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Media Circus

Journalists Behaving Badly

By Michael Anft | Posted 8/21/2002

On Dec. 6, Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera filed a story about U.S. soldiers killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Six days later, The Sun's TV and radio columnist, David Folkenflik, challenged Fox and Rivera, offering evidence that Rivera and his crew were hundreds of miles away from the incident and could not have covered it in the up-close-and-personal way Rivera recounted. For questioning Rivera's claims of being on the scene--for doing his job as a media critic--Folkenflik won the Paul Mongerson Prize for media reporting (and the $10,000 that goes with it), went on-air at CNN with the story, and became a hero among journalists tired of Rivera's self-reverential and sensationalist antics. For flaying the thin skin of those at Fox News while their pants were down, Folkenflik also inadvertently brought the wrath of the network down on The Sun. Since Folkenflik's Dec. 12 report, Fox News has told him and other Calvert Street reporters that it won't respond to requests for information or access because, Folkenflik says he was told, "The Baltimore Sun does not want to be fair to Fox News." Fox's blanket policy of not commenting to The Sun has affected the paper's boxing coverage, as well as Folkenflik's ability to cover his beat, he says.

Fox News spokesperson Brian Lewis would not attempt to hash out the matter in print--"We don't want to extend David Folkenflik's 15 minutes of fame," Lewis says--but sources at Fox say the disagreement pre-dates Folkenflik's examination of Fox News' Afghanistan war coverage and the subsequent snub of the paper. Much of what the Fox sources say sounds petty, such as: Folkenflik often requested quotes from Fox News executives on short notice, then never used them in his stories. Also: A freelancer hired by The Sun to hang out at Fox News' 2000 election headquarters never filed a piece. But it's clear that Riveragate--and specifically, Folkenflik's desire to tell the story to as many media outlets as possible--is the main reason for Fox's umbrage. Folkenflik's appearances on CNN and on many journalists' Web sites have fueled the running battle between the two news operations.

To its credit, The Sun, so far, has done little to retaliate. The paper still sends photos of local news events to Fox News, Sun executive news editor Steve Sullivan says. During the spring, the paper even gave Rivera an on-site audience to air his grievances, to little avail. "He never questioned the substance of the report," Folkenflik says. "He has never successfully contradicted the story." Despite the Fox freeze-out, Folkenflik says he won't back down. "I think Fox is an important media outlet that's firmly within my beat, but I'm not going to go hat in hand," he says. "What I wrote was balanced and fair."

A media tempest in a teapot? Maybe. But the Fox/Sun flap represents something more: Corporate America's desire to have its image reflected in the way it sees fit, the truth be damned. Such narcissism may befit a company that makes beauty cream, but when a news operation veils the truth, then decides to kill the messenger, the result is (or should be) a loss of journalistic credibility. Fox News, headed by former Reagan Administration spin doctor Roger Ailes, should know that making a news mistake like Rivera's is bad enough, and that compounding it by limiting reporters' access to stories within the network does much more image damage in the long run. Fox's in-house journalists (at least the ones not named Rivera) should be protesting loudly to their superiors.

Sun editor William Marimow was asked several questions on the matter, including whether the paper would attempt to improve relations between the two news organizations. He declined to comment, citing negative coverage of The Sun by Media Circus. Apparently, what comes around, goes around.

Chicks and Sports

One of the constant criticisms from within and without The Sun concerns Marimow's emphasis on investigative and enterprise stories, which have achieved editorial supremacy (some think) at the expense of the paper's journalistic hinterlands, such as sports and features. Tighter budgets mandated by the Chicago-based Tribune Co., The Sun's owner since 2000, are partly responsible for the slide in quality of the paper's non-news sections, insiders add. Columnist positions have long remained unfilled, while writers who have taken company buyouts or gone on leave have left some sections short-staffed.But now it looks as if help may be on the way for the paper's ghettos. Laura Vecsey, a sports columnist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, will join the staff in September, sources say. Besides giving the sports section a much-needed new voice, Vecsey's presence can counter that of Sally Jenkins, sports columnist at The Sun's closest daily competitor, The Washington Post. Sources add that an in-house pop-music critic may arrive by the end of the year. The paper hasn't had a regular pop crit since J.D. Considine left in January 2001. Stay tuned.

Candidate Control

What does an interviewer do when his or her guest flips out on the air? Marc Steiner, host of the midday talk show on WYPR (88.1 FM), gave a clinic on the subject Aug. 5, when longtime former Republican congressperson Helen Delich Bentley, a candidate in the Second District House race, spent an hour spewing venom and unlikely scenarios on the air. Among St. Helen's claims: At one point, she was on her way to get Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic out of office when she was called away. When Bentley got all heated up about Saddam Hussein--"I said it publicly in 1991 that we should nuke him. I still feel we should have nuked him"--Steiner calmly talked her in off the ledge and on to a more responsible discussion of foreign-policy matters. While Steiner didn't deny Bentley the ample length of rope she brought with her, neither did he forget about his audience and its need to be informed.

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