Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Today in journalism fraud.

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

I have read and admired a fair amount of William Langewiesche’s work. He did some excellent reporting on Pakistan’s nuclear program, and is one of the better mass-market writers on aviation related subjects.


Some of you may have been following Chevron Corp. v. Donziger. For those who haven’t, briefly: Donziger filed a lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador alleging that Chevron polluted drilling sites. Donziger won a $19 billion judgment in the Ecuadorian courts, but it turns out that there was massive fraud perpetrated by Donziger and the Ecuadorian courts. Overlawyered has a Chevron tag if you want more details.

The point, and I do have one, is: Langewiesche was asked by Vanity Fair to do a story on the suit. (Interesting point: “Donziger’s wife at the time worked in corporate communications at Condé Nast, the magazine’s publisher.“)

Langewiesche did the story.

The piece he produced was extraordinarily sympathetic to the lawsuit, so much so that Donziger himself proclaimed it “the kind of paradigm-shifting, breakthrough article that I think is going to change the entire case from here until it ends in a way that is favorable to us.”

But it wasn’t just “sympathetic”.

The reporter asks Donziger to prepare lists of dozens of questions to be asked of Chevron. And he begs Donziger to help him prepare arguments about why there’s no need for him to do face-to-face interviews with Chevron officials, as they’ve requested, even though he spent days meeting with Donziger and his legal staff.
“I want to avoid a meeting, simply because I do NOT have the time. But I don’t want to go on record refusing a meeting,” writes Langewiesche. “Perhaps I could say that my travel schedule is intense . . . ” He not only submits his emails to Chevron for Donziger’s approval (“What say, Steve. I gotta send this tonight”) and even lets him rewrite them. “Let me know if this works,” Donziger says in a note returning one of them. “I was a little aggressive in the editing.”

Langewiesche also sent Donziger a copy of the story before it was printed. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that is a violation of journalism ethics. Especially since

…Chevron did not get to see the story before it went into print, nor submit lists of questions it wanted Langewiesche to ask Donziger. Nor did Chevron get the face-to-face interviews they asked for. Except for a single phone conversation just before the story appeared, Langewiesche insisted all their communication be via email.

And, of course, there were errors. Including one major one: an expert hired by Donziger was quoted as saying cleanup would cost $6 billion.

But the man had repudiated it a full year before the Vanity Fair story appeared, warning Donziger in a letter that the estimate was based on faulty assumptions and was “a ticking time bomb which will come back to bite you, and very badly, if anyone attempts due diligence on it.”

I am looking forward to reading VF‘s response. Certainly, these are just accusations, but they are accusations backed up by Donzinger’s email, which was obtained as part of a court order related to the ongoing fraud case.

(Hattip: JR.)

Classic Austin cliches.

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Anyone who’s spent time in Austin is familiar with the complaint that too many Austin residents like to sit around and talk about how things were so much better when the Armadillo World Headquarters was in business, and how they saw Shiva’s Headband there, and rent was only $25 a month, and there was no traffic and abundant dope and and and…

The official name was Armadillo World Headquarters. But anyone who enjoyed live music just called it the ‘Dillo.

Yep. That’s your Statesman.

Obit watch: July 31, 2014.

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Jay Maeder, who worked for the Daily News and Miami Herald, has passed away.

I note this for two reasons. Reason #1:

He also contributed posts to the City Room blog of The New York Times. They were discontinued after similarities were found between descriptive passages in the posts and those in articles he had written for The News.

Awk. Ward.

Reason #2: Mr. Maeder was also the last writer for the “Annie” comic strip, which was cancelled in 2010.

Well, isn’t THIS interesting?

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Some of my readers may recall my review of Busted and my complaints about state, local, and Federal officials not taking corruption in the Philadelphia Police Department seriously.


Well well well. Well.

A group of Philadelphia narcotics officers repeatedly robbed and assaulted the drug suspects they were supposed to be investigating, engaging in a campaign of brutality that lasted nearly six years, federal authorities said Wednesday.


One year later, during an illegal search of a suspect’s home, the officers held a suspect by his ankles off the edge of an 18th-floor balcony while demanding information, according to the complaint.

Somebody’s been watching too many movies.

I have trouble linking to the two Philadelphia newspapers, but I think this one will work for the Inquirer coverage. The names of the indicted cops (Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser) ring a faint bell with me, but they don’t overlap with the cops in Busted. (Possibly they were peripheral characters in that book, but I don’t have it in front of me to check.)

The LAT claims “five of the six officers could face life in prison”, but we should keep Ken’s advice in mind. In any event, it should be interesting to watch this play out; does the chief go next? Does the Philadelphia PD come under federal supervision? And do Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker have anything to say? (There’s nothing on the Daily News site. Philadelphia newspapers are weird.)

Stay tuned to this blog for more “As the Badge Turns”.

Edited to add: Oh, I wanted to highlight this part, too:

In the midst of the scrutiny, Liciardello, Reynolds and a third member of the unit, Jeffrey Walker, filed suit against Philadelphia trial lawyer Michael Pileggi, saying multiple civil rights suits he had filed on behalf of clients alleging abuse had unfairly tarnished their names.

Man, that’s brazen. That’s like Lance Armstrong brazen.

Pileggi’s insurance company settled the case for a relatively small sum. But in an interview Wednesday, the lawyer said all of the allegations in his client’s lawsuits “came to fruition [in the federal case] – beating up, false arrests, stealing.”


Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

The LA Weekly profiles Nick Ut, legendary AP photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner. He’s still working as an AP photographer in LA.

You may not recognize the name, but you’ll know the photo; it is one of the two most famous Vietnam War photos. I won’t embed it, but you can find all over the place, including here.

I’m not generally a big fan of the alternative papers, but this is a swell article. Some pull quotes:

Ut believes in skill, too. But on a deeper level, he trusts in luck and fate. Many photojournalists were killed in Vietnam — 135 total, according to Faas’ count. By Ut’s estimate, 90 percent of the AP photographers who covered the war got shot while there.

Pulled mostly so I can plug Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina; haunt your local used bookstore for a copy.

…three months after he took Kim Phuc’s picture, he was hit in the leg by mortar fire. He was on his way to visit her. Her house, unfortunately, was located near an entrance to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of supply routes used by the Viet Cong. After the mortar shell blew up, Ut noticed holes in his camera. Then his shirt. Then his thigh.

Young photographers today, who “shoot 15 frames a second,” exasperate him. “Too fast. Picture lousy. One frame. Show the best picture. That’s how I learned. Look for the picture first.”
Besides, “If you come back with 500 pictures from one assignment? Your boss will yell at you. Too many! Who wants to look at all those pictures?”

Today, the 35mm Leica M2 camera with which he shot Napalm Girl is in a museum — the Newseum, in Washington, D.C.

Gratuitous Leica for the win! (I do wish the Weekly had gone into more detail about what Ut uses today. But then again, this isn’t an article targeted at professional photographers.)

If it weren’t for bad luck…

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

I’ve briefly touched on, but never discussed in detail, Philadelphia’s two troubled daily newspapers (the Daily News and the Inquirer). In brief, they’ve gone through bankruptcy, ownership changes, ownership conflicts, and more ownership changes.

Early last week, the papers were bought by a group of investors led by Lewis Katz.

Last night, Lewis Katz and six other people were killed in a private jet crash.

This is sad and awful and I don’t intend to mock anyone’s death. I note it here because it seems like the Philly papers are just one hard luck story after another. Mr. Katz’s son is apparently going to take his place on the board that manages the papers; if you read the linked article about the purchase, though, it doesn’t seem clear that the late Mr. Katz or his partners had a turn-around plan for the papers, or that they even expected to win the bidding war for them. With Mr. Katz gone, I suspect that’s going to complicate things even more.

(Hattip: Jimbo.)

News of the world.

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

The female editor of a major daily newspaper has been forced out of her position.

Also, the NYT let their executive editor go.

Today in literary fraud.

Monday, May 12th, 2014

When asked about questions about the story’s veracity by the Israeli newspaper Haaetz, the film’s director said, “That is exactly like the people who deny the existence of concentration camps. This is a true story. Everything that happened during the Holocaust is unbelievable and impossible to grasp, and people therefore also find it difficult to believe this story.”

Yeah, well, maybe. But I think you can ask questions about a story without being a Holocaust denier; the key is the phrasing. “What you’re saying happened doesn’t line up with what we know, historically, about the Holocaust, including the testimony of other survivors, Ms. Defonseca. Can you explain the differences?”

In related news, Misha Defonseca has been ordered to repay $22.5 million to her former publisher Mt. Ivy Press and Jane Daniel, who owns Mt. Ivy.

Misha who the what now? $22.5 million? That’s Steve King money!

Ms. Defonseca wrote a book called Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. It didn’t sell well in the US, but was popular in Europe: it was adapted as an opera and as a French film, “Surviving With Wolves”.

…Misha Defonseca wrote of her experience of being a young Jewish girl on her own during World War II, fleeing into the woods where she was adopted by wolves, and killing a Nazi soldier.

The LAT is a little less clear on this next step than I would like, but apparently there was a dispute between Ms. Defonseca, Mt. Ivy, and Vera Lee (“a French speaker chosen to work with Defonseca”).

A judge found that Daniel and Mt. Ivy had withheld royalty payments, hidden money in offshore accounts and failed to market the book. Rights for the book reverted to Defonseca, and she was to be awarded damages of $32.4 million.

This now also becomes an excellent example of “Be careful what you wish for, because you may just get it.” Ms. Daniel, of course, appealed the verdict. And as part of the appeal, she hired people to take a closer look at Ms. Defonseca’s story.

Which turned out to be almost complete bullshit.

An American geneologist worked with Belgian counterparts to track down Defonseca’s true origins. She was born Monique De Wael in Brussels, where she attended Catholic school during the time she had claimed to be lost in the woods.
One part of the story was true: As a young girl, she lost her parents. Both had been members of the Resistance and were deported and killed. She was raised by relatives — not wolves.

And she’s admitted the fabrication:

“This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.”

Interestingly, Wikipedia has a “Fake memoirs” page, but it does not break out Holocaust memoirs into a separate category.

Books in brief: Busted

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love is the true story of two crusading female reporters for an underfunded newspaper, who exposed massive corruption in the Philadelphia Police Department and won the Pulitzer Prize for their work.

True tales of journalism appeal to me. And the book has blurbs from two writers I admire, Mark Bowden and Edna Buchanan. So I added it to my wish list when I first heard about it, and my beloved and indulgent brother and sister-in-law picked it up for me as a birthday present. (Thanks, guys!)

Given that it was something I asked for, and received as a present, this review may seem kind of churlish. But, while I appreciated the gift and enjoyed the book, it has some problems. And it would be unfair to my readers not to mention those problems, family matters aside.

The book is listed as by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Lasker. Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker are the two reporters who did the Pulitzer-prize winning “Tainted Justice” series for the Philadelphia Daily News, and were officially credited with the prize. I do find it odd and interesting that Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker do not mention that they actually shared the “Investigative Reporting” prize that year with Sheri Fink of the NYT. I do remember that there was some controversy over that; Ms. Fink’s work was originally in the “Feature Writing” category, but the Pulitzer board moved it to “Investigative Reporting”. It doesn’t diminish Ms. Ruderman’s and Ms. Lasker’s accomplishment that they shared the prize, but not mentioning that fact makes me wonder.

Additionally, while the book carries both bylines, it appears to have been entirely a Ms. Ruderman production. When Ms. Lasker is mentioned, it is always in the third person as “Barbara”, while Ms. Ruderman narrates the book in the first person. Ms. Ruderman is a talented writer, but I feel the book would have benefited from more of Ms. Lasker’s perspective in the first person, rather than Ms. Ruderman’s recounting of her thoughts and feelings after the fact. For example, I’d love to hear Ms. Lasker’s account of being slapped by a source, and getting upset afterwards, because she lost her pen, from her own mouth rather than Ms. Ruderman’s. (The Daily News, being a broke newspaper, provided reporters with cheap pens. Ms. Lasker sprang for the “four for $3.99″ ones at the grocery store and losing one was “a big deal”. As well it should be. Crappy pens suck. Don’t buy pens at the dollar store, either. Just saying.)

It is possible that I may be mistaken, and this is just an authorial device. If so, it seems to me to be an unusual one; most collaborations of this sort that I’ve read set off the individual contributions by name, for example “Barbara” and “Wendy”.

Busted seems like a short book. It comes in at 242 pages (including acknowledgements) but it feels even shorter than that. And this leads into two more problems with the book. The first one is that it feels padded, and not in a good way. I would have liked more descriptions of the journalistic process Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker followed; but I have to face the fact that their journalistic process was dogged, unrelenting, boots-on-ground going through search warrants and talking to people work. (As opposed to the “reporter with a database” model that seems to pervade much of modern journalism.) Instead, there’s a lot of discussion of the precarious finances of the Daily News and of Ms. Ruderman’s and Ms. Lasker’s personal lives.

And that’s the second problem. Ms. Ruderman spends a lot of time discussing her difficulties striking a balance between being a good wife and parent and pursuing a good story. I get that, I sympathize with that, but lots of women have that problem. Granted, not all of them are spending their days searching for crack dealers, but a little bit of the work/life balance whinging goes a long way.

There’s also some stuff that I think flat out doesn’t belong.

Barbara had long, wavy highlighted blond hair and a tangerine slice of a nose. Her big green eyes, flecked with caramel, reminded me of top-of-the-line granite kitchen counters. She rimmed them with dark olive eyeliner and a hint of grayish blue eye shadow. With her coral lip gloss, silver hoop earrings, snug skirts, and candy-colored blouses, Barbara came off all bubble-gum–wifty and gee-whiz. But that was just her facade.

What the frack? If I was Ms. Ruderman’s editor, I’d have cut everything except maybe the last two sentences, and I would have cut the first half of the second to last one. This isn’t the only paragraph in which Ms. Ruderman dwells on physical descriptions of Ms. Lasker. And there’s also quite a bit of material about Ms. Lasker’s misadventures in the dating scene, including failed dates and her relationship with her neighbor “Hutch”.

(Side note about “Hutch”: “A gun lover, he kept a 9mm Glock in his bedroom dresser and stashed shotguns and hunting rifles in a locked safe. Barbara hated guns.” Yet later on, when Ms. Lasker and Ms. Ruderman are afraid the Philadelphia PD is targeting them, “Hutch” is the person Ms. Lasker looks to for protection. Odd, isn’t it, how people who “hate guns” don’t hesitate to turn to people who have guns for protection? Especially when you’re afraid of “the only ones” you think should have guns?)

I’m not going to throw around my feminist credentials here, because I don’t have any. I believe in equality of opportunity for women. I believe women have a right to go about their lives and make choices without being physically attacked or sexually abused. I think the best rape deterrent is two to the chest and one to the head, administered by the victim at the time of the assault. I support strong, intelligent women. If that makes me a feminist, so be it. I don’t claim the title.

But the dwelling on physical descriptions of Ms. Lasker makes me uncomfortable. If it had been “Mr. Ruderman” instead of “Ms. Ruderman” who had written the paragraph above, would we be hearing complaints from women? “What do her physical attributes and her dating life have to do with her ability to do the job?” What, indeed?

(And how do green eyes remind you of granite kitchen counters, anyway?)

This is a shame, because Ms. Ruderman could have found other ways to fill space. I would have liked to hear more stories about their editor, Gar Joseph, to take one example. You have to like an editor who tells his staff, “I don’t give a shit about the parade unless a small child is entangled in the ropes of the Mighty Mouse balloon and choked to death, so don’t waste a reporter on it.” We could use more editors like that these days. Ms. Ruderman could also, perhaps, have filled in some more context on the Inquirer/Daily News war and the struggles of both papers in the new economy. And it would have been nice to see the “Tainted Justice” series put into the context of Philadelphia’s long history of police corruption.

That leads into my final issue with Busted. And, to be fair, this really doesn’t have anything to do with the writing (which is good) or the book’s narrative (which is compelling). But I feel like I have to ask this question of Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker:

In the end, what did you accomplish?

The only result that’s mentioned in the book is some reforms in the way the narcotics division operates, and most of those reforms seem (from Ms. Ruderman’s account) to be stronger restatements of existing policy rather than actual rule changes.

And these events took place after the book was published, so it may be unfair to drag them in here. However, there is an elephant in the room that can’t be ignored:

The officers involved in the “Tainted Justice” investigation, including Jeffrey Cujdik and Thomas Tolstoy, will not face any charges for their actions. As a matter of fact, while they may face some internal disciplinary action, most reports I’ve read say it is very likely that they will be allowed back on the street and awarded back pay including “lost overtime pay”.

Okay. So let’s set aside the sexual assault allegations against Thomas Tolstoy for a moment. After all, these allegations come down to “he said/she said”, and shouldn’t we give the benefit of the doubt to the accused? Even if there are multiple complaints from multiple women? Even if at least one of those women says she was never contacted by investigators?

Let’s set aside the falsification of warrants charges against Jeffrey Cujdik, too. After all, much of the case against him rests on the word of a convicted drug dealer and known drug addict turned informant. Should we trust someone like that? Even if his charges are backed up by outside evidence, including the search warrants he allegedly lied on?

We still have the raids on merchants, where Jeffrey Cujdik and Thomas Tolstoy, among others, disabled surveillance cameras and took money and property from store owners. This is not a “he said/they said” situation: for God’s sake, these men are on video committing these acts! And those acts weren’t just violations of department policy: if you or I stole stuff from a bodega, we’d be prosecuted.

But Jeffrey Cujdik, Thomas Tolstoy, Robert McDonnell Jr., and Richard Cujdik (Jeffery’s brother) are walking away without charges and with back pay for right now.


Why do the good citizens of Philadelphia tolerate this? Why are the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police not being treated as criminal gangs? There’s evidence that both organizations attempted to intimidate witnesses to Cujdik and Tolstoy’s conduct; where are the RICO charges? Where are any criminal charges?

I know what Lawrence will probably say the answer is: the mayor of Philadelphia is an African-American Democrat, and the Obama administration is unlikely to bring charges against the police department that would embarrass him. Perhaps this is the case. I’m pretty cynical, but I haven’t quite reached that level of cynicism yet.

Busted is a good story. I just wish it was a more satisfying one, with a better ending.

Quote of the day.

Friday, April 4th, 2014

As the crucial special session neared, the Times began to resemble a Democratic house organ.

–Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, page 198 in the paperback edition (Chapter 11, “The Majesty of the Law”, discussing the legal and legislative battles over Moses’ parks plan).

Dear Prudence…

Monday, March 24th, 2014

A Slate Plus membership will give readers special access to the site’s editors and writers, as well as members-only discussions with Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist. Members will also be invited to give advice on which politicians or entertainers they would like to see profiled.

This will almost be worth $5 a month to watch.

Bad journalist! No biscuit!

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

I was going to put this in one of the random posts, but simply forgot. It probably deserves a separate post anyway. Back in December of last year, the LAT ran a story about Occidental College. Specifically, the LAT alleged that Occidental had failed to report 27 incidents of sexual assault in 2012: the paper stated that the college was required, under the terms of the Clery Act, to report those incidents. It appears that there was some back and forth between the college and the LAT over this, and…

Occidental representatives approached The Times early this month to seek a correction. Documents reviewed by The Times this week show that the 27 incidents did not fall under the law’s disclosure requirements for a variety of reasons.

Some of the incidents were “sexual harassment, inappropriate text messages or other conduct not covered by the act”. Others took place off of campus property and thus did not have to be reported. Others took place in 2011 and were reported then. So, basically, the LAT‘s article was bullshit. But wait, there’s more!

Separately, as they began looking into the complaint, Times editors learned from the author of the articles, staff writer Jason Felch, that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with someone who was a source for the Dec. 7 story and others Felch had written about Occidental’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Felch acknowledged that after the relationship ended, he continued to use the person as a source for future articles.

Can you say, “conflict of interest”? Can you say, “the Times fired the reporter’s ass“? I knew you could. (Hattip: Romenesko.)