Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Boston media.

Boston and Beyond web link - www.southendnews.com...... opinion section
Kevin John Sowyrda

What does Boston journalism and the Big Dig have in common? Both are broken, and events of the past few days at the local PBS affiliate and at the city's biggest daily newspaper prove this to be the case.

It's weeks like this that make me remember what a student of mine once asked me: What makes a good journalist? I answered that I'm hardly the best person to respond, but that for me a good journalist is suspicious. It’s that simple.

A prudent writer or television host should suspect any and all information for its authenticity. This attitude may be as harsh as it is pessimistic, but it should prevent the dissemination of misinformation to the public, which is the worst “crime” a journalist can commit, purposely or not.

It's with this in mind that we ponder the dilemmas of two journalists and their employers, Channel Two's resident Barbara Walters, Emily Rooney, and the Boston Globe and its scribe Joseph Kahn.
First, let's deal with Rooney (who is the daughter of the deliciously eccentric Andy Rooney of that used-to-matter network). On Mon., Sept. 24, Rooney interviewed several veterans of World War II as part of a tie-in promotion with the PBS documentary The War. One of them, Leonard Morris, told astonishing tales of heroic deeds as a member of what he called the Devil's Brigade. He also told chilling stories of having executed Nazi guards at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, in Saxony, Germany. He and his comrades, he said, “set out to kill as many as we could.” As Morris went on, blithely noting that he and his comrades shot a guard in the head after hanging her to make sure she was dead, Rooney appeared to be flustered, and quickly talked over Morris to move the conversation along.

Just four days later, on Fri., Sept. 28, Rooney explained what had happened during “Beat the Press,” her weekly roundtable about the news business. The "war hero" was, in fact, nothing of the sort. Rooney told viewers that a Greater Boston researcher spoke with “close to 20 people,” including Morris’s family, contacted officials at the state military war records office, the U.S. Army and the president of a local holocaust survivor’s group in an attempt to verify Morris’s claims. It turns out that Rooney had been taken for a ride, big time, by a very pathetic figure.

I wonder if some of that fact-checking should have occurred before his being invited to the green room and then seated in front of the cameras. One Channel Two source told me that there had been some vetting of the vet before his appearance on the show. But it was clear from Friday's non mea culpa that the guest's background was researched thoroughly only in retrospect, instead of prior to placing him in a coveted position to disseminate false information — that journalistic 'crime' we mentioned earlier.

Rooney addressed this head on during the Sept. 28 episode: “So you wonder, ‘Why didn’t Greater Boston try to authenticate Morris’s story first?’ The short answer is, ‘We did.’ The honest answer is, ‘How far do you challenge an 87-year-old veteran of World War II?”

How far do you challenge an 87-year-old veteran? Is Rooney serious? Does she mean to tell us that Morris fed her and/or her staff some of his outrageous tales before he got on the air and they let it go because he’s 87-years-old? That’s pretty bad. But it’s worse when you consider that every media outlet covering the Mashpee Wampanoag casino story in Middleborough was bamboozled by former Mashpee Wampanoag president Glenn Marshall, who lied about his extensive war record in Vietnam. It took a blogger named Peter Kenney, who wondered aloud on his blog how Campbell, who claimed to have earned five Purple Hearts and a Silver Star during three tours of duty, managed to accumulate two Purple Hearts above the three that typically earned the recipient a permanent discharge.

It could be that Rooney, an admitted news hound, had somehow missed the Glenn Marshall-Peter Kenney dust up and the obligatory commentary on how the mainstream media had missed the story and how it took a blogger — a lowly blogger! — to bring the truth to light. But no! Rooney and her compadres on “Beat the Press” discussed this very issue. And Rooney herself interviewed Peter Kenney for an episode of Greater Boston Sept. 4.

Perhaps the irony of ironies here is that Rooney is Boston’s self-appointed media czar and she was taken in (and let’s face it, nearly everyone is vulnerable to an especially good liar), by a war vet telling tall tales right after every media outlet in Boston was, um, taken in by a war vet telling tall tales. Sheesh.

Meanwhile, skip across town from Channel Two in Allston to Morrissey Boulevard and you'll find that journalism is hardly blossoming at the Boston Globe, where there's more egg on faces than on the grill at Charlie's. Globe reporter Joseph Kahn wrote a moving story about a homeless man suffering from an inoperable liver tumor with only three months to live. Given that the man was homeless, hospital officials let him stay and the man had since forged close ties with his caregivers. The man, Patrick Conway, told Kahn the stories of his terrible past: Family members who had been killed by the Irish Republican Army while in London; a wife and daughter who had been killed by a drunk driver; and his move to Boston shortly after his wife and daughter’s deaths and nearly freezing to death.

None other than Rooney herself called Kahn’s story into question as part of the segment on her big boo-boo with Morris. (I guess she can be dogged when she needs to be. But I digress…) Kahn told her he was checking out some of Conway’s claims. Whatever. It’s clear that the Globe didn’t do its homework. It's all too reminiscent of the Globe's past journalism challenges (I'm being overly polite) which include a series of high profile plagiarism cases which resulted in the dismissal of two columnists, and the suspension of a third.

Is any of this shoddy reporting new? Is it a sudden aberration we've not seen in the past? You've got to be kidding. The Boston Globe, for example, will print just about anything. Just ask District 7 City Councilor Chuck Turner. On May 12, 2004 the Globe printed pictures that even Larry Flint would have passed on presented by Turner and so-called activist Sadiki Kambon. The photos portrayed U.S. servicemen in Iraq raping women. On May 13 the Globe admitted it had been duped and, in so many words, stated that the photos were nothing less than photo shop specials — something Globe reporter Donovan Slack had wisely warned her employer about before going to press.

Slack was properly suspicious. Her editors were not.

My suspicions are rather simple. I suspect that blogs and alternative news outlets will continue to grow, while viewers of Emily Rooney's TV talk show and readers of the Boston Globe will slowly but surely shrink.

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