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Media Circus

Throwing Stones

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 10/4/2000

There's precious little middle ground when it comes to opinions about Sun reporter Jim Haner. Depending on whom you talk to, he's either a crusading investigator who has aided the downtrodden and helped rescue the paper from blandness and complacency or a self-aggrandizing showboat who invents facts and quotes to jazz up his stories and his status.Both viewpoints--especially the latter--got an airing in an article titled "Favorite Son" in the October issue of the inside-media magazine Brill's Content. I'm guessing most Baltimoreans don't read Brill's, so perhaps a brief rehash is in order. Writer Abigail Pogrebin builds the article in large part around charges by former Sun crime reporter/current TV maven David Simon (Homicide, The Corner) that Haner embellishes quotes and fabricates events, and that his editors protect their star reporter instead of disciplining him. The most recent example of Haner's misreportage--the closest thing to a smoking gun in the case against him--was a Jan. 22 front-page Sun story in which Haner reported that Gov. Parris Glendening had visited Baltimore on a "fact-finding mission" concerning lead-paint poisoning, a subject about which Haner has written extensively. Glendening's visit had nothing to do with lead paint, and a reported conversation between the governor and an activist city minister did not occur, as The Sun acknowledged in a retraction published Jan. 25 (Media Circus, 2/2).

Pogrebin also cites a 1995 story in which Haner reported that then-mayor Kurt Schmoke was "busy raising funds in Atlanta" at a time when Schmoke was actually in Baltimore, and a '94 piece that incorrectly trumpeted that two city police officers had been indicted. She also quotes Schmoke's press spokesperson, Clint Coleman, and Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson to the effect that Haner has rewritten their quotes. The rest of the piece consists of back-and-forth about the significance and gravity of these incidents, particularly whether such gung-ho reporting is a product of The Sun's hunger for awards and recognition.

(Coincidentally, City Paper's Best of Baltimore issue hit the stands around the same time as Pogrebin's piece. It contained a short rant charging that Haner "makes shit up," citing the January lead-paint story and other examples of the reporter's alleged penchant for imagining a different Baltimore for the purposes of his reporting ["Best Parallel Universe," 9/13)

Much of the response to the Brill's article has taken the form of angry, defensive polemics, with Sun scribes and editors endeavoring to discredit both Pogrebin and Simon while minimizing Haner's acts as factual errors of the sort that every journalist makes on occasion. A weakness of the piece is its dependence on the accusations of celebrity journalist Simon, who left the paper on bad terms in 1995, and who approached Brill's with his suspicions about Haner. Simon's isolation--no other Sun writers would go on record with similar complaints--and his admittedly chilly relations with the paper's current brass leave him open to questions about his own motives. It has been relatively easy for Haner's defenders to dismiss the brouhaha as Simon's problem, not Haner's or The Sun's.

Simon says he is dismayed that his old editors now challenge his credibility, noting in a Sept. 20 interview with me, "For 13 years, [The Sun] took my copy and trusted that I didn't get stuff wrong." As for his motive in contacting Brill's, he says, "I'm willing to go on the record because I can. The people at The Sun won't talk." Simon says he advised Pogrebin, "Do not do this story if you don't get a dozen other reporters who can't go on the record."

According to one veteran Sun reporter who requested anonymity, Pogrebin obeyed this injunction. The same reporter tells me that Haner does have a shaky reputation among certain of his colleagues: "He has had more serious corrections at the paper than all the reporters I have ever known--and those are just the corrections." The writer says other Sun staffers have periodically complained about Haner, but only to "low-level editors."

Sun Editor-in-Chief William Marimow told Pogrebin that Haner's detractors may be motivated by "rivalries, petty squabbles, [and] jealousies." As her article notes, there are office politics at play, with the paper's news staff apparently split between writers who worked at The Sun before the arrival of what one ex-reporter calls "the Philadelphia Mafia" and those who were hired afterward. Marimow, his predecessor John Carroll, City Editor James Asher, and Haner all worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer before coming to Baltimore.

Haner also has many supporters at the paper, and they've wasted no time in responding to Pogrebin's article. Two as-yet-unpublished letters to Brill's, copies of which I obtained from the writers, call the story "tragically flawed" and "a journalistic shame." Ed Goodpaster, who retired in 1997 after 15 years as a Sun editor, wrote to Brill's praising Haner as "tireless on facts, on detail, constantly working to make things right and fair" and faulting Pogrebin for "no apparent effort to check out Simon's own record for transgressions." Goodpaster, who worked with Haner while national editor at The Sun, does not name these "transgressions," but suggests Simon is a hothead and a frequent flinger of blame.

Todd Richissin, a Sun staffer since 1998 and another of the paper's investigative stars (his December 1999 series exposed brutality at state-run boot camps for juvenile offenders), double-checked Pogrebin's reporting and found that she made some mistakes of her own. Challenging what he calls Pogrebin's "logic . . . [that] errors equal inventions" in a letter to Brill's, Richissin notes that The Sun's retraction of the Glendening/lead paint story did not run on the front page, as Pogrebin wrote. "So, did she invent that to add impact to her story?" Richissin demands, "or did she simply make a mistake?"

Richissin also contacted Herbert R. Weiner, an attorney and Haner's source for the false cop-indictment report in 1994, and learned that Pogrebin had spoken to him. Richissin says Weiner told him that the Brill's writer "kept trying to steer me to get me to say [Haner] wrote something that wasn't true." Weiner is absent from the Brill's story, prompting Richissin to ask in his letter, "Did [Pogrebin] leave out Weiner's comments because she forgot to include them? Or would they have dulled the hatchet job?"

Richissin certainly scores some points--if this is all about scoring points. But his response begs the bigger question of what we might call degrees of error--the full range from inadvertent factual slips all the way to knowing distortion and outright invention. If Pogrebin deliberately put a page 2 correction on page 1, she was falsifying. If she did it by, say, misreading her notes, she was just sloppy. Neither offense, however, rises to the level of fabricating an entire story from guesswork.

There are also shades of gray with regard to quotation. Reporters get stuff wrong for many reasons (background noise, illegible notes, you name it). Reporters also often "clean up" the statements of people who don't speak in complete, well-structured sentences; all those brackets and ellipses cluttering quotations in City Paper articles are there to let readers know exactly where we've cut and pasted. Similarly, out-of-context quotes are a necessary evil of journalism: Anything short of an entire transcript is "out of context," and vulnerable to criticism as such. But again, these deviations from reality are qualitatively different from what city health chief Beilenson claims (in Brill's) that Haner did: invent "large chunks of the paragraphs of quotes that were attributed to me." Richissin, in his letter, fliply dismisses Beilenson's and Coleman's complaints as the usual whining of public officials about being misquoted. But Beilenson wasn't whining; he told Pogrebin he had no quarrel with the content of the words Haner attributed to him, they just weren't his, and that he valued Haner's work on the lead-poisoning issue. He was, however, concerned enough about the ethics involved to ask other Sun staffers whether such rewriting of quotes was standard journalistic practice.

There might have been pointed irony in William Marimow's voice when he said he hoped I'd quote him "in full and in context" on the Haner controversy. Of course, due to space limitations, I can't, but here's a portion of what he said when I called him: "I spent 18 years as a reporter, and I made some mistakes as a reporter. I made big mistakes and I made little mistakes, and every time I made a mistake, The Philadelphia Inquirer printed a retraction. . . . I tried to persuade Abigail Pogrebin that the mistake that Jim Haner made in the [Jan. 22] story was a mistake, but it shouldn't be something that became a feature story that tarnished the reputation of someone I consider an excellent reporter. . . . One mistake shouldn't be converted into a six- or seven-page article in a journalism review." Marimow also expressed outrage that Pogrebin allowed Simon's words to outweigh those of editors and writers who came to Haner's defense.

As to whether Haner's admitted missteps and overreaches are mere flukes or tips of an iceberg, I'm watchfully agnostic. I do give considerable weight to the judgment of editors--weighing, at the same time, the vested interest editors have in their best or most exciting writers--and I do believe that Pogrebin's story suffered from some of the same tendentiousness Haner is accused of. When a reporter is charged with playing fast and loose with facts, it behooves the rest of us not to play fast and loose in assessing the situation. Particularly, we shouldn't assume that Sun editors' public defensiveness means that Haner wasn't privately taken to the woodshed when his errors were uncovered. The guy has been reprimanded, publicly corrected, and now pilloried in a national magazine. Enough, already--for now. The real issue here isn't about Haner--it's about standards.

That, not jealousy or spite, is why people like David Simon (not to mention some of my CP colleagues) get their hackles up about "mistakes" and misquotes. The very highest standards for adherence to fact have to be applied to precisely the kind of writing Haner does: reporting on current issues, for the local paper of record, with an eye to affecting public policy. If lawmakers, bureaucrats, and the public at large are to be influenced by reporting, that reporting needs to reflect the world as it is, not the world as reimagined by a journalist. With their resources and reach, major newspapers like The Sun should be a bulwark against the modern plague of misinformation via Internet, tabloid television, and urban legend. When Haner recasts a gubernatorial meeting to make it look like The Sun's reporting is spurring high-level action--and when his bosses dismiss it as a trifling error--they are contributing to this plague, not combating it.

This story isn't over. Brill's Content has received lots of mail about the Haner story; due to the magazine's production schedule, the missives will not run until the December issue, according to Goodpaster, who talked to a Brill's representative. In the meantime, interested parties should take to heart an invitation from Marimow, quoted in Brill's: "Whoever is challenging [Haner's] integrity, I would ask that person to come and talk to me face to face." Failing an audience with Marimow, and regardless of your take on this controversy, you can e-mail this columnist.

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