Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dowd Dateline Debate

Lots of blogs find fault with one phrase Maureen Dowd uses in a column and nitpick it. Mega-blog Talking Points Memo has taken issue with, of all things, the dateline. Yes, that little location the reporter claims they were when they reported the article. It seems Dowd had to leave the Clinton un-pity party early and allegedly an uncredited assistant did the actual quote collecting since Dowd had to wing her way to the Middle East with Dubya on deadline. The umbrage goes as follows (added emphasis mine):

The piece reads as if Dowd was on the scene at Hillary's victory party, interviewing voters reacting to her win. But it turns out Dowd couldn't have been at the party at all -- instead, she'd already jetted half way around the world to cover the President's Middle East trip, I'm told. An eyewitness tells TPM that on Tuesday night he spied Dowd typing away at the reporters' media filing center in Jerusalem's Dan Panorama hotel.

If Dowd was nearly 6,000 miles away from these people on Tuesday night, how did the quotes get into her column? A reporter I know tells me that Dowd's assistant was floating around at the Hillary victory party that night. So it seems almost certain that Dowd's assistant did the reporting for her. But there's no other byline on the piece.
The article has a lot of arcana about dateline ethics, the long and short being that the reporter at some point has to have actually set foot in the location used. This would be a tempest in a teapot, but journalists have been flogged for similar faults before.

The TPM article was passed along uncritically by several other blogs such as DragonFlyEye.Net, Portfolio and mediabistro mostly on the schadenfreudistic strength of vague accusations of wrongdoing by a prominent Times columnist.

Spencer Ackerman goes further and cites the case of Rick Bragg who resigned in disgrace and makes this bolder accusation (which the TPM article no longer links to):
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.
Ackerman cites Rick Bragg as the cautionary example, so it's worth examining. Rick Bragg was writing an article on the Gulf Coast and sent an unpaid informal stringer of his to Apalachicola, Florida for some reporting. Bragg eventually made it to Apalachicola but used the free lancer's reporting uncredited for most of the article. When this came to light it brought down a lot of scrutiny on other stories and Bragg resigned. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post wrote a comprehensive article which included these items:
David Firestone, a former Atlanta correspondent now based in Washington, said stringers were used mainly "when you couldn't be in multiple places..."

[S]ome Times staffers say Bragg is being unfairly singled out for working within a system in which interns and assistants -- what the newsroom calls "legs" -- are regularly assigned to do extensive firsthand reporting but almost never receive credit.

In a statement, Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said: "Like most newspapers, the Times has long relied on non-staff journalists to assist correspondents in their reporting, by conducting interviews, providing research assistance or helping to stake out the scenes of news events, especially when spot news is being gathered against a tight deadline." She said employees have been reminded that "such non-staffers should be used to supplement a correspondent's core reporting; they should not be used to substitute for that reporting."
A contemporaneous New York Times article added the following:
In an e-mail message to his colleagues on the national staff yesterday, Peter T. Kilborn, who is based in Washington, said: ''The interventions of editors and rare feeds from stringers notwithstanding, we dig stuff up ourselves and chase things down ourselves and put it together ourselves.''

Mr. Kilborn's comments were lauded, and amplified, in messages from other national reporters.

While the correspondents acknowledged that they relied periodically on researchers during breaking news, they said they had never gone as far as Mr. Bragg had: using a stringer to do almost all of the reporting on a feature article.
Let's analyze the kerfuffle to see if Sargeant and Ackerman are making a mountain out of a molehill or if we are facing the return of Jayson Blair.
  • Sargent quotes an unnamed sources that allege Dowd was somewhere else. The source saw her working on something but had no direct conversation with her about what it was.
  • Dowd met the test implied by the Times for using an assistant, she was on assignment elsewhere (and I think most readers of TPM would think tracking Dubya's misdeeds more important than attending a victory party). We have no idea who this assistant was and what his or her professional relationship to Dowd or the Times is.
  • Dowd was writing on deadline about breaking news. The election results came late Tuesday night and Dowd's column had to be posted by midnight.
  • The three people in the article were quoted by name. A real muckracker could easily track these folks down and determine when and by whom they were interviewed.
  • The quotes used were anecdotal filler supporting Dowd's thesis that the emotional event energized her supporters. The story could stand without those three paragraphs. Here at Dowd Report Central we read a lot of commentary on her columns and nobody was citing these quotes as pivotal parts of the article.
  • Dowd did plenty of leg work in New Hampshire over the rather abbreviated campaign cycle. As noted here, multiple sightings of the celebrity pundit were made at an earlier event by Obama.
  • The only genuinely first person observation in the column was her observing fellow reporters commenting on Hillary's histrionics.
When you put this altogether we are looking at a rather mild case of a national reporter using resources available to her to fill out a piece that had to make deadline. It's not like Dowd was eating bon-bons on the beach while phoning in files.

We'll see if Dowd faces a feeding frenzy over what seems to be a heroic effort to get a column filed on time of if this is just a case of Dowd haters stirring the pot.

1 comment:

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