Friday, May 14, 2004

CONFUSION AND INCOMPETENCE. Boston Globe ombudsman Christine Chinlund gets a B-minus today for her assessment of what went wrong with those hardcore porn pictures that made their way into the Globe on Wednesday. The photos were promoted by Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner and local activist Sadiki Kambon as possibly depicting US soldiers raping Iraqi women.

Chinlund is utterly believable in describing the comedy of errors that led to a photo's being published in which the porn pictures were visible. In newsrooms, as in life, whenever a mistake can be explained in terms of confusion and incompetence rather than malicious intent, go with confusion and incompetence.

It remains inexplicable how or why Globe editors, once they realized they had a problem, decided merely to shrink the photo rather than pull it altogether. Yes, shrinking did make the porn more difficult to see, but come on folks. Get it out of there. Chinlund writes:

First edition carried the Page B2 photo three columns wide - big enough to make out the roughly 1-inch square sexual images within it. In later editions it was made smaller at the request of Michael Larkin, a deputy managing editor, who said that although he could not discern the sexual images on the page proof he viewed, he wanted to play it safe, given the story's content.

Play it safe? Playing with fire is more like it.

Where Chinlund falls short is in her narrowly stubborn insistence that because she couldn't find the porn photos on the Internet, she can't verify that Turner and Kambon were indeed passing off porn shots as evidence of American atrocities:

Various sources last week said the photos displayed by Turner came from a pornography website, and they may well have, although I could not trace it to the source. I did find one news website with a note from a woman identified as the porn site operator. She was quoted as saying the images, shot in Hungary, had been removed because they were used for anti-American purposes.

This morning I did my regular Friday-morning stint on The Pat Whitley Show, on WRKO Radio (AM 680). Whitley and his producer, Amy Hirshberg, told me that on Wednesday, when they were first alerted to the Globe's miscue, they were able to find the photos on a porn site within minutes. Since then, they said, the site has been taken down.

Chinlund also fails to acknowledge that Sherrie Gossett has done some very credible reporting on the origin of these photos for In fact, a Globe editorial today blasting Turner for his "reckless and inflammatory" actions is better on this score, forthrightly stating, "Turner's photos appear to match ones found on a pornographic website."

In the Boston Herald, columnist Cosmo Macero today criticizes (sub. req.) the Globe for reporting on Turner and Kambon's news conference, noting that other journalists who attended the conference decided it wasn't worthy of public attention. Macero observes that the article written by the Globe reporter who covered the news conference, Donovan Slack, was "loaded ... with expressed doubts about the photos' authenticity."

The Globe certainly could have chosen not to run the story. Maybe that would have been a better decision than the one its editors made. But Slack's story wasn't the problem. Metro editor Carolyn Ryan told Chinlund, "Our intent ... was to bring some scrutiny to allegations" that Turner had made, "specifically his claims that he had evidence of extensive abuse committed by US soldiers." Slack's story succeeded in doing that.

Unfortunately, as Chinlund notes, the photo not only became the story, but it also cast Slack's report in a "less skeptical" light.

By the way, the Wall Street Journal's "Best of the Web" site leads with the Globe controversy, and relies heavily on Media Log's running coverage. So please check it out.

And barring any further developments, that's a wrap.

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