By Tracy Dingmann
Every once in a while during my days as a newspaper reporter, a reader would call me up and demand a “retraction.”
I would find out what was bothering them – usually a singular point like an incorrect time or phone number or name – and then explain that what they probably wanted was a correction.
That’s what newspapers print when they want to set the record straight on an outright error in a story – or more rarely, a mistaken or incorrect characterization of something in the piece.
A retraction is something else entirely – a complete repudiation of the entire piece – and most newspapers rarely, if ever, have had to take such drastic action (although The Washington Post circa 1980 does come to mind…Anyone remember “Jimmy’s World” and the Pulitzer Prize the Post had to give back?)
But what happens when a written piece is shot through with so many errors that its entire premise is rendered false?
Two New Mexico online news sites decided that the penalty for that is indeed retraction – and they did it by completely removing a locally written column from their site.
The piece in question was a guest column written by Marita K. Noon, who, according to her column bio in the Albuquerque Journal, is executive director of Citizens Alliance for Responsible Energy, a group funded by 250 members including New Mexico oil and gas producers.
(The Albuquerque Journal has run several of Noon’s guest commentaries on its editorial page, including most recently, a prominent piece in the Sunday, Aug. 30 edition.)
On Aug. 6, the online site Heath Haussamen on New Mexico Politics ran a piece by Noon called “Fact Over Fiction On Fishing” that supposedly deconstructed arguments made by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation about whether oil and gas drilling had affected fishing on the San Juan River. A few hours later, Noon’s column was gone and replaced with this statement from Haussamen:
On Sunday, Aug. 23, Noon’s exact same piece appeared in the print and online editions of the Farmington Daily Times. The next day, it was removed from the paper’s online edition. On Aug. 30, the Daily Times carried a guest column from New Mexico Wildlife Federation executive director Jeremy Vesbach, explaining inaccuracies in Noon’s column and laying out what the group actually stands for.
What’s the back-story?
I spoke with Haussamen, a longtime blogger and former newspaper reporter who often features a variety of opinions from local writers in guest columns on his site. Haussamen told me that he published a few columns by Noon in the weeks before and had never had any problems.
Then he ran Noon’s “Fact Over Fiction” and immediately found out there were serious problems with the piece.
“This one had some factual inaccuracies,” Haussamen said. “Basically, once I became aware of them, I pulled it off. I don’t knowingly run things that contain factual inaccuracies. I have a link on my site to my ethical guidelines. The top one is being factual.”
Vesbach confirmed that he contacted Haussamen about the inaccuracies in Noon’s piece.
“As soon as I brought it to his attention, he contacted me immediately,” said Vesbach, who then provided Haussamen with proof that Noon had clearly taken statements from the federation’s Spring 2009 newsletter, The Outdoor Reporter, and distorted them.
“He said he had a retraction policy in place and he implemented it,” Vesbach said.
Vesbach was able to prove that Noon’s piece incorrectly characterized a personal statement made by one person in the NMWF newsletter as the official position of the entire group.
She also “pulled two sentences together to make it seem like we were saying the opposite of what we said. She started quoting one sentence, skipped over 45 words, used dot dot dot and patched together the last half of some other sentence,” Vesbach said.
Other smaller inaccuracies added up to one big false argument, he said.
“What she tried to say was in our publication was the exact opposite of what we said.
We were fortunate, because in our newsletter we had a very clear record of what we were trying to say.”
It is difficult sometimes to score legitimate criticism of a piece when it differs from your opinion, said Vesbach. But this wasn’t just a difference of opinion.
“She was just trying to set us up with a position we don’t have. She was just making things up outright,” he said.
“This is the first time I have had to retract something that I or someone else has written,” Haussamen said this week. He was reluctant to say Noon’s been banned from his site, but added, “I think the fact that I retracted something she wrote and haven’t run anything by her since speaks for itself.”
Imagine Vesbach’s consternation when Noon’s discredited piece popped up in Sunday’s Farmington Daily Times. He called the editor on Monday and showed him proof of the inaccuracies.
“Before I even asked, they took it down. They pulled it down from the website and offered to let us submit a correction. I asked for equivalent placement in a Sunday edition. (That piece ran in the paper’s Aug. 30 edition.)
For me, all of this – especially in light of the fact that the Journal continues to run Noon- raises a couple of questions. A columnist the Journal features prominently has now been discredited and removed from two different sites. Did the Journal know about Noon’s problems when they featured her piece on Sunday? Do they care?
It also has me musing on the oft-cited criticism that what you read on blogs is automatically less ethical or reliable than what you find on a traditional news site.
I think Haussamen’s policies and his actions regarding Noon’s piece shows differently.
“Most ethical standards hold true no matter what format you’re working in,” said
Haussamen, who add that his “fairly standard” journalistic code includes being factual, treating people fairly, not plagiarizing and not using anonymous sources. (Note: Haussamen clarifies that he does very rarely use anonymous sources, but only after a following a strict protocol, which you will find here.)
“A lot of blogs don’t have ethical standards or policies for publishing comments. And I think they should have both. I have policies on comments and on verifications and retractions. I do that for two reasons. One, to let people know what kind of site I intend to publish, and two, to hold myself accountable.”
Glad to hear it.
I’m just wondering where Marita K. Noon will pop up next.
UPDATE (9/3/09): Well, I didn’t have to wait long to see where Marita K. Noon popped up again.
Turns out that on Aug. 27, the Mountain View Telegraph ran the very same column that was retracted last month for factual inaccuracies by both Heath Haussamen on New Mexico Politics (now nmpolitics.net) and the Farmington Daily Times.
The Mountain View Telegraph is owned by the publisher of the Albuquerque Journal.
Stay tuned for more soon about what happens next.