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Subjects Seem Unfazed by a Reporter's Misdeeds

Many people quoted by a New York Times writer accepted his fiction as a fact of life.

May 19, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Carol Klingel had to chuckle. The New York Times was reporting -- on the front page, no less -- that her son, a Marine scout who had been wounded in Iraq, struggled with flashbacks, "his mind wandering from images of his girlfriend back in Ohio to the sight of an exploding fireball."

The story was wrenching. It was also wrong. For starters, Lance Cpl. James Klingel didn't have a girlfriend. He had broken up with his most recent sweetheart before he was deployed to the Gulf.

"We were laughing about it. I kept asking him, which girl would be thinking that she was the girl mentioned in the story," his mom said.

The Klingels knew that reporter Jayson Blair had gotten the facts wrong.

But they didn't call the New York Times to complain. They didn't write to demand a correction.

In a telling sign of how little Americans seem to trust the press, many of the people Blair wrote falsely about in the last seven months shrugged off his mistakes as more examples of sloppy, melodramatic reporting.

Some protested strenuously, demanding corrections, only to give up in frustration. Others never knew about the errors because they did not read the articles that put their voices in front of millions of newspaper readers across the nation.

For the Klingels and others like them, however, the embellishments -- and even the outright fiction -- they saw in Blair's work seemed hardly worth squawking about. It was more or less what they anticipated.

"You expect people are going to get misquoted, or quoted out of context," said Carol Klingel, a high school art teacher.

Blair's article wrongly described her son as permanently disabled from his combat injuries. It exaggerated his emotional distress. And it attributed comments to the wounded Marine that he did not remember making -- including the dramatic ending to the story, which quoted Klingel as saying he was still looking over his shoulder, worried "about who might come shooting at me out of the bush."

Her son was upset, Carol Klingel recalled. But she figured that the story "wasn't all that wrong" -- nothing "earth-shatteringly false," as she put it -- so it wouldn't be worth pursuing a correction.

Many Americans share Klingel's low expectations for journalistic accuracy.

Except for a surge of support for reporters after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "positive evaluations of news organizations on issues like trust, credibility and arrogance have all been declining steadily" for more than a decade, said Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.

Just 21% of Americans believe all or most of what they read in their local papers, according to a poll last year by the Pew Center. In another survey, the center found that 45% believe news stories are "often inaccurate."

Asked to rate the ethical standards of various professions, Americans place journalists side by side with members of Congress -- near the bottom of the list. Only lawyers, advertising practitioners and car salesmen ranked lower, a 2000 Gallup poll found.

"There's a general undercurrent out there that we have an uncaring press, not particularly interested in getting everything right and not particularly interested in hearing from people who want to complain," said Bob Haiman, a senior fellow at the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit foundation that advocates for 1st Amendment rights.

If Americans perceive the press as aloof, they also recognize its power. And power is intimidating.

When Robert F. Horan, the chief prosecutor in Fairfax County, Va., held a news conference late last year to denounce one of Blair's articles on the sniper shootings as "dead wrong," he stepped to the microphone with a sense of wariness.

"My opening line to the press conference was that I was doing this against my better judgment, because you should never take on anyone who buys ink by the gallon," Horan later said. Because he did not want to discuss evidence in public, Horan refused to disclose -- even to Blair's editors -- exactly which parts of the article were inaccurate. The New York Times stood by its story.

Horan did not bother to complain the next time Blair wrote about "evidence" that Horan knew did not exist.

"An outfit like the New York Times carries almost an aura of being the gospel," he said.

A few months earlier, Pete Mahoney, the associate athletic director at Kent State University, had come to a similar conclusion.

Mahoney was furious about an article in which Blair wrote that Kent State was scrambling to meet NCAA standards for football-game attendance -- and that it sponsored tailgate parties and counted everyone in the parking lot as "in attendance." Blair quoted Mahoney as saying: "We are going to try it until someone tells us to stop."

The trouble was, Blair and Mahoney had only exchanged voice mails. "How can you make up that stuff? He was setting me up for a punch in the belly," Mahoney said.

But Mahoney felt it would be futile to seek a retraction.

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