Truth-telling rules should apply to all

Posted November 10, 2018 12:04 a.m. EST

There is such a thing as fake news, and it's a scourge. This week brought a fresh example of the genre and how it should be fought. But the lesson didn't come from that place where a lot of loose talk about fake news originates these days, namely, a White House podium.

No, this fake news emerged in Texas, where people take pride in being straight talkers. It was spotted and swatted down in a newsroom, with the contempt for untruth that you have a right to expect from serious journalists - and which, contrary to the assertions of our current president, you almost always get.

In the state capitol of Texas, a place not all that different from that big building with the mansard roof in downtown Albany, Mike Ward has for years been a top journalist. Four years ago, after a quarter-century of reporting, he left the Austin paper to become the chief state capitol reporter for the Houston Chronicle. (The Chronicle, like the Times Union, is owned by Hearst.) He had one of the best reporting jobs in Texas, apparently earned by displaying great professional skills.

But several weeks ago, a Chronicle colleague raised a concern with the paper's editor: Some of the sources named in one of Ward's stories couldn't be found. And a check of several other pieces he had written yielded other quotes attached to names of people who seemed not to exist. Pressed for an explanation by his editor, Ward quit.

The Chronicle hired an investigative reporter and a private investigator to look deeper, and this week they issued a report: Ward seemed to have a habit of interviewing people "who were presented as ordinary Texans" whom nobody else had ever heard of and who couldn't be found in any database. The Chronicle published that report on its front page. It retracted eight stories that depended heavily on sources who couldn't be verified, and it will correct other stories that included quotes from those mysterious and invisible Texans.

"The relationship between a newspaper and its readers if one of trust," said Nancy Barnes, the Chronicle editor. "This investigation points to an egregious breach of that trust that is an offense to readers and journalists alike." She offered an apology to the newspaper's readers and the community.

Some may say this backs up Donald Trump's repeated assertions that reporters are dishonest and can't be trusted. He often calls the media "the enemy of the people," echoing words used by Russian dictator Josef Stalin. Last month, after one of his supporters sent pipe bombs to top Democrats and Trump critics, the president partly blamed the media, claiming that anger in the country was "caused by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news."

That's not the conclusion I would draw, obviously. What the Mike Ward incident reveals, in fact, is the depth of the commitment serious journalists have to truth-telling. It was Ward's own organization that uncovered and revealed the falsities in his work, and there's not a chance he will work another day in a newsroom.

Mike Ward isn't the first journalist to concoct content, of course. You may know the names of others: Jayson Blair of The New York Times, Stephen Glass of The New Republic, Janet Cooke of The Washington Post. The very fact that these names are familiar, many years after their last fake words were published, suggests how rare the crime of fabrication is in my line of work, and how aggressively my colleagues work to expose and oust those who misbehave.

Of course, that's not what the president means by "fake news." He's upset about news that portrays him in a bad light, and he believes reporters who cover him, except for a few from avowedly conservative outlets, unfairly distort what he says. He is untroubled that The Washington Post "Fact Checker" column has found he made 6,420 "false or misleading claims" over 649 days. More fake news, he says.

This week Trump ordered the Secret Service to bar CNN's Jim Acosta from White House coverage after Acosta asked him a tough question. If you look at a full video of the incident - not the doctored version released by the White House - you may think that Acosta was too insistent. But hear what he was probing: Was it accurate, he asked, for the president to describe the migrants walking hundreds of miles from our southern border as "an invasion"?

It's a fair question. Is it a fact that we are being invaded? No editor I know would allow that term in a factual report about the so-called migrant caravan, because it's an exaggeration - an untruth. In my line of work, you can't get away with that.

Imagine how much stronger our democracy might be if the standard of truth-telling that's rightly expected of journalists applied in the White House.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Contact him at rsmith@timesunion.com.

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