Accuracy in Media

The New York Daily News has published a correction, sort of, regarding an April 7 column by Jimmy Breslin that supposedly quoted something that was said to him 12 years ago.  Breslin, a paragon of the journalism profession, was initially upset that anyone would challenge him on the matter.

The incident is another example of how journalism has declined.  In the column, Breslin quoted Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition as saying, “Homosexuals are dangerous.  They proselytize.  They come to the door, and if your son answers and nobody is there to stop it, they grab the son and run off with him.  They steal him.  They take him away and turn him into a homosexual.”  Breslin said Sheldon had made those comments to him “one day.”

One day?  What does that mean?  Sheldon denied making the statements, and Breslin then claimed that Sheldon made them during an interview conducted back in 1992.  But Newsday, after an investigation, determined that Breslin “drew the quotes from memory” about the meeting he claimed to have had with Sheldon.  Newsday concludes, in its “Editor’s Note,” that, “The result is that the quotes attributed to Sheldon in the April 7 column were incorrect and not Sheldon’s precise words.”

So not only does Breslin cite statements he says were made 12 years ago, he claims to have recalled them from memory.  No wonder the reputation of the journalism profession is taking a nosedive.  Newsday’s clarification, which didn’t go far enough, merely said that, “The April 7 Breslin column should have indicated that it was based on a conversation that took place in 1992.  And the column did not adhere to Newsday’s standard of publishing only direct quotations that are accurate and precise.”

This is basic journalism 101.  But Breslin, who won a Pulitzer in 1986 for distinguished commentary writing, seems to have forgotten the basics.  When he was challenged on the quotes, he cited the 1992 column and then a 1995 column that included other comments from Sheldon.  But in neither column were the quotes the same as those used in the April 7 column.

Sheldon responded, “Some responsible adult at Newsday needs to set a standard for quoting sources in articles.  You should have to have notes of some sort.  Simply asserting that you ‘remember’ the exact words someone said 12 years ago is incredible? Newsday has promised to respond to my complaints.  I hope that will not take another 12 years.”  After the “Editor’s Note, Les Payne, editor of Newsday, would not say whether Breslin would be punished.  He told the Associated Press, “Obviously, whatever action is taken, we keep it in house. … He made a mistake and he admits that.”  Lou Sheldon replied, “I am pleased to see the editor of Newsday reasserting what I had thought was the standard?only words which actually come from someone’s mouth may be used as a direct quotation punctuated by quotation marks.  I hope that, in the future, Mr. Breslin will place a greater emphasis on accurate reporting.  Perhaps some of the passion he demonstrates in attacking Christian religious leaders could be directed more constructively to that goal.”

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