Really Bad Column

Latest roundup of columnists’ foibles, triumphs, embarrassments and other weirdness

By Dave Lieber

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist
Special to www.columnists.com
Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

I apologize.

When was the last time you started a column with those words?

Actually, I’m not apologizing for anything. I just want to get your attention. But the first part of this month’s Really Bad Column is about the need for the occasional apology column.

Nothing, I believe, catches a reader’s eye and enhances a columnist’s credibility better than an occasional admission that a columnist has erred.

In fact, I wrote one a couple of weeks ago.

My lead was “Somebody has to watch The Watchdog, too.”

See, I am The Watchdog for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and twice a week in this year-old investigative column, I try to expose wrongdoing, fix consumer problems, and embarrass the powerful into acting in a fair manner. The admission that I, too, needed to be watched came about because I had quoted an association director praising a state program. A reader quickly wrote me afterwards to say that the association director was the recipient of a $190,000 contract from the state agency he praised.

Oops.

So I wrote in a follow-up, “Is it my fault for not knowing and sharing this important piece of information with readers? Or is it [the director’s] fault for not disclosing it?

“I take my share of the blame,” I continued. “I owe it to readers to present information from experts that are objective. If experts are paid by an agency they are commenting on, that matters.

“Truth is, I didn’t think to ask.

“Truth is, [the director] didn’t volunteer either.”

I even quoted the director of an ethics center questioning my handling of the story: “You just can’t count on people disclosing without asking them,” he warned.

I bring this up because in the previous Really Bad Column I criticized Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Crocker Stephenson for not disclosing that the quirky characters he profiles sometimes have committed criminal activities in their past that should have been disclosed to readers.

As first revealed in Milwaukee Magazine:

Silly the Clown, profiled by Stephenson, turned out to have a restraining order against him for spraying Mace in a 9-year-old boy’s face. Silly is also considered a suspect in a murder.

A wheelchair-bound man portrayed lovingly by Stephenson turned out to have been accused of harassing women.

Another profile subject, Shorty Barnes, a double amputee, was convicted for impersonating a police officer, possession of drug paraphernalia, throwing a glass bottle at his daughter, threatening a man with a 13-inch knife, threatening police and resisting arrest. Stephenson reported none of this.

So I wrote that readers were ill-served by Stephenson’s lack of disclosure of background information.

Afterward, a journalism student at the University of Kansas who read my piece on the Web contacted me for an assignment she was doing for her ethics class. She directed me to a letter to the editor of Milwaukee Magazine written by Paul Sevart, one of Stephenson’s editors. She asked, “Do you see the situation differently under these circumstances?”

So I read the defense letter, which, because space permits in this Web version of Really Bad Column, I’ll quote for you in full. But first, I’ll also share that Milwaukee Magazine issued two corrections on the story:

The magazine had reported that “Stephenson doesn’t do background checks on subjects he profiles and ignored the lengthy criminal record of one in particular. The truth is that he was aware of and chose not to fully report the criminal background of some people he profiled. We apologize to Stephenson and the Journal Sentinel for stating otherwise.”

In a second correction, the magazine cleared up its facts about the wheelchair-bound man. It didn’t happen exactly as the magazine reported.

Now on to the editor’s defense of Stephenson, quoted from the magazine:

“Stephenson uses Wisconsin’s court records database to check the criminal record of his subjects and exercises judgment — a word that [magazine writer Peter] Robertson apparently isn’t familiar with — in deciding what is worth including in his 500-word slice-of-life columns.

“These are not school board candidates that Stephenson writes about. His columns often attempt to bring humanity and even dignity to people who, in Robertson’s world, apparently deserve neither because they have broken the law. He often writes about people who are broken in one way or another, and if he is sympathetic to the characters that populate his columns, he does not entertain illusions of their perfection, nor does he expect our readers to.

“In fact, Robertson’s assumption of naiveté on the part of our readers is almost touching. Imagine their surprise on learning that a man who makes his living scavenging bricks has been in and out of jail, or that a crack dealer had carried a gun and tried to rob someone, or that a man who was convicted of one drug charge would be convicted later of another, or that a couple living out of their car had convictions for theft and drugs.

“I encourage you to read these columns yourself rather than rely on Robertson’s breathless descriptions.

“Because Robertson raises the question of trust, it is worth noting why Stephenson and I declined to speak to Robertson. His track record in writing about the Journal Sentinel gave us no reason to expect that we would be treated fairly.

“Whether Stephenson should include more about the criminal backgrounds of the people in his columns is a matter of opinion, and is fair game for any armchair media critic. What is not fair is to publish an assertion that has no basis in fact.”

And here is how I answered the journalism student:

“I think the excuses given — that he did a background check and chose not to report the information — is just as damning as if he didn’t do a background check.

“First, there are so many people worthy of stories written about them. I simply would have chosen another subject. But if you write about the subject, you HAVE to disclose. You have to!

“For my watchdog column, recently, a man wrote to me asking for help because his car was improperly taken away from him by police. His case was strong, 100 percent on the merits. However, a background check showed he was a convicted car thief. Even though his case was strong, why would I help a convicted car thief get his car back when hundreds of other people contact me each month asking for help with their own problems? I killed the column.

“Second, withholding that kind of information from readers is a complete disservice. I believe that a columnist has a total obligation to report those background findings in a column profile. Yes, it might ‘slow’ the column’s pace down. But so what? In this Internet age, anyone can do a background check, and the information surely will show up on some press critic’s blog just as quickly as it will show up in a city magazine. As a columnist, you never want to leave yourself vulnerable by not sharing pertinent information about a subject. And when you are doing a character profile, troubling parts of that person’s character are part of the story.

“My newspaper teaches me constantly to do background checks on everyone I write about. Period. And I must disclose what I find when relevant.

“And in the case of some of the examples used in the magazine story, those facts were indeed relevant.

“I wish the Milwaukee newspaper would be transparent and not try to cover up its mistakes. That editor’s letter in defense of the writer is embarrassing. I thank you for pointing it out to me. I will probably write another column on it for the columnists’ newsletter.

“Most important, that kind of attitude really hurts our industry in the long run. How can readers trust us? If I were a reader in Milwaukee and read that editor’s defense, I would question my decision to spend money on that paper because credibility with readers is EVERYTHING!”

* * *

Bragging time: Last column I told you about how I advise nearly 40 students at my son’s school on their school newspaper, a monthly that is funded solely by student-sold advertising.

It was the first year for the newspaper in a school that is only 3 years old.

The other day, we learned that in the statewide public school journalism competition, we were named one of the top seven best newspapers in the state of Texas for middle and junior high schools!

Five of our staffers won prizes in the state contest in the categories of news writing (first place), entertainment review (first place), editorial writing, cartooning and feature writing. We received the highest rating, too, as “Distinguished.”

These kids had never worked on a newspaper before. And when I took them under my wing last October, we traveled from zero to 60 almost immediately. I tried to teach them everything, from writing to editing to photography to ethics.

Fortunately, these 12, 13 and 14 year olds are quick learners. I love them to death.

At the flag ceremony, when I handed out the awards, I told the school that the top rating, only one of seven in the state, is like winning a state football championship.

Because this is Texas, they certainly got that!

* * *

Speaking of awards, I am so proud of my buddy, Stu Bykofsky, host of the 2007 NSNC conference in Philadelphia.

What a month he has had!

Not only did he marry Jenn, a regular attendee of our conferences, in a ceremony in April, he also won the top prize in Pennsylvania’s most prestigious journalism contest — the Keystone Press Awards. He won for Best Columnist. Stu only recently gave up his longtime gossip column to write a general-interest column. So this award honors his early work on the new column.

* * *

No hiding on the Internet: In case you missed it, here is the story of Los Angeles Times columnist Michael A. Hiltzik, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter.

A blogger caught Hiltzik posting comments on his newspaper’s Web site and other Web sites under false names.

The Times took away Hiltzik’s blog because he had violated the newspaper’s ethics guidelines “which require editors and reporters to identify themselves when dealing with the public,” according to an April 24 story in The New York Times.

Hiltzik writes a column in the paper called Golden State, and his blog was named the same.

“As a blogger, Mr. Hiltzik is often strident in his liberal views, and has engaged in public political scrapes with a number of conservative bloggers,” the Times reported.

“It was one such blogger, Patrick Frey, who exposed Mr. Hiltzik’s anonymous postings. Mr. Frey, an assistant Los Angeles district attorney, maintains a conservative blog called Patterico’s Pontifications. Last week, Mr. Frey wrote on his blog that Mr. Hiltzik has been posting to Web sites pseudonymously for two or three years,” the Times reported.

What I find most interesting is that Frey was able to trace the anonymous postings back to the actual author. I wonder how. The Times did not say.

The point is, you can’t hide on the Internet. So why try?

Last week, my editor did send me a story about how to trace anonymous e-mails. It’s a little different than this, but close enough. So I’ll share.

The link is: http://www.journalismnet.com/tips/emailtrace.htm

* * *

Finally, I am fascinated by the story of Wendi C. Thomas, who left her column-writing job at the Memphis Commercial-Appeal to begin a new life as a metro columnist at The Sun in Baltimore.

She even penned her first column, all set to run, which ended with the words: “Let the conversation begin.”

But the conversation never started.

Days before her debut, she quit to return to her old job in Memphis.

“My heart is in Memphis,” she was quoted as saying in commercialappeal.com, according to Baltimore City Paper.

Sun editor Tim Franklin “expressed confidence that he would be able to find a suitable replacement soon,” City Paper reported.

Want a job in Baltimore?

Better move fast!

Dave Lieber loves to write about columnists, column writing and, especially, columnist scandals. He understands that it’s only a matter of time before he screws up big time, too. Visit his Web site at www.yankeecowboy.com and learn about his book and new CD audio book. You can read his latest columns and correction boxes, too.

May 30, 2006

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