Accuracy in Media

The Washington Post is not shy about reporting on bad conduct by public officials, but it is in no hurry to correct its mistakes when it turns out that it got the story wrong. On August 10, it ran a 350-word correction and a 500-word letter correcting errors in articles and editorials it had published about Tim Murphy, a Superior Court Judge in the District of Columbia, over two years ago.

The correction said that the Post had run 14 articles, two editorials and two columns about the death of Robert Waters, a homeless defendant who had collapsed in Judge Murphy’s court. In nine of the published articles the paper had said that the judge kept calling other cases while Waters was lying on the floor claiming he needed air. The judge was said to have suggested that he talk less. The Post acknowledges that he did not continue calling cases. On August 10, it ran a letter from the judge’s attorney that said that in honor of Waters’ memory, the judge had taken the unprecedented step of adjourning the court proceedings.

Two of the articles said Waters had died in the courtroom. That was false. A nurse was called to examine Waters. She escorted him to a cell where he died a few hours later. Two Post articles said Judge Murphy, who had been on the bench for 36 years, had resigned. That was also not true. He was suspended for seven months while a seven-member commission deliberated to determine if he should keep his job. In November, they voted four to three to retain him. Judge Murphy claimed that the false reports by the Post had influenced those who had suggested that he resign.

Waters was 54-years-old and suffered from asthma. He was homeless, and was frequently in court and in jail, but his father filed a lawsuit against the city. He was understandably bitter about Judge Murphy, thanks to the inaccuracies in the reporting by the Post that made him appear to be insensitive. Murphy, a veteran 72-year-old judge with a good reputation, was unhappy about the Post’s reporting. He had an attorney prepare a libel suit against the Post.

The Legal Times on August 25 reported that when the Post’s lawyers received a draft copy of Murphy’s complaint they offered to settle. That resulted in the corrections the Post ran on August 10. That was not reported by the Post. Nor did it report that it had agreed to settle the threatened libel suit by making a $25,000 donation to a Catholic ministry in North Creek, New York. It also paid $5,000 to cover the judge’s legal fees.

That is peanuts compared to the huge amounts that plaintiffs in libel suits against big media have been seeking since General William Westmoreland sued CBS for $125 million 20 years ago. But Judge Murphy was not after money. All he wanted was to get his reputation back. He told the Legal Times reporter, “I couldn’t stand the lies about me that led to a very expensive suspension and damage to my reputation. I took them on.”

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