News - Say you’re sorry

When does a newspaper owe the subject of its stories an apology?

One of the most pivotal events in journalism in the past 20 years, and an episode that puts an interesting light on Atlanta’s own watershed journalistic moment in 1996, went barely noticed in the local media. Though it happened a few weeks ago, it still deserves notice.
On Sept. 26, the New York Times printed a 1,600-word editor’s note explaining its coverage of the Wen Ho Lee case. Wen Ho Lee is the Chinese-American scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who was accused of spying for China and subsequently jailed for nine months, much of it in solitary confinement. Coverage of the case turned into something of a witch-hunt. When he released Lee this summer, the judge apologized to the nuclear scientist for his harsh treatment.
In its explanation, the Times admitted its stories were flawed. The Times said it trusted government sources but didn’t really give Lee a fair shot. I called a former professor of mine, Jim Carey at Columbia University’s journalism school, to ask him what he thought of the case.
“This is an extraordinary event in the history of modern journalism,” he told me.
The underlying question, Carey says, is whether newspapers should be held publicly accountable outside a courtroom.
The situation is not so different from Atlanta’s own mini-witch hunt in 1996, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, followed by other news organization, furiously reported law-enforcement suspicions without giving purported Centennial Olympic Park bombing suspect Richard Jewell much of a chance.
“[Jewell] was treated as if he was convicted,” Carey says. “No one really tried to tell the story from Jewell’s point of view.” If news organizations had tried to tell the story from Jewell’s side, it may have tempered the feeding frenzy that ensued.
“There are all sorts of stories in which a journalist might be wrong that are not legally actionable,” Carey adds. “But do they owe anything in an ethical way to their readers?”
In this case, “The Times is saying, ‘Look, we’re not worrying about legal reaction here. We’re not going to wait to be held legally accountable in the law,” Carey says, adding that The Times’ explanation is a move in the right direction.
“This is a courageous thing to do,” Carey says. “If you don’t admit your mistakes, you can never learn from them.”
Unlike the Times with Wen Ho Lee, the AJC has admitted no wrongdoing regarding Richard Jewell, not even stepping back from a columnist Dave Kindred’s comparisons of Jewell to convicted murderer Wayne Williams.
Speaking of Jewell, both sides in the former security guard’s libel lawsuit against the AJC have been waiting for 16 months for the case to be transferred from State Court to the Georgia Court of Appeals. It is a mammoth case to transfer: The clerk has to copy, number and prepare an index for all the documents in the case — close to 40,000 pages. Jewell’s attorney, Lin Wood, and AJC attorney Peter Canfield say they have no idea when the case will go to trial — if it goes to trial.
AJC managing editor John Walter confirmed for me that the daily’s going on a slight diet soon. Within the next year, the paper will become an inch narrower. The Boston Globe, the Denver Post and the The Washington Post, among others, already have gone to the more slender format. It’s mostly done to make things easier for advertisers, by standardizing ad units across the country.
Another change at the J-C: Mike King is taking the place of George Edmonson as public editor. Edmonson is heading to Cox’s Washington bureau to become a reporter. King, now executive metro editor, will answer questions from readers and write a weekly column. He also plans to extend the paper’s public participation, helping to organize public meetings and forums and speaking at more events.
King told me he plans to be more publicly critical of the paper, at least in the column, than was Edmonson, but he mainly sees the public editor’s job as explaining the paper and helping people understand how it works, rather than critiquing it. Plus, King doubts criticism from an AJC employee would have “a lot of credibility.” “Even if it’s critical, it still comes off as self-serving at times.”
King protégé Cindy Gorley, who now serves as metro editor, becomes the executive metro editor and will report directly to Walter. Just down the street from the AJC, CNN is reeling from changes of its own. Never mind the impending merger of AOL with CNN parent company Time Warner. Things haven’t yet settled down from the abrupt departure last month of CNN U.S. Network Chief Rick Kaplan. According to my friends on the inside, there’s a mixture of anticipation and uncertainty about the coming changes, which likely will take place shortly after the election in November.
At greatest risk are the CNN magazine shows, which were Kaplan’s pet projects. CNN NewsStand, the channel’s nightly newsmagazine show that Kaplan launched in 1998, has curbed its travel budget, and most of the longer-format shows aren’t hiring, my friends say. This is sad news for those CNN staffers who are interested in long-form journalism because there aren’t many other places, especially in Atlanta, where they’ll be able to ply their trade.
Other media news: The Los Angeles Times has a new bureau chief, Jeffrey Gettleman, who replaces J.R. Moehringer. Moehringer is in Boston for a year on a Nieman fellowship at Harvard

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