Cheat-Seeking Missles

Thursday, March 23, 2006

NYTimes' Credibility Problem

Just last week, Donna Fenton was a Katrina evacuee with a sad tale of hardship that the NYTimes profiled. The story led with:

Donna Fenton no longer consults the scrap of paper in her pocketbook when she needs the phone number for the Red Cross, or New York City's welfare office, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I know them all by heart," said Ms. Fenton, 37, who left Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home there. "I call them every day. That's my job."

She starts in the morning, calling from the rooms she and her family share at a Ramada hotel near La Guardia Airport, or from the hotel's basement conference room. She knows what numbers will lead to someone helpful and the ones that will plunge her into a thicket of indifference or incomprehension. She keeps going for hours, sometimes until 3 o'clock the next morning.

The days and nights can blur together, a fog of dial tones, beige wallpaper and overly cheerful automated voices. "Everything they asked for, I sent in," she said. "I sent it in the second time, and then I sent it in a third time."

What she wants, she says, is enough money to move into a new apartment in New York, so she can begin anew the life that Katrina ripped apart. "It wasn't like we had any luxuries," she said. "But we were scraping by."

Turns out all she really wanted was to scam somebody into giving her an apartment. There's no Biloxi in her past, no Katrina, so today's NYTimes had to admit:
The police arrested a Queens woman yesterday, saying she had falsely claimed to be a victim of Hurricane Katrina and had taken thousands of dollars in aid from state and federal agencies.

The woman, Donna Fenton, 37, was charged by Brooklyn prosecutors with several counts of welfare fraud and grand larceny, the latest additions to a long record of fraud, arrests and legal disputes stretching from Mississippi to New York.

The full report is a three-clicker. Three clicks not so much on on failed fact-checking, sloppy reporting, and bias -- in this case, a bias for seeing the government underperform, for seeing victimhood celebrated -- but rather, three clicks' worth of body slams into Ms. Fenton.

The body slams may be well deserved; she's a seasoned crook stealing from the public trough. But the article needed to slam the NYTimes. It needed to name names. Nicholas Confessore wrote both stories, but only refers to "the reporter" in the confession. Neither does he name the editors and fact-checkers who handled the story.

Public embarassment could motivate more professional work, but MSM always protects itself, at the expense of its believability and reputation.

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