Friday, March 24, 2006

When Working For The New York Times Means Always Having To Say You're Sorry

A Look At How The Gray Lady Fessed Up To Nicholas Confessore Piece On Faux Katrina Victim
Nobody's perfect, as journalists demonstrate on a daily basis. To what extent their employers own up to those shortcomings is another matter, but The New York Times does it better than most. Usually, it's a misspelling, wrong date or errant occupation. Or, sometimes you just get the whole darn story wrong.
Which is when the paper unsheaths the dreaded editors' note, like the one that appeared yesterday about a March 8 story by Nicholas Confessore about the trials and tribulations of a supposed Hurricane Katrina victim in Queens, as she struggled to get federal aid for her family.
Only thing: prosecutors say she's a phony and charged her with fraud.
As the editors intoned:

For its profile, The Times did not conduct adequate interviews or public record checks to verify Ms. Fenton's account, including her claim that she had lived in Biloxi. Such checks would have uncovered a fraud conviction and raised serious questions about the truthfulness of her account.

That resulted in a long, public blood-letting in another story by Confessore yesterday that revealed Fenton's rather-checkered history. In effect, he was forced to write about all the things his editors said he should have done before the first story so the paper and he could give a big "We're sorry" to its readers.

OK, the Times was hoodwinked and is holding itself and Confessore accountable. Seems fair enough.
But the self-righteous among the Fourth Estate should, instead of getting sanctimonious, be instead breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn't them who got taken. Essentially, Confessore set out to work on a human-interest story linked to Katrina that had a local angle. As he noted, he approached a Queens pastor active in aiding Katrina victims, who indicated Fenton might be willing to be profiled.
You could argue that any inquiries into her background shouldn't have ended there. Better, though, to argue a reporter could feel sufficiently comfortable with a pastor's referral and start to tackle a story that's linked here:

Either way, it's a stretch to think that, absent any evidence, a reporter's first step would be to initiate a background check on a hurricane survivor just trying to navigate the federal bureaucracy.
Where you could more validly contend Confessore slipped up is by not extending his reporting to her purported family -- a husband and five kids ages 9-21. None of them were interviewed. And it appears the husband doesn't exist, and four of the kids have either been adopted or are in foster care.
This could have -- and should have -- been turned into a family's saga, rather than one woman's stor. In turn, it would have unraveled from there, or at least turned into another tale about a well-schooled hustler gaming the system and being just another FEMA fraudster.
Still, Fenton made for a compelling subject, as Confessore's initial, well-written article conveys, to the point where he was lulled into complacency. And given the same situation, so would many a reporter.
It's not the first time a reporter has been duped, and it sure as hell won't be the last. That won't make Confessore feel any better, I'm sure. But he's been raked over the coals enough. He'll not only learn from his mistakes. We all can.

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