Mary Katharine Ham

I wrote a column today on how Editor & Publisher and its editor Greg Mitchell had dug themselves into a hole with bloggers. First, Mitchell bashed bloggers instead of refuting their evidence. Then someone at E&P altered the copy on a three-year-old column of Mitchell's after bloggers brought attention to it.

Here's the column, and the Cliffs notes on the Mitchell affair:

Instead of addressing concerns and refuting evidence, Mitchell calls bloggers a bunch of Grassy Knoll-ers intent on discrediting “the media as a whole.” This is not the way to win trust with your audience.

Mitchell then went on to discredit himself within the space of just a couple hours.

On Friday, the Confederate Yankee blog brought attention to a column Mitchell had written in 2003, in which he confessed to making up news as a young reporter. He had been sent out to do a story on Niagara Falls, and found himself unable to talk to tourists to get quotes. So, he sat on a bench and made the quotes up. He confessed his journalistic sin in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal.

Many other blogs picked up on the 2003 column, suggesting that Mitchell might be sympathetic to faked news because he himself had been a faker.

Several hours after Confederate Yankee’s post went up, that blogger noticed the text of the 2003 article had been changed. The lede had gone from this:

Since the press seems to be in full-disclosure mode these days, I want to finally come clean. Back when I worked for the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette (now the Niagara Gazette), our city editor asked me to find out what tourists thought about an amazing local event: Engineers had literally “turned off” the famous cataracts, diverting water so they could shore up the crumbling rock face. Were visitors disappointed to find a trickle rather than a roar? Or thrilled about witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime stunt?

To this (additions in bold):

Since the press seems to be in full-disclosure mode these days, I want to finally come clean. Back in 1967, when I was 19 and worked for the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette (now the Niagara Gazette) as a summer intern, our city editor asked me to find out what tourists thought about an amazing local event: Engineers had literally "turned off" the famous cataracts, diverting water so they could shore up the crumbling rock face. Were visitors disappointed to find a trickle rather than a roar? Or thrilled about witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime stunt?

The column had been edited, without notation, within a couple of hours of bloggers calling attention to it, to emphasize Mitchell’s youth and inexperience at the time of his ethical faux pas. Luckily, several bloggers and the Internet preserved the original piece.

Now, the mystery alterer, whoever he may be, has gone and done it again, in response to these allegations from Dan Riehl:

Based upon the facts and previous statements and articles, it appears as though Editor and Publisher Editor Greg Mitchell may have intentionally misled readers when he allegedly came clean regarding a lapse in journalistic ethics early in his career.

The facts seem to indicate he was a 21 year-old paid professional journalist, not the 19 year-old intern he allowed readers to believe. Mitchell has also previously acknowledged relevant facts he managed to get wrong in his mea culpa as highly memorable events.

Given the additional discovery that he has now gone back three years after the fact to alter the article's lede, thereby reinforcing errors that diminish the significance of his lapse, some may find it difficult to conclude Mitchell's misreporting was anything other than an intentional act.

Looky here! Now there's a correction added to the 2003 column, this time with a note (which is better than before):

CORRECTION, August 27, 2006: Several readers of the 2003 story below have informed us that the water flowing over Niagara Falls was turned off in June 1969, not in 1967, as the article below stated. We have corrected or deleted that date and Mitchell’s age where they appeared in this column. Mitchell worked at the Gazette in the summers of 1968 and 1969 before graduating from college in 1970. The incident recounted below occurred in his second summer at the paper, not in the first, as the original had it.

And, the lede has been changed again, to this:

Since the press seems to be in full-disclosure mode these days, I want to finally come clean. Back when I worked for the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette (now the Niagara Gazette) as a summer intern, our city editor asked me to find out what tourists thought about an amazing local event: Engineers had literally "turned off" the famous cataracts, diverting water so they could shore up the crumbling rock face. Were visitors disappointed to find a trickle rather than a roar? Or thrilled about witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime stunt?

But it retains the "summer intern" addition, which had appeared farther into the column, in the original version, and there's still no explanation of why the column was changed in the first place.

I called Editor & Publisher and asked to speak to Greg Mitchell. I was put through, but got his voicemail:

"I'll be in and out of the office this week, but you can leave a message here."

I bet he will. I'm gonna try back and see if I can get an ombudsman or PR person on the phone, as I'm not optimistic about getting a call back from Mitchell.

Update: I just called again and was put through to another person, who was very helpful and said he would mention my call to Mitchell. I also left Mitchell a message, and that wasn't too long ago. I sent him an e-mail over the weekend as well, so maybe I'll hear from him. I asked if there was a PR person or an ombudsman I should speak to, but the man with whom I spoke made it sound like Mitchell would be the one to speak to it, if anyone did.

I really feel like E&P has to respond to this in some way. I have trouble imagining a good defense for this, but there's got to be some kind of comment. I'll keep you updated.

Update 4:13pm: Gave Mitchell a few hours to call back, then when I didn't hear from him, I tried Will Thoretz, the spokesman for the parent company that publishes E&P's site. (Thanks for the suggestion, CY!) I left a message with his assistant, who said he'd call me back. We'll see, although the spokespeople types are generally better about this kind of stuff than newsmen are. I'll let you know what I hear, if anything.

Update 6:01pm: Wait, did the editor of Editor & Publisher never cover hard news at a newspaper? Dan documents that he seemed to go from his internship at the Niagara Falls paper, to counterculture 'zines, to entertainment news, with a stint at The Nuclear Times in there. Wow, that would be weird.

I just kind of assumed (shouldn't have) that the editor of E&P would have been a fairly prominent newspaper editor at some point, since he edits the trade publication dedicated to covering all the prominent newspapers. Bizarre.


Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of HotAir.com, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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