The Perils Of Journalism
Accuracy in Media has been calling attention to errors made by journalists since 1969, when I and some other concerned citizens decided that the country needed an organization that would strive to improve the accuracy of news reporting by exposing serious errors made by the media and trying to get them corrected. This was shortly before Vice President Spiro Agnew made his famous speech denouncing the liberal bias of network television news. The networks were stunned by the volume of critical mail that speech generated, but they didn’t do anything to correct the problem.
The bias was obvious, but Accuracy in Media was based on the idea that criticism would be more effective if it focused on the inaccurate information that the media disseminated as a result of the biases of the editors, producers and reporters. The media routinely denied that they were biased. They weren’t going to correct something whose existence they denied. In principle, they agreed that they had an obligation to get their facts straight and to correct any errors that they might make, but it was hard to get them to do that. This was especially true of their most serious errors which were linked to their biases more than to the multitude of factors that contribute to honest, unintentional mistakes.
Those who helped me launch AIM in 1969 were mainly concerned about left-wing, pro-communist and anti-anticommunist bias in the nation’s newsrooms that nurtured history-making errors. It had been strong for years. The stories Herbert Matthews wrote about Fidel Castro for the New York Times were believed to have been a major factor in Castro’s successful seizure of power in Cuba.
Walter Duranty the Pulitzer-Prize-winning correspondent for the New York Times in the Soviet Union had by his own admission concealed the 1932-33 famine in the Ukraine planned and ordered by Stalin to destroy the resistance to his collectivization program by starving to death millions of peasants. Duranty, like most foreign journalists in the Soviet Union, was interested in burnishing Stalin’s image, not tarnishing it.
Pro-communist American journalists like Edgar Snow helped bring the Communists to power in China by glorifying Mao Tse-tung, who was said to be nothing more than an agrarian reformer by those who knew better. The strongly anticommunist Chiang Kai-shek was demonized. On April 13, 1975, the impending Communist victory in Indochina was hailed by the New York Times as promising a better life for most. Sidney Schanberg, who wrote the story, risked his life by remaining in Cambodia after the Communists seized control. He survived, but he severely damaged his reputation among those who understood the Communists and knew that they would impose a cruel, bloody tyranny on Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. They brought greater misery, not a better life for most. The trust he placed in them was a very serious mistake.
As one who exposes the errors of others, I am embarrassed when I find that I or anyone else at AIM has made a serious mistake. That has happened very rarely, but I made such a mistake last year in what started as an effort to get the Philadelphia Inquirer to report the evidence uncovered by French journalists that showed the Racak massacre in Kosovo, which was used as an excuse to start our air war against Yugoslavia, was a hoax. Because of errors on both sides it degenerated to a dispute over a date.
The Inquirer said the Serbs made a second attack on Racak the day after the alleged massacre and that reporter, Jeffrey Fleishman, was there. Six months later, it conceded that the second attack was two days after the massacre, not one. AIM believed on the basis of what we thought were reliable sources that they still had the wrong day. In a column last August we accused Fleishman of fabricating a story about fighting on that day, but that was a serious error. Our sources were not as reliable as we thought.
Accuracy in Media retracts all of its assertions challenging the authenticity and credibility of Jeffrey Fleishman’s reporting in the Philadelphia Inquirer about fighting at Racak on January 17, 1999. Fleishman was in Racak. He reported the fighting at the time, as did other reporters. Our description of his reporting as "pure fiction" and "imaginative writing" was unfounded, and we should not have compared him to Janet Cooke. It was unfair of AIM to publish assertions about Jeffrey Fleishman’s reporting without first making an attempt to contact him. We regret these errors and apologize to Mr. Fleishman and the Inquirer.
Reed Irvine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org