Serious as Cancer

Few newspapers have fact-checkers, and clearly daily reporters rarely have the luxury of double-checking their notes or memories with the sources they're quoting. But as a Sunday page-one feature, Kolata's story took days--if not weeks--to prepare. Under those circumstances, Times reporters often call back sources to make sure they've got it right, though the paper says such calls are "a matter of each reporter's discretion, case by case."

A Voice call to Kolata seeking comment was returned by Times publicist Nielsen. "We're confident in the accuracy of the story," she said, including the "accuracy of [Watson's] quote." What about Watson's assertion that he did not know he was speaking for attribution? "He knew who he was talking to," Nielsen said.

What's distressing is that this is not the first time Kolata's been accused of misquotation. Jonathan Kwitny's 1992 book Acceptable Risks--which recounts the controversial efforts of two activists to administer unapproved drug treatments to people with AIDS--cites several people who said Kolata misquoted them in Timescoverage of the same topic.

Kwitny, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, found Kolata's stories "certainly not typical of The New York Times's methods," and wrote: "It is a painful portrait of my profession, journalism, and should be seen by the reader not as what the profession usually does, but as what it is sometimes capable of and must guard against."

Those words sound uncomfortably similar to the assessment made last week of Kolata's current work.

Smacklash

60 Minutes got a little mud on its stopwatch face last week, when the British daily Guardian published an enormous exposé about a documentary called The Connection. The Connectionwas shown on Cinemax last June (here renamed The Drug Run), and previewed exclusively on 60 Minutesin a segment called "The Mule," which was approved by the show's executive producer Don Hewitt.

The Guardian story claims that nearly every aspect of the film--which purported to show associates of the Cali cartel using a new heroin smuggling route from Colombia to Britain--was faked. The bags of "heroin" the drug "mule" swallowed for the camera were, according to a Guardian interview with the mule himself, filled with Certs candies (Marc De Beaufort, the producer, has acknowledged that he didn't verify that the powder was actually heroin). The men captured on film did not fly, as the film claimed, from Colombia to London in a single trip; in fact, they didn't go to London until six months after the initial scenes were shot.

How did 60 Minutes deal with the suggestion it was duped? The show ran this tiny "update" on Sunday: "This week the British newspaper The Guardian charged that the highly acclaimed documentary was a fraud. The program's producer denies the allegation, and Carlton TV, which distributed the film worldwide, says it is investigating. We'll keep you posted."

Granted, if 60 Minutes was hoodwinked, it was not alone, and its on-air snippet is more than HBO-Cinemax has done to date. But viewers were given absolutely no sense of the details of the Guardian series. Nor were they told that producer De Beaufort, while defending himself, admits the segments of the film 60 Minutes used were not what they claimed to be.

60 Minutes spokesperson Kevin Tedesco described the situation as a "he said, she said" dilemma that can be resolved only when "senior producers" from 60 Minutes conduct their own investigation. He said that neither correspondent Steve Kroft nor producer John Hamlin--who cut the Cinemax film into the 60 Minutes segment--would be available to discuss how this alleged charade got on the air. That, alas, is exactly the kind of stonewalling one expects 60 Minutes to knock down. Make up your own mind: read the entire Guardianseries at www.guardian.co.uk.

Broken Glass

Why should anyone believe what they read in The New Republic? Monday's Washington Post carried an extremely embarrassing story noting that TNR editor Charles Lane had to fire 25-year-old associate editor Stephen Glass "for fabricating characters and situations'' in at least five TNR stories. The mag claims to have fact-checkers, but Glass evidently fooled them. A Forbes Web sitestory said that Glass and his brother "concocted a fake corporate site . . . on America Online, in addition to phony voice and E-mail accounts for all his sources." This, of course, comes on top of the many instances of plagiarism charged to TNR associate editor Ruth Shalit. Why not just change the "associate editor" title to "associate liar"?

Research: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

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