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Thursday, January 10, 2008
I'm not here, this isn't happening:
My boy Greg Sargent catches Maureen Dowd in -- why mince words? -- a lie. Dowd datelined yesterday's column Derry, N.H. But at the time, it turns out, she was in Jerusalem, covering the president's trip. Apparently, she was following her paper's lead. Greg confirmed that the paper allows such dateline manipulation as long as someone contributed on-the-ground reporting to a piece. In this case, that someone is Dowd's assistant, who is uncredited in the column. The Times says that's OK.
But it isn't. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, Rick Bragg, resigned after it turned out he relied heavily on an uncredited stringer for a series with an Apalachicola, Florida dateline. That was the honorable thing to do when faced with such a misrepresentation. But Dowd's is worse. At least Bragg, in the words of the paper, "indeed visited Apalachicola briefly" for "his" piece. Dowd was half a world away from events she claimed to witness firsthand.
How can it be that four and a half years after Blair/Bragg, the NYT still lets its writers play fast and loose with datelines? Datelines aren't frivolous things. They exist -- and writers covet them -- because they bequeath an implicit authority to journalists. That authority is based on the simple concept of due diligence. Readers trust an on-the-ground report far more than they trust a 7,000-mile-distant vantage. That's why high-budget glossy magazines spend thousands of dollars to shuttle high-profile reporters around, say, the Middle East, even when they're working on thinkpieces that don't require exotic stamps on passports. Somehow, the NYT believes that casual manipulation of readers' trust is acceptable. It raises questions about what other toe-touching is going on at the paper. And we wonder why people don't trust our profession.
Has Dowd issued any kind of clarification yet? When this kind of thing happened to Mitch Albom at the Detroit Free Press--over something as innocuous as quoting a couple of Michigan State ex-basketball players who said they'd be at a ballgame and weren't--not only did the Freep suspend Mitch, they had other staffers audit six months' worth of his columns and identify all the cases where he'd presented quotes taken from other articles as coming from his own resource. And Mitch apologized up one side and down the other.