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Regarding Media

Similar Blunders, Different Retraction Attitudes

After inaccurate columns on World Trade Center tragedies, one writer offers an angry explanation, another a contrite one.

January 30, 2002|LAUREN SANDLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Of all the heart-rending stories to come out of New York on Sept. 11, two were certainly among the most devastating.

Waldo Fernandez in Miami lost the adult son he had never met and that son's mother--his former paramour--in "one of those fateful stories that have become daily lore, human stories of love and transformation rising from the enormity of ground zero," Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Liz Balmaseda wrote in the Miami Herald. Four days later, psychiatric nurse Eileen Stanley literally worked herself to death at ground zero. After her day job caring for drug addicts, she worked nights in the rescue effort and then died of exhaustion. "If ever there were a metaphor for these difficult times, Eileen Stanley is it," columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in the Orlando Sentinel.

The tragic heft of these two stories was felt across Florida when the columns were published. But there was a problem with these tales: Neither is true. Though Fernandez exists, and Stanley did die in New York on Sept. 15, Fernandez never had a son who was killed in the towers, and Stanley never volunteered at ground zero.

When the institution of fact allows fiction in through the cracks, it raises some questions--especially when it happens twice in the same emotional quagmire--in this case the need to find meaning and metaphor in the ashes of the World Trade Center.

Granted, these are relatively minor transgressions compared to the whoppers told by other columnists in recent years. In the highly publicized cases of ex-Boston Globe columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith, the transgressions were straightforward: The writers made up people and passed them off as real. Seeking to restore its credibility with readers, the Globe fired them. Sometimes, journalists who make up sources attest they are in search of a higher truth, one that transcends fact.

But neither Florida columnist invoked that excuse. Instead, each devoted a column to retracting what she had written, explaining how she had been duped.

Balmaseda, who wrote the false story of losing the unknown son and one-time love, was furious in her follow-up column as she retraced in extraordinary detail how she attempted to verify Fernandez's tale, only to establish that instead of a heartbroken father she discovered he was a "cruel pathetic liar," one with a criminal record and a dodgy reputation in the Cuban community. "He has delivered false names, a false phone number, and too many versions of his story to quiet the anger I am feeling," she wrote in her retraction.

Balmaseda was indignant when she found out that her source was a shady character with a criminal past. "What Balmaseda failed to include," Jacob Bernstein wrote in a critical piece in the Miami New Times alternative weekly, "was any indication that she herself had been careless by publishing this dubious account." Bernstein chastised Balmaseda for showing "no signs of contrition or apology to Herald readers." (Balmaseda did not return a phone call for this story.)

Unlike Balmaseda, the Sentinel's Parker was deeply apologetic in her retraction. She explained that she'd heard the Stanley story while she was Christmas shopping from a man who turned out to be a relative of Stanley's. As a result of miscommunication and adoration for their loved one, the woman's family had created an instant, and incorrect, myth about how she died. "I was snookered by a good story. I accept all the blame for this misunderstanding," Parker wrote, recounting the details of the misunderstanding and how they resulted in "the worst day of my career."

What Parker has discovered is that her retraction seems to have elevated rather than tainted her reputation among her readership. Since her explanatory column ran earlier this month, she's received more than a thousand e-mails from readers, many of whom said her apologetic retraction has given them greater faith in her writing. "I applaud you for your honesty and owning up to a mistake made. This action more than many others will keep me reading your columns whenever I see them," wrote one reader. "You have shown yourself to be a person of character who can be trusted." Wrote another: "If only other reporters were equally as honest we might have a little more truth told."

"Suddenly, my credibility has never been higher," said a slightly amused Parker on the phone from her home in South Carolina. She says her usual journalistic scrutiny was relaxed by what she calls the national impulse toward trust and goodwill since the attacks. "I wanted to tell an uplifting story, and I absolutely wanted to believe it. It didn't occur to me not to believe it. And it didn't occur to me that someone would lie about something so important, such an emotional issue for all of us," she says.

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