden Fair to feel safe
- April 1, 2004: Horrific images from Iraq are burned into hearts on home front
- Feb. 8, 2004: In urban life, it's the characters who put a little spring in your step
- June 8, 1999: A friendly lifestyle on the front porch
- May 17, 1998: True heroes arise when most needed
- May 13, 1997: They came west - she went south
- Dec. 14, 1995: Tran's running helps him - and sometimes others
- Oct. 22, 1995: Temp trend: Firms profit, workers lose
- Friday, Oct. 20, 1995: How best to pray? Many find God in novel ways
- Friday, Oct. 6, 1995: When the cheers stopped: Examining the racial split
- Sept. 19, 1995: If you can beat the guilt, a maid may work for you
- Nov. 25, 1993: Holiday to remember with long-lost family
- July 11, 1993: A hunger that growls amid waste and plenty