Accuracy in Media

As more comes to light about Diane Griego Erwin, the former Sacramento Bee columnist, the more revealing and instructive the story becomes. It is a story we mentioned in a recent Media Monitor, but much more has come to light. In one sense, it is another validation for the New Media, specifically the blogs; and for another, it shines a light on problems related to diversity in the newsrooms, when diversity strictly refers to skin color. It also spells potential big trouble for the Sacramento Bee editor, Rich Rodriguez, the new president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). How could he have been oblivious to her pattern of falsehoods?  Didn’t anybody fact-check her material before now? Was Rodriguez an “enabler” in this fraud?

On May 11, Griego Erwin stepped down from her position as a three-times-a-week columnist for the liberal Sacramento Bee. She said at the time it was for personal reasons, but a vague column by her executive editor, Rich Rodriguez, made it clear that there were serious questions about her credibility. Now, in a June 26 story in the Bee, Rodriguez has written a lengthy story detailing some of the problems. He wrote that they “have been unable to verify the existence of 43 people she named in her columns.” He said that they had done “extensive research” and were still unable to find them.

The story came to light when Griego Erwin was unable to substantiate certain details from one of her columns. In this case, it was the name of the tavern where she had conducted an interview the night before. Needless to say, this set off red flags that led to the investigation of her past writings. She now joins the long list of journalists and columnists whose names have been ruined because they were either too lazy, or incapable of coming up with legitimate sources and stories.

Rodriguez says in his article that from January 1, 2004 through April 26, 2005, her last column for the paper, they found 30 names from 27 columns out of 171 she had written, that could not be verified. They then went back further. She had been there 12 years, and they found an additional 13 cases in 10 more columns.

He described the typical template for her apparent deceptions: “essays, often with a surprising O’Henry twist, about a singular person who faces a challenge and surmounts it.” They generally were based on a theme taken from current headlines. But apparently no one was asking questions. After all, Diane Griego Erwin had won great honors during her career, including a George Polk award, an American Society of Newspaper Editors award, and a share of a Pulitzer Prize. In the world of liberal journalism, it doesn’t get much better. Executive editor Rodriguez says the paper had tightened up its standards in the past year regarding anonymous sources, but because of Griego Erwin’s stature and popularity, she was apparently held to a different standard.

For safekeeping, the paper also sampled 36 columns by three other columnists for the paper, and every name from those columns was easily verified.

In an extensive interview, Griego Erwin has denied doing anything wrong, and insists all the people are real. She won’t, however, discuss any of the specific accusations.

But thanks to Joe Guzzardi, an English teacher who writes a column for the Lodi
News-Sentinel and, we can see there’s much more to this story. Guzzardi says he wrote to the paper at least a year before, warning about Griego Erwin’s factual accuracy, but got no response and saw no action taken. Guzzardi has also highlighted the role of executive editor Rich Rodriguez, who he calls her “enabler.”

Rodriguez, who was recently named as the new president of the American Society for Newspaper Editors, was interviewed on in April about his views and goals. It is apparent that he puts a high priority on diversity based on skin-color: “It takes work to bring diversity to a newsroom because it’s a combination of recruiting, nurturing and retaining. Attracting journalists of color will be difficult for years to come?”

Apparently Rodriguez didn’t learn the lessons of Jayson Blair at the New York Times. Namely that it is okay to reach out to hire people of color, but it should be more important to hire people with a diversity of ideas and backgrounds and solid journalism credentials, something that Bill Keller of the New York Times says that he now believes is critical to media credibility. Diversity of skin color should not come at the expense of quality journalism.

Another bit of irony in this story is the fact that the Sacramento Bee had just written a column weeks before Ms. Griego Erwin stepped down, chastising other papers for their lapses in judgment and ethics. It came back to bite them.

We are reminded again of Jonathan Klein’s comment last year during Memogate at CBS, before they were forced to acknowledge that they couldn’t verify the authenticity of the National Guard documents: “It’s an important moment,” said Klein, who is now CNN’s top news executive, “because you couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances, and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing what he thinks.” Once again, the checks and balances broke down in the newsroom, and the blogs have been blowing the whistle.

One wonders if Rodriguez will survive at the Sacramento Bee or as ASNE President.

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