Boston Globe-Al Warning: Columnists Have to Do Better
Astor, David, Editor & Publisher
Editor tells column group about steps his paper took to avoid a repeat of last year's fabrication scandals
Last year, Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle were fired for fabricating material in columns they wrote for The Boston Globe. Since then, what has the paper done to try to prevent this from happening again?
Globe managing editor Greg Moore answered this question at the June 18- 20 National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) convention in Louisville, Ky.
Moore says the paper is now checking the backgrounds of new hires more closely, devoting more time and attention to editing columns, questioning columnists about their sources, and giving columnists three- year assignments (with possible renewals) rather than assuming they'll write their features indefinitely.
"The notion that you have a column and get to do it for 25 years is history at the Globe," comments Moore.
He adds, "Despite the bad things that happened, I believe the Globe is now a better and stronger newspaper." But Moore emphasizes that "we still have to win back credibility" with many readers.
One negative memory Moore has of last year's fabrication scandals was the rude behavior and inaccurate reporting of some media people descending on the Globe. "It made me extremely sympathetic to people who are the targets of newspaper coverage," he says.
"It's much more pleasant to be interviewing other people," agrees The New Republic magazine chief editor Charles Lane, who fired Stephen Glass last year after it was discovered that he made up material in at least 27 of 41 stories.
Lane admits he and his predecessor at The New Republic should have discovered the fabrications earlier but adds that the main culprit was Glass for "lacking the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong."
But supervisors also share some culpability, according to Media Studies Journal editor Robert Giles. "These problems reflect a breakdown in newsroom management," he says. "The top editor has the responsibility to be the conscience of the news operation who sets the standards for accuracy and fairness."
Giles did praise Globe and New Republic editors for being "very forthcoming" with the media at the time of the fabrication scandals.
Speakers agree that columnists should still be allowed some leeway. Lane notes that William Raspberry of The Washington Post and Washington Post Writers Group periodically does a column featuring a conversation with a cab driver. "That cabbie doesn't exist, but most reasonable people realize that he's a columnist-type device," says Lane. "We don't want to eliminate creative signatures."
He's supporting reporting
Another syndicated writer, Bob Greene, believes columnists should do plenty of reporting if they want to remain prominent in an age when newspapers compete with plenty of other media.
"On cable news channels, there are dozens of glib, opinionated, wisecracking commentators. For a column to really stand out, you have to go back to what got you there -- reporting," says the Chicago Tribune/Tribune Media Services writer during the keynote convention address.
Speaking of other media, Greene says one reason he likes the Internet is that columnists can get their work seen in parts of the country where newspapers don't publish them. He notes that readers anywhere can access his columns via the Chicago Tribune Web site. …