August 25, 2006

E&P Editor Has First Hand Experience with Staging News

Greg Mitchell, the editor of the influential news trade publication Editor and Publisher has recently raised a spirited defense against questions and allegations that news may have been staged in some instances in the recent Israeli/Hezbollah war in Lebanon, may sound particularly defensive because of his own guilty history of staging news:

Since the press seems to be in full-disclosure mode these days, I want to finally come clean. Back when I worked for the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette (now the Niagara Gazette), our city editor asked me to find out what tourists thought about an amazing local event: Engineers had literally "turned off" the famous cataracts, diverting water so they could shore up the crumbling rock face. Were visitors disappointed to find a trickle rather than a roar? Or thrilled about witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime stunt?

I never found out. Oh, I went down to the falls, all right, but when I got there, I discovered that I just could not wander up to strangers (even dorky ones wearing funny hats and knee socks) and ask them for their personal opinions, however innocuous. It was a puffball assignment, but that wasn't why I rebelled. I just could not bring myself to do it.

So I sat on a park bench and scribbled out a few fake notes and then went back to the office and wrote my fake story, no doubt quoting someone like Jane Smith from Seattle, honeymooning with her husband Oscar, saying something like, "Gosh, I never knew there was so much rock under there!"

Of course, I got away with it.

Somehow, Greg, I don't think that you did. (h/t Jon Ham)

Update: Mary Katharine Ham has more.

Major update: More Fakery?

Posted by Confederate Yankee at August 25, 2006 01:41 PM | TrackBack

Sounds like maybe he was loathe to associate with "dorky" strangers. Elitism at an early age, perhaps?

Posted by: Mark Tapscott at August 25, 2006 02:33 PM

A sad example of a man with a self-esteem problem. He needed someone to say, "Really, you can just talk to them, Greg, they won't bite or judge you (well, as anything worse than a "reporter".)" Poor guy.

Posted by: Gabriel Malor at August 25, 2006 02:44 PM

I don't see how anyone could work as a reporter without being able to go up to strangers and ask them questions. Reporters do this all the time. Most people are delighted to give their opinions, especially on something that's not controversial. (They may not have anything interesting to say, but they're happy to say it.) He must have worked very briefly as a reporter and then switched to copy editing.

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs at August 25, 2006 02:46 PM

Journalism is easy. Basket weaving is hard.

Posted by: yhandlarz at August 25, 2006 03:22 PM

"Reporters do this all the time."

Not so much as one might hope, obviously.

Posted by: eric at August 25, 2006 03:24 PM

Of course! Whenever somebody presents a case offering facts and reality to refute your desperate delusions, your only recourse is to attack the messenger. It's got to be challenging for you folks to keep your faith-based reality intact while the real world is constantly reminding you how very, very wrong you are. No wonder you're all so angry and petty. You're sick. Very sick.

Posted by: Lordy Lou at August 25, 2006 03:35 PM

Can someone tell me what Lordy Lou is babbling about? It doesn't appear to be anything related to reporters or journalism, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it is.

Posted by: Pat at August 25, 2006 03:48 PM

Boy, you guys just don't understand how icky tourists are. They're not cool like journalists at all. They wear funny clothes and they talk funny. They're also not nearly as smart as journalists.

Besides, everyone knows that what few thoughts those gross, icky, obtuse tourists have are so simplistic that reproducing them accurately doesn't absolutely require that you find out what they are by talking (let alone listening) to them.

As for lordy lou, I figure she/he is a journo grad student. She/he is at about that point where they've removed all the critical faculties and have downloaded the crapola generator into the brain but not yet given it the direction rules.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at August 25, 2006 03:56 PM

Gag. A journalist thinking that he/she is superior to anyone. Gimme a break. The dorkiest geek has dreamed more logic than came from any modern "journalist". The name brings to mind the fact that there used to be janitors (a quite honerable profession)...who are now "sanitary engineers". There used to be reporters (even then, a less than honorable profession) who are now "journalists". To those of us in science, these folks were the D students...who now dream of Pulitzers...a prize virtually as worthless as the Nobel Peace Prize.

Posted by: Da Coyote at August 25, 2006 04:29 PM

OK, spelled honor incorrectly. Sue me!!

Posted by: Da Coyote at August 25, 2006 04:30 PM

Lordy Lou, try not to project so excessively.

Posted by: Jim C. at August 25, 2006 04:34 PM

"So I sat on a park bench and scribbled out a few fake notes and then went back to the office and wrote my fake story, . . ."

In my humble opinion (OK, I've NEVER been humble),
I don't know what the hell "Lordy Lou" is smoking.
Or injecting.

But, Greg is SICK.
Sick to write that fake stuff.
Twice as sick to admit it to the world.

Greg, why don't you just admit you just get off
masturbating all over your printed page
for the edification of us "lesser types" ?

I could accept THAT. {:^)

Posted by: Dan Pursel at August 25, 2006 04:43 PM

Heh, thanks. You didn't have to do that. I was just giving Dad a hard time. But thank you. I hear we'll be seeing each other at the blog conference?

Posted by: Mary Katharine at August 25, 2006 04:50 PM

"Back when I was 19 and worked for the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette (now the Niagara Gazette) as a summer intern[ . . .]"

I think its hilarious how you take Greg to task - and do it in such a dishonest way! Why did you omit the part about his being an intern at the time? Did it interfere with your narrative? Sorry. and your readers are as dumb as you: NONE bothered to actually read the article did they? You started on the rum and cokes a little early . . .

Posted by: barfly at August 25, 2006 05:01 PM

Your "mistake" was definitely Coulter-esqe.

Posted by: Barfly at August 25, 2006 05:04 PM

Mary Katharine, I look forward to seeing you there.

It should be a lot of fun.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at August 25, 2006 05:09 PM

It makes no difference if he was an intern when he did this. That's like saying a medical intern is not at fault because he didn't sew a patient back up because he didn't want to.

Posted by: PattyAnn at August 25, 2006 05:12 PM

There's a line in Heinlein's "Rolling Stones" that says "A man who won't design sewers isn't an engineer, he's just a man who knows engineering." Mr. Mitchell just knows journalism.

Posted by: PersonFromPorlock at August 25, 2006 05:21 PM

I too worked for Gannett in scenic upstate New York "in the day". I too was an intern. I too was given icky assignments.

In most cases, I *did* them, figuring it was a necessary part of paying one's dues in the business. In one case I told the editor it was a story idea that was literally insulting to both its subjects and the readers, and told him I wouldn't do it, at the risk of losing my job.

Oh well, those were the good old days...

Posted by: Bucky Dent at August 25, 2006 06:25 PM

I have read the whole story by Mr. Mitchell, I have a Journalism degree and once upon a time made my living at it. (Based on some comments here this apparently marks me as a low grade idiot, but I toss in my two-cents anyway.)

I appreciate Mr. Mitchell coming clean. What I do not understand is why he was compelled to fake a story rather than do some interviews. Was he too shy? He writes that it was not because it was a “puffball” piece. I clearly recall my first class in news writing in which the professor stated that there were three primary rules, accuracy, accuracy and accuracy. (Maybe J-school was different in the 70’s?) After I had become a working reporter I was assigned an interview I didn’t want to do. I was certainly in no position to be picky about what I covered, but I could not bring myself to do the assignment. I finally went back to the editor and told him I wasn’t even going to try to do the interview. He was not happy, but he assigned the story to someone else. What was the assignment? Interview the family of a local resident who had just been killed in a plane crash. I have never seen any news value in assaulting the bereaved and I rebelled. On the other hand getting people’s reaction to learning that Niagara Falls was missing would be a pretty good story.

Posted by: Rick at August 25, 2006 06:56 PM

Leaving out the part about him being a 19-year-old intern is flat-out wrong and earns you every bit of scorn you seem to want to heap on Greg -- and you should know better!

That said, what Greg did was certainly wrong. Having worked in all sorts of media for 30+ years, my suspicion is that he was scared of talking to people he didn't know in a scenario he wasn't comfortable in. (Second possibility: He was too lazy, but that sounds implausible). I was an intern once and remember being scared/nervous most of the time I was at the radio station (blessings to the staffer I finally wound up with, who took time to work with me instead of treating me as an annoyance. I wouldn't be surprised if he was every bit as scared as I was.

Posted by: DonK at August 25, 2006 08:47 PM

You also left out the part about him wearing matching socks. That shows he's got real standards, man.

Posted by: Tia at August 25, 2006 09:03 PM

Don't waste your time on Barfly or Lordy Lou. They are both clearly morons. It's like trying to teach a hog to read a wristwatch: It only wastes your time and annoys the hog.

Posted by: snakeeater at August 26, 2006 12:00 AM

Greg Mitchell may have been only a 19-year-old intern when committing the act of journalistic dishonesty he described. However, it’s likely that he possessed some journalism experience and training – perhaps in high school or as a college freshman (assuming he was heading into his sophomore year).

Assuming that's the case, Mitchell should have understood he was betraying his employer and readers. To be sure, he would have had more room to excuse himself he if had zero journalism experience. But I suspect this was not the case; otherwise, his editor probably would not have trusted him with this story after one month on the job.

So why did Mitchell do it? I suspect it went beyond what he suggested was his painful shyness. In Mitchell’s account, I sensed an attitude of superiority to those around him -- including his employer who, it seems, he may have felt had insulted him with a "puffball assignment."

Faced with doing a ridiculous story and confident in his superiority -- Mitchell thus felt no compunction to overcome his shyness and do what was required of him. Reporters and people in many jobs, incidentally, do this all the time in order to fulfill their responsibilities. Their character and sense of responsibility enables them to do this.

Interestingly, Mitchell felt confident that he could get away with being dishonest because he was “quoting" out-of-staters; therefore, nobody was going to complain about the bogus quotes and names. Coincidentally, this lack of accountability goes hand in hand with foreign reporting and photojournalism: Both rely heavily on stringers and freelancers (perhaps with not much more experience than Mitchell). They can easily make stuff up. Nobody will complain.

Finally, the “puffball” story Mitchell derides actually could have turned out to be quite interesting in the hands of an able reporter. But as a 19-year-old, Mitchell apparently felt he was headed for bigger and better things -- far beyond interviewing "dorky" tourists.

Posted by: dpaulin at August 26, 2006 01:32 AM
Don't waste your time on Barfly or Lordy Lou. They are both clearly morons. It's like trying to teach a hog to read a wristwatch: It only wastes your time and annoys the hog.

To the contrary, I owe Barfly in particular a huge debt of gratitude. You see, the text he cited from the current version of the E&P article has been tampered with today, after I wrote this article.

I didn't omit the part about Mitchell being an intern, becuase it wasn't simply wasn't there until after this blog entry was written.

Details here.

Thanks, barfly. I couldn't have done it without you.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at August 26, 2006 01:39 AM

So the Mitchell "excuse" (as it were) for the fake Niagra piece is that he was just "young and stupid"?

OK, I can buy that - but now he's not young anymore, so why is he still so stupid ;->

Posted by: Purple Avenger at August 26, 2006 04:26 AM

Nice job, barfly! What say you, DonK?

Posted by: Pablo at August 26, 2006 01:13 PM

The crucial changes to the article occurred on January 17, 2004 when the website format underwent a change.

The original article doesn't mention that he was a intern.
On Feb 4, 2002 he was promoted and his age was 54.

From Wikipedia: Niagara falls was dammed in June 1969 to remove the Talus under the falls (and the temporary dam was dynamited in November).

2002 - 1969 = 33 .. So in February Greg was at least 21. In June he was 21 or 22 and out of college - which means this was his first job and not a "summer internship"

1. He consistently lied about how old he was.
2. He consistently lied about when the story happened.
3. The "summer internship" was likely a lie which is why there are two years+ of time displacement in the story.

In Greg's defense this is likely to be the result of cognitive dissonance (you rewrite your memories so they make a better read).

However it indicates that he really isn't honest with himself, and by extention, with us.

His stealth editing of the piece to emphasize his "innocence" without correcting the obvious factual errors on which the presumption of "innocence" is based, is simply reinforces the fact that he isn't honest and all of his articles should be read very critically.

Posted by: JustTheFacts at August 26, 2006 01:29 PM

"Barfly" is merely the latest victim of the "Progressive" experience" make a big "Aha!!!" deal, only to see it crumble to "Oops."

Mary Mapes can tell Barfly all about it, if she's recovered from her denial.


Posted by: Rick at August 26, 2006 02:07 PM

Rick, I suspect you are a nice man.
And, I don't want to pick a fight.
But, you said

"Mary Mapes can tell Barfly all about it, if she's recovered from her denial."

I'm sorry, but Mary Mapes "recovering from her denial" is just about as likely as Saddam saying,

"Please forgive me. Upon considerable reflection over past events, I realize I was really not a very nice man in several areas."

A Zebra just CAN NOT change its . . .

Posted by: Dan Pursel at August 26, 2006 02:50 PM

In 1952 or 53, I was assigned by The Buffalo [Evening] News to interview visitors to Niagara Falls on their reaction to viewing the collapsed rockpile of the abutting Scholkopf Generator plant earlier in the week. It was a Sunday and the crowd was large and impressed. I enjoyed talking to them and their comments. Whether it was a fitting assignment for recent grad school product, or not, was beside the point. There were a lot of names, local and tourist, which meant, to me, a lot of people buying the paper the next day to read about themselves. Names make news, remember? The story was played on the front or split page, as I member.

Posted by: al popiel at August 27, 2006 08:57 PM

According to Wikipedia, the major “shut down” of Niagara Falls (the American side) occurred in 1969, not 1967. I don’t know how long Mr. Mitchell worked as an intern at the Niagara Falls Gazette, or how many years he spent as a 19 year-old, but he may want to verify he is remembering his facts correctly.

Fair warning: there has been much work done on the Falls and this has probably included any number of at least partial water diversions. Mr. Mitchell may be referring to some other event.

"In addition to the effects of diversion of water to the power stations, erosion control efforts have included underwater weirs to redirect the most damaging currents, and actual mechanical strengthening of the top of the Falls. The most dramatic such work was performed in 1969. In June of that year, the Niagara River was completely diverted away from the American Falls for several months through the building of a temporary rock and earth dam (clearly visible in the photo at right), effectively shutting off the American Falls.5"

Posted by: Agim Zabeli at August 28, 2006 12:26 PM

No one here is addressing the issues raised by Greg Mitchell in his article. Your perspective must be bankrupt when you can no longer address the issues and choose instead to attack the messenger to undermine the power of the article. I wonder how many of you have actually read it? It seems your intellectual curiousity is about as ambitious and rigid as our Supreme Leader's. You all seem quite willing to abandon reality for your own version of it. Your paranoid delusions about this issue are on par with those who think the Earth is flat, the moon landing was staged, the Holocaust never happened, and 9/11 was a Jewish plot. In other words- you're all wacky. Your selective morality disgusts me. It is the quintessence of hypocrisy. The fact is Israel has killed about 1600 innocent civilians in Lebanon. You can choose to pretend this never happened but it doesn't change the fact that it did.

Posted by: Lordy Lou at August 28, 2006 04:09 PM

just trolling thru, read the comment by Lordy Lou and can't stop myself from commenting.

Lou... put the koolaid down before you drown in it. It appears you're just another apologist for the Hezbo. Try to answer this without making my brain bleed, what should Israel have done? Sit by patiently while rockets were fired into residential areas, until Hezbo ran out of rockets or Lebanese civilians to hide behind. Pray tell Lou, how DO YOU protect yourself if the enemy hides among the populace?? Wouldn't the death toll have been a little more disproportinal had not the Iraelis cared about the innocents, whereas Hezbo obviously did not. I know, now your brain is bleeding.

Posted by: wonkanator at August 29, 2006 11:55 AM