Sunday, January 06, 2008

N&O says, “believe us”

Raleigh News & Observer executive editor for news John Drescher’s print column today is about news organizations’ use of anonymous sources. (“’Scoops' based on anonymous sources often are wrong” )

Drescher begins:

There's a slop of "news" reported on television and the Internet based on anonymous sources.
Drescher cites sports stories ESPN and the LAT used anonymous sources for and got wrong. That takes up most of the column.

Near the end of the it Drescher gets to what he really wanted to do in the first place: praise the N&O for what he says is its rare and very responsible use of anonymous sources.

Drescher ends his column by presenting N&O subscribers with what he sees as a stark choice facing them:
You can believe our competitors who use anonymous sources promiscuously.

Or you can believe us.
”Wow! It’s a risky world out there. We can’t take any chances. Let’s renew our N&O subscriptions right now.”

Unlike his predecessor Melanie Sill, Dresher doesn’t post his Sunday columns at the Editors’ Blog. So I’m sending the following email directly to him.

His address FYI: drescher@newsobserver.com.
________________________________________________________

Dear Editor Drescher:

In your column today you say:
At The N&O, we discourage the use of anonymous sources and rarely use them.

When we do, the information has to be factual. It has to come from sources with first-hand knowledge. There must be no other way to get the story on the record. And it has to be approved by me or a senior deputy.
But in your Duke lacrosse coverage you not only frequently used anonymous sources, you encouraged their use.

The “Mother, dancer, accuser,” story published on your front page Apr. 16, 2006, the day before a Durham grand jury indicted Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, used neighbors, relatives and friends of the accuser as anonymous sources.

You even tracked down the accuser’s former husband and used him as an anonymous source for a very sympathetic account of the accuser teaching him to read.

How did you confirm that account? And why did you run it?

What did it have to do with what was by then an obviously very flawed “investigation” in which Durham police and the DA had repeatedly made unsubstantiated and, in some cases, obviously false statements that three Duke students committed gang rape and other felonies while other Duke students stood by and later “stonewalled” the police investigation?

By Apr. 16 there were law professors, attorneys not connected with the case and other experts very willing to talk on the record about grave weaknesses in the case. Some were even urging Nifong to drop the charges because he had no case.

Why didn’t you run a front page story quoting such experts?

Why did the N&O instead run the sympathetic to the accuser and heavily anonymous source dependent “Mother, dancer, accuser” story on its front page the day before we all knew the grand jury was to meet?

You say “information has to be factual.”

You knew on Mar. 24, 2006 when you used the accuser as an anonymous source that her claim of being new to dancing in front of men was false.

But you ran it anyway and withheld the news you had that proved it was false.

Why?

You knew she’d been lap dancing at a public club as far back as June 2002 when she stole a car from one of the club’s customers.

But the N&O withheld that news for three weeks.

How can readers "believe us" when the N&O does something like that?

On Mar. 25 you published the accuser’s claim that men in the house where the party was held barked racial slurs at her and the second dancer. Everyone in the house at the time including the second dancer denied that happened.

Yet you published that story, to the great detriment of innocent young people and race relations in our community.

Why?

You had statements from Sgt. Gottlieb and Duke that the players had been cooperative.

Yet you withheld that information and instead cited anonymous “authorities” you said had vowed to crack the team’s “wall of solidarity.”

Who were those anonymous “authorities” the N&O used for its Mar. 25 story?

Was one of them Mike Nifong?

Ruth Sheehan says Nifong was the anonymous source for her Mar. 27 “Teams Silence Is Sickening” column. According to Sheehan the N&O was using Nifong as an anonymous source by Mar. 26 when it passed on to her “information” from Nifong which served as the basis for her column.

I posted on the N&O's use of Nifong as an anonymous source here and here.

When did the N&O begin using Nifong as an anonymous source for its Duke lacrosse stories?

When was the last time you used Nifong as an anonymous source?

I wish you would do as your predecessor Melanie Sill did and post your columns at the Editors’ Blog so readers can comment there.

N&O readers should be aware of the questions I’m posing as well as questions and concerns many other readers have regarding the N&O’s use of anonymous sources.

I hope you begin posting your columns and dialoging with readers concerning them.

In the meantime, I hope you respond to my questions.

I’ll publish your response in full on the main page on my blog.

Sincerely,

John in Carolina

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

John:

I have come to the conclusion, after a lifetime of experiences, that there are some people who are so corrupt that they don't know they are corrupt.

John Drescher is one of them.

Ken
Dallas

Anonymous said...

John: Many are looking forward to your piece-by-piece dissection of the Raleigh newspaper's role in enabling the Nifong frame of the lacrosse players. Where are the lawyers? Where are the libel suits?

bill anderson said...

A successful libel suit against the N&O would be nearly impossible, given the Supreme Court's take on the subject over the years. Beginning in 1964, SCOTUS effectively re-wrote libel laws for all the states by first throwing in its "public officials" qualification, then government employees and, finally, "public figures."

The court has been extremely political in this; for example, in 1974, it said that Elmer Gertz, who was suing the John Birch Society, was not a public figure, which was nonsense. However, given that the JBS was not a popular group, it was "fair game" for SCOTUS. (I have a recently-published paper on this subject in a journal.)

A libel trial would be very difficult to win and expensive to undertake, and the players and their families know it. It just is not worth it.

That is why I am glad to see John shaming the N&O for its dishonesty. It is the best that we can do for the time being.

bill anderson said...

I would like to add that most likely the courts (whether in Durham or Raleigh) would say that the LAX players were "public figures," which would mean that they would have to satisfy the "Times Malice" requirements.

Remember, the players faced a stacked deck in the local courts. I can guarantee you that the authorities are angry because these young men "slipped through their fingers," and would make sure they could not win a libel suit.

Anonymous said...

Bill Anderson has made terrific contributions to the Nifong frame discussions. But were the lacrosse players actually public figures under the legal definition of the term. The three falsely indicted became public figures after they were smeared by Nifong and the press.

Anonymous said...

There is so much more to come out of Durham than the LAX case. The entire legal system is broken, the cops are thugs and worse than you can imagine. Countless elected officials from the Governor, down to the City Manager, to the County Clerk are involved. Many fingers have dipped into Durham's cookie jar, and the truth will be extremely explosive to many who have turned their backs on citizens, justice, and any code of ethics or valor. Embrace yourselves for an extreme shock. A tidal wave of truth will boggle your mind, the corruption SHALL be exposed!