Getting it right

When, as a young man, I had my proverbial “cup of coffee” with the Associated Press in New York, I remember how the AP veterans around me stressed getting a news story right before publishing it, and how, they argued, the wire service’s competitor, UPI (United Press International), had it backwards, sacrificing accuracy for speed.

In its finest moments, of course, I was told, the AP would be both first and right, but the idea was never to skip the journalistic basics of fact checking, verification and skeptical editing in the headlong pursuit of a scoop.

I thought of that Associated Press philosophy after troubling questions surfaced recently about an explosive Boston Globe story on the safety of the troubled Big Dig highway project. It has become painfully clear that the Globe rushed the story into print, and while the overall thrust of its coverage–that Big Dig contractors may have given legitimate safety concerns short shrift–appears to be accurate, the credibility of the Globe‘s main source has been badly compromised, and with it, the story itself.

Questions of safety

The Big Dig’s construction quality and safety processes came under close scrutiny after a woman was killed July 10 when tunnel ceiling panels fell on her car; federal and state investigators began looking closely at the incident to see if any crimes were involved.

The Globe’s July 26 front page story claimed that a Big Dig safety officer, John J. Keaveney, had written a 1999 memo questioning the safety of the bolt-and-epoxy ceiling design in the Interstate 90 connector tunnel (the design which failed, dropping the concrete ceiling panels). Keaveney said that neither his superiors at Modern Continental Construction, a Big Dig contractor, nor representatives from Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the overall manager of the project, had heeded his warning, instead reassuring him that the design had been tested and would work.

The Globe reported that the May 1999 memo from Keaveney to Robert Coutts, senior project manager for Modern Continental, had been “mailed to a Globe reporter without Keaveney’s knowledge” and that Keaveney, when contacted, had verified the memo.

The response from Modern Continental and the other parties involved? The Globe offered two short paragraphs:

Andrew Paven, a spokesman for Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, declined to comment last night.

Efforts to reach representatives of Modern Continental last night were unsuccessful. Coutts was on vacation and unavailable, a family member said last night.

The story received national attention; it suggested malfeasance at best, and criminal negligence at worst, in the way safety had been handled on the Big Dig. Keaveney was interviewed by investigators from the attorney general’s office and the FBI.

Questions of credibility

But then questions began to be raised about Keaveney’s account. In news stories that ran August 3, Modern Continental Construction said that it could not find the memo in question and that Robert Coutts did not remember receiving it from Keaveny. Further, the company identified what it said were internal inconsistencies in the memo, and concluded that the memo had been fabricated. The company also said that a handwriting analysis of the return address on the letter sent to the Globe suggested that it was Keaveney’s own handwriting on the envelope.

When confronted by the Globe, Keaveney admitted that he had indeed sent the letter, using the name of a Modern Continental employee. That admission prompted a front page note August 4th from Martin Baron, editor of the Globe, who explained why his newspaper had run the story without Modern Continental’s response (noting that Keaveney had been willing to go on the record, “his direct knowledge of the project and the memo,” and that he had a solid reputation in the local construction industry) but closed with this:

However, Keaveney acknowledged in an interview with the Globe last evening that he had not been truthful with the Globe about one very important element of this story. Last week, he told us he had not sent the Globe the memo. Last night, he acknowledged that he had sent the memo to the Globe and had included on the envelope the name and address of another individual as the sender. (That person subsequently told the Globe he was not the sender.)

Although Keaveney continued last night to insist on the memo’s authenticity, the admission that he misled the Globe about the mailing of the memo raises concerns about credibility.

The Globe will continue to report fully and forthrightly on this matter, bringing to our readers everything we learn.

The local tabloid newspaper, the Boston Herald, always eager to poke at its broadsheet competitor, focused extensive coverage on the problems with the Globe‘s story. The Herald interviewed local journalism professors who questioned why the Globe had not waited for a response from Modern Continental Construction before publishing the story, and the paper gleefully quoted from an internal Globe memo on ethics and accuracy written by Baron which stated: “In the cause of fairness, we must allow principal subjects of our stories a reasonable period of time to respond to any allegations against them.”

Why the rush?

Why did the Globe rush the story into print? Baron conceded that the interview with Keaveney for the story “was conducted late at night and in some haste.” That meant there wasn’t time for the fact-checking and “skeptical editing” (to borrow a term from Reid MacCluggage) that a story of this magnitude deserves. Was it competitive pressure? The hope of an exclusive? A fear that Keaveney might change his mind about going on the record?

This is not the first time the Globe has had to back away from a Big Dig safety story, so it is surprising that there wasn’t more care taken with Keaveney memo front-pager. In April 2005 Baron had to write another front page note acknowledging “significant errors” in a story “that claimed some fire doors in the Big Dig highway project violated safety code,” and regretting that the story “did not meet our reporting and editing standards.”

The irony is that there is some independent evidence to support Keaveney’s claims that he was concerned about the safety of the connector tunnel and had broadly shared those views. Whether he had raised his fears with his superiors at Modern Continental or other Big Dig officlals is still unclear. Still, as the Globe reported on August 3, he had been openly voicing his discontent.

In recent days, several colleagues and friends of Keaveney, said they had heard him express doubts about the safety of the epoxy-and-bolt ceiling hanging system as far back as 2003.

Edward Hawthorne — a safety officer for Bond Brothers Inc., an Everett-based construction company — said he recalled Keaveney sharing his concerns with him last October at a training session for safety officers sponsored by Associated General Contractors, a trade group.

When he heard of the July 10 ceiling collapse, Hawthorne said, he thought, “Wow, Johnny was right.”

Two Norwell neighbors — James Dakin and Timothy Foley — said Keaveney had on numerous occasions expressed misgivings about the quality of work on the Big Dig, including at a 40th birthday party for Keaveney in 2003.

Foley said he recalls Keaveney telling him long ago “to floor it when driving through the tunnel.”

“I believe in this kid,” said David P. Powell, director of labor relations for Associated General Contractors, who said he offered Keaveney a job in 1998 or 1999 and called him “very principled and ethical.”

Powell added, “He has a lot of support in the safety community.”

This is the sort of reporting that the Globe could have, and should have, done before running the July 26 story; finding Modern Continental Construction employees from 1999 who remembered Keaveney raising these issues would have even further strengthened the initial story.

Repairing the damage

The best response for journalists when their credibility or accuracy is at stake is to answer any questions about how they gather and report the news openly and directly.

What should Baron and the Globe do to further address the Keaveney memo situation?

To repair the damage to the Globe‘s credibility, Baron should level with readers. The Globe still needs to answer three questions:

  1. Is the Keaveney memo a fabrication?
  2. Did Keaveney, or other Modern Continental Construction employees, warn of design flaws in the Interstate 90 connector tunnel and were warnings ignored by Modern Continental Construction and/or Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff?
  3. Did the Boston Globe adhere to basic journalistic standards in the reporting and editing of the initial Keaveney memo story? If not, why not?

The answers may be painful, but the Globe needs to address these questions, sooner rather than later.

Hindsight is always 20/20; and reasonable people in a newsroom will disagree over when a story is ready for publication. The journalism of verification, however, requires that editors ignore competitive deadline pressures and the Internet-driven 24/7 news cycle and focus on mere journalism: double-checking, giving stakeholders in the story a chance to talk, filling in the missing holes, and editing skeptically.

You may not be first to file the story if you slow the editing process down. But, as those AP editors advised me long ago, you are more likely to be right.

Full Disclosure: I worked in management at the Boston Globe from 1997-2000.

(The use of the phrase “cup of coffee” for a brief stay comes originally from major league baseball, where a young player might be added to the big team’s roster for a game or two–long enough for a cup of coffee).

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (August 4th): Nobody asked me, but…

To borrow from the late, great Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

CHASE UTLEY’S PURSUIT of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak record ended Friday night (at 35 games) when the Phillies’ second baseman went 0-5 against the Mets. As I noted when Utley’s teammate Jimmy Rollins had his streak ended at 38 in April, the Yankee Clipper’s record, set in 1941, may last for a long time (a century, perhaps?).

I still maintain that the Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki is the only contemporary major leaguer with a shot at DiMaggio’s mark. Utley does share some of Ichiro’s qualities: they are both left handed (a step closer to first), very fast, and hit for a high average. But Ichiro is more consistent, he can manufacture hits, and he is used to being under the media microscope.

The end of yet another streak does highlight DiMaggio’s accomplishments. I don’t think the streak was the Yankee great’s finest moment, though. That might be his performance on the last Saturday of September 1949 when he hit a single and a double and helped the Yankees to a must-win 5-4 victory against the Red Sox on Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium–returning to the line-up after missing more than a week with viral pneumonia, dropping twenty pounds during his illness. The Yanks went on the win the pennant the next day and defeated the Dodgers in a Subway Series.

IT’S JUNIOR VS. FELIX in Virginia, as the U.S. Senate race between Democrat James Webb and incumbent Republican George Allen has become nasty and personal. Allen’s forces are calling Webb “Junior” and trying to link the former Marine (and Reagan Administration Secretary of the Navy) to Hollywood elitism; Webb’s supporters like to use Allen’s French middle name, “Felix,” and characterize the Senator as a faux cowboy.

If the campaign stays ugly it will favor Allen; Webb will make head way if he can focus on the war in Iraq and Allen’s lackluster Senate record. Watch for the Allen camp to stick to mud wrestling, with advice from G.O.P hardballers Dick Wadhams and Chris LaCivita (who helped create the Swiftboat ads in the 2004 presidential election).

BLAMING THE MEDIA MESSENGER for America’s lack of enthusiasm for their politics, and making ad hominem attacks on journalists’ integrity and objectivity is the latest tactic of press bashers on the Left. A disturbing example surfaced on Friday’s “Democracy Now!” as radio host Amy Goodman suggested that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s one-time association with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) made him suspect on Middle East coverage; ironically she was rebuked by her guest, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole (no friend of Israel). Here’s the excerpt from her show:

AMY GOODMAN: … I wanted to ask about media coverage here. We did a whole panel on it yesterday — you’re reading media all over the world as you put together your column, “Informed Comment” — about overall media coverage, how people are coming to understand this conflict in the United States. And, for example, one of CNN’S chief anchors, Wolf Blitzer, has just returned from Jerusalem, who in the 1970s was an AIPAC lobbyist. What effect do you think that has on the coverage?

JUAN COLE: Well, I have to defend Wolf Blitzer. I mean, everybody has a past somewhere, but he is one of the very few powerful news people in the United States that actually puts Middle Easterners on the screen and lets them speak for themselves. Almost nobody else does that, and so I am sure he has his own point of view on things, but I think he generally plays a positive role in allowing a greater variety of voices to be heard from the region, precisely because he does know the region well.

With regard to general coverage, of course, you know, there is something peculiar about the United States. Its media, its corporate media are very rightwing, and the American public seems to put up with what is, generally speaking, pretty poor news coverage. There are relatively few bureaus left around the world. Most American news reporting from the Middle East is done from Israel, and so it’s very skewed. It’s pro-Israeli, of course, in a way that the news gathering in virtually any other country in the world besides Israel is not.

Does Cole read any American newspapers? If he is even glancing at the New York Times or the Washington Post, he would see that their coverage of the crisis in the Middle East has been even-handed, if not “skewed” slightly against Israel. The same can be said for CNN (by Cole’s own admission). Is he basing his claims solely on his perception of FOX News?

Cole, at least, tries to make a factual argument (even if he doesn’t offer much in the way of facts); Goodman, on the other hand, apparently prefers to attack the person rather than the coverage. She didn’t bother to give any examples of Wolf Blitzer’s alleged pro-Israeli reporting, that he had worked for AIPAC once made him, in her view, automatically biased. In fact, (as Cole suggested), you would expect Blitzer to bend over backwards to air anti-Israeli viewpoints because of his prior affiliation with AIPAC.

Meanwhile, David Sirota of Huffington Post has gone after New York Times columnist Tom Friedman for being a propagandist for Big Money (which, for Sirota, is the force behind globalization). His evidence? To quote Sirota:

He “married into one of the 100 richest families in the country” – the Bucksbaums, whose real-estate Empire is valued at $2.7 billion.

Sirota continues on to suggest that Friedman’s background has been deliberately hidden.

Far from the objective, regular-guy interpreter of globalization that the D.C. media portrays him to be, Friedman is a member of the elite of the economic elite on the planet Earth. In fact, he’s married into such a giant fortune, it’s probably more relevant to refer to him as Billionaire Scion Tom Friedman than columnist Tom Friedman, both because that’s more descriptive of what he represents, and more important for readers of his work to know so that they know a bit about where he’s coming from.

Again there is the presumption that a journalist or commentator’s personal background dictates their coverage or viewpoint. But I don’t think it works that way, in journalism or politics.

How would Sirota explain left-wing billionaires like Armand Hammer or George Soros or Herb and Marion Sandler or Peter Lewis? (Or how about even the moderately wealthy, like Ned Lamont?). Class traitors?

IT WOULD FIGURE THAT THE FRENCH would prove to be the exception that proves the rule: just as Internet-watchers were settling on the The One Percent Rule (one of every 100 Web users will create content), it turns out that the French are blog-crazy.

The International Herald Tribune reports: “More than three million Internet users, or more than 12 percent of those online in France, have created a blog, according a study released in June by the ratings agency Médiamétrie.” The estimates for bloggers in the U.S. (according to Pew Research): eight percent. The IHT also quotes Laurent Florès, chief executive of CRM Metrix, who says that Gallic blogs are “noticeably longer, more critical, more negative, more egocentric and more provocative than their U.S. counterparts.”

This should come as a surprise? That the French are more opinionated?

COUNTRY MUSIC’S TAYLOR SWIFT, 16-years old, has a catchy new single moving up the charts entitled “Tim McGraw.” The hook:

But when you think Tim McGraw,
I hope you think my favorite song
The one we danced to all night long
The moon like a spotlight on the lake

According to her bio, Swift, who grew up on a farm in Wyomissing, Pa. (which is near Reading) writes her own songs. The real Tim McGraw (who may run for political office as a Democrat one day) apparently likes the song, as does his wife, Faith Hill.

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Summer reading: Edith Wharton and “Roman Fever”

Edith Wharton

Roman Fever

I suspect that for many Americans of my vintage, Edith Wharton remains linked more to Ethan Frome (often required reading in the high school English classes of Baby Boomers) than to The Age of Innocence, her Pulitzer-Prize winning novel tracing the tension between individual happiness and social propriety; lushly filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1993, The Age of Innocence now defines the author in the public imagination.

The Age of Innocence is more representative of Wharton’s writing—it reflects her nuanced world view, her keen appreciation of how society’s mores can stunt or suffocate love. And her natural home territory is the upper class environs of turn-of-the-century New York, not the stark New England landscape of Ethan Frome.

I count myself lucky that I didn’t stop reading Wharton after Ethan Frome: her clear-eyed observations of the way men and women relate, of the dynamics of courtship and marriage, of the conflict between social responsibility and freedom, continue to engage and entertain. And like William Makepeace Thackery and Anthony Trollope, she writes openly about wealth and social status and selfishness, about the “fear of falling” from the ranks of the privileged, and about social climbing and snobbery (eternal themes in even the most outwardly democratic of societies.)

Wharton understood that manners and money did not transform human nature for the better: the well-connected and publicly high-minded elite were capable of greed, envy, resentment, jealousy, and infidelity behind closed doors. She knew that first hand, trapped in a loveless marriage to an older Boston banker, a womanizer; her affair with journalist William Morton Fullerton ended badly (she regretted that she wasn’t “younger and prettier.”) So she was no stranger to heart ache, or disappointment, or the difficulties of love.

Two Narratives

One of the reasons I admire “Roman Fever” is the way Wharton offers us one story (two middle-aged New York women on holiday with their daughters in Rome) and employs its superficiality to hint at another, more complex narrative, one linked to an earlier visit to the Italian capital. The matrons, Alida Slade and Grace Ansley (“two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age”), have known each other for more than 25 years, but there seems something lacking in the friendship.

The two are widows; Alida made the better match, marrying the vigorous Delphin Slade, “the famous corporation lawyer,” while Grace’s husband, Horace Ansley was (to quote Alida) a “nullity,” a “museum specimen of old New York.” Alida sees Grace as old-fashioned, timid, intent on her knitting project while ignoring the beauties of Rome around them; Grace, in turn, finds Alida “too brilliant by half” and somehow sees her as a figure to be pitied (“Mrs. Ansley had always been rather sorry for her…”). “So these two ladies visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope,” we are told, again with the hint that all is not what it seems.

There is also a note of competition—especially when men are concerned. Their daughters, Barbara Ansley and Jenny Slade, are portrayed as vying for the attentions of a handsome Italian aristocrat and Alida Slade fears that the more engaging girl, Barbara, will win him. She confesses this worry to Grace, light-heartedly, but with a touch of malice: “And I was wondering, ever so respectfully, you understand… wondering how two such exemplary characters as you and Horace had managed to produce anything quite so dynamic.”

This current rivalry stirs memories for the women; they had been in Rome together twenty-five years before, when Delphin Slade was courting Alida. Slowly we learn that there had been a subtle, hidden competition for Slade that winter, and that Alida had worried that Grace would take her fiance away from her.

As they talk, Alida has something to confess, a transgression from the past: she admits to forging a letter from Delphin to Grace, luring her friend to an imagined assignation at the Colosseum. Alida admits that she hoped Grace would catch a “Roman fever” in the night air and become sick, but then rationalizes her actions as “sort of a joke.”

“Well, girls are ferocious sometimes, you know. Girls in love especially. And I remember laughing to myself all that evening at the idea that you were waiting around there in the dark, dodging out of sight, listening for every sound, trying to get in—of course I was upset when I heard you were so ill afterward.”

As “Roman Fever” closes (with an ironic ending worthy of O. Henry) we learn that Alida’s scheme has backfired; while Alida has believed that she has “won” (“You tried your best to get him away from me, didn’t you? But you failed; and I kept him. That’s all.”), in fact, she had not been able to keep Delphin Slade exclusively for herself.

The entire action of the story takes place on the terrace of a Roman restaurant; the women sit in “derelict basket chairs” as they talk. Again there is the contrast between the surface impression and the reality; an innocuous conversation takes a different turn and awakens violent emotions. And for most of the story, we have been looking through the “wrong end of the telescope,” ignorant of the truth.

Wharton had read the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer (products of “the wonder-world of nineteenth century science,” she wrote); their theories on evolution and social competition have clearly had some influence on her. The women in “Roman Fever” compete for virile men (such as Delphin Slade and the Italian Marchese); they do not let social niceties stand in the way (Spenser on human nature: “red in tooth and claw”); producing attractive and dynamic children serves as one measure of winning. Indeed, today’s evolutionary psychologists would find much that is familiar in “Roman Fever.” There is more to “Roman Fever” than Darwin’s framework for sexual selection, of course, and it would be a disservice to Wharton and her craft to embrace a purely reductionist reading, but the thematic inspiration seems clear.

“Roman Fever” appeals to the 21st century reader not because of its “scientific” grounding (although Wharton records the mating rites and rituals of her tribe with the precision of a cultural anthropologist), but because of its universality. The story of Alida and Grace (and, Wharton suggests, of Barbara and Jenny,) will be repeated whenever friendship and love collide, with love (the strongest instinct?) the odds-on winner.

This is the fifth in a series of Summer Reading: Short Fictions essays for Summer 2006. I’ve chosen to write about a number of my favorite short stories and their authors:

Short Fictions: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Short Fictions: Doris Lessing

Short Fictions: Ernest Hemingway & Tim O’Brien

Short Fictions: Ursula K. Le Guin

(You can find some of my own short fiction here).

The link for the reviewed story: Edith Wharton: “Roman Fever and Other Stories”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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