The lesson behind the AP's sacking of reporter Christopher Newton (it's not what you think).
By Jack Shafer
Posted Tuesday, October 29, 2002, at 3:19 PM PT
The Associated Press accused Washington bureau reporter Christopher Newton of journalistic fraud last month and sacked him. The AP alleges that in at least 40 of the many hundred stories Newton wrote for the wire service between Jan. 13, 2000, and Sept. 8, 2002, Newton quoted sources who appear not to exist. Some of Newton's ghosts, such as political science professor "Patrick Delraj," were placed at real institutions, such as the University of California. In other stories, Newton conjured real-sounding organizations from which his dramatis personae spoke. "Robert Janson" toiled at the nonexistent "Voice for the Disabled"; "Thomas Jakes" served as president of "People for Civil Rights"; "Angelica Victor" did her business at the "Education Alliance," and "Bruce Fenmore" did his at the "Institute for Crime and Punishment in Chicago." The AP was finally alerted to Newton's alleged embellishing by a New York Times reporter.
We should all throw our hands up in the air, of course, and curse the name of Christopher Newton if, as the AP says, he folded fiction into the dry facts that the AP dispenses to the 15,200 newspapers and broadcasters around the world. If Newton violated the journalist's credo to tell the truth, we should strip him naked, drag him into the Chihuahuan Desert, smear him with honey, and feed him to the fire ants. And if he is still unrepentant, we should convene a special session of the Committee of Concerned Journalists to ponder the ethical implications his alleged offense.
But before we commence our vilification of Newton we should return to the scenes of the alleged crime and review both Newton's modus operandi and that of the AP. What does it say about AP methods and practices that nobody caught him over the course of 32 months?
The massive driftnet that is the Associated Press captures, processes, and transmits a staggering 20 million words of copy a day. While its scoop-laden reporting is indispensable for newspapers when breaking news develops in the provinces or distant parts of the globe, newspapers find the AP eminently dispensable if they have the time and money to dispatch their own reporter to the story. Given the choice, many regional newspapers will dump the AP and pick up the more artfully written copy from the wire services of the New York Times, the Washington Post-Los Angeles Times, or even Knight-Ridder as soon as those papers start filing from the story. Newspapers dump AP not because AP copy isn't good but because AP's masters, the 1,550 U.S. daily newspaper members who run it as a not-for-profit cooperative, designed it primarily to produce hard news, not beautiful news. The AP is supposed to deliver just the facts, ma'am.
Against that backdrop, Christopher Newton did OK for himself. Moving from AP's Harrisburg, Pa., bureau to Washington in December 2000‚ (about a year after his alleged fabrications began‚) Newton mostly covered generic breaking news, writing stories in the 600-to-800 word range that react to a news event or to the official news disgorged by government agency or court.
Christopher Newton's copy requires the willpower of a Stoic to read, let alone report and write. It's like drinking a flat near beer. Unlike his comrade in concoction, the New Republic's Stephen Glass, Newton didn't tart up his copy with made-up conservative sex orgies or "Monicondoms" (Monica Lewinsky themed novelty condoms) to make his copy more saleable. Unlike onetime Slate contributor Jay Forman, who added lies to a story to make it sound more exciting, Newton took the opposite tack, making the stories less interesting‚ (if that's possible‚) by inserting insipid invented quotations that read like blurred type. For quotations from all of Newton's disputed talking heads, see this sidebar. Here's a sampler of the watery sound bites from Newton's ghosts (all presumably fictitious organizations have been italicized):
"Anyone who has used a database knows it is not an exact science," said John Martin of Consumer Reports.
"This is great because it will hopefully embarrass the Bush administration into action," said researcher Tim Dale of the Malen Clinic in New York. "At the very least it will make them explain themselves."
"If you don't have money, you can wait." Jennifer Talles, a spokeswoman for the Western Association for Immigration Rights, said, "Why do we need a program that tells immigrants we value them based on how much money they have?"
"It's a two-birds-with-one-stone situation," said Patrick Delraj, a political science professor at the University of California. "He's laying groundwork to be in a stronger position next time around."
"Inevitably, if America captures bin Laden there will be an outcry to let him be handled by the U.N.," said Aljid Darah, an attorney who works with the Arab American Institute.
"Like nothing else, wars and death change generations of people," said Alan Douglas, a sociologist at Princeton University. "It changes the way they vote, it changes what they think is important. It affects when they get married and how many children they have."
"We desperately need to bring China into the fold and stop having silly spats that keep our relationship off track," said Richard Daisly, a professor of foreign trade and economics at Vanderbilt University and an adviser for AOL Time Warner.
"It's not that people don't remember Sept. 11. It's that they do remember the Constitution," said Francis Neil, a University of Colorado civil liberties researcher.
None of Newton's disputed talking heads are the primary sources for the stories. They appear halfway or two-thirds of the way through his stories, very much according to the AP formula, to contribute the opposing view of a professor or an interest group spokesperson to a government study or a policy change. Content-free, these clichéd sound bites add nothing to the story except to say that there's another side to the story. Did an overworked Newton overstuff his copy with invented sources to satisfy the modular instructions of his editors to present the opposing view? Or was something more sinister afoot? Was he demonstrating his disdain for the AP formula by substituting into the assigned module the linguistic equivalent of a string of zeros and then laughing furtively when neither his editors nor the public noticed the switch?
Damn Newton if he did either, but his gambit is maybe only as half as dishonorable for what passes for proper journalism. Every day, thousands of reporters pad their stories to fit the stock news formula. Like casting agents, they phone around looking for the precise quotation their story needs to appear "balanced." They lead their witnesses with language such as, "So would you say ...?" or asking the question five different ways until they get the right quotation to fit their predetermined thesis and complete the formula. If it's a journalistic crime for Christopher Newton to invent characters who mouth empty but passable clichés, what's the name of the offense when respectable reporters deliberately harvest the same worthless clichés from bona fide sources?
Was Newton's greatest offense one of banality? AP's spokeswoman Kelly Smith Tunney told the New York Times as much when she said the quotations went unnoticed because they were "innocuous" and "tangential." The sound bites "didn't raise any flags," AP Senior Vice President Jonathan Wolman told the Washington Post, because none of them were "very snappy or snazzy." In other words, nobody thought to dispute the AP quotations because there was no "there there" to dispute. But if the quotations were so empty, why didn't AP's editors strike them in the first place?
The Newton affair indicates that nobody out in newspaperland reads AP copy very carefully. Newton cited nonexistent academic sources at Harvard, Princeton, Penn, Vanderbilt, Chicago, Cal, Texas, Texas Tech, New Mexico, Colorado, and George Washington before a reference to a phantom Stanford source finally exposed him. If you don't read newspaper stories carefully, maybe it's that, as Michael Kinsley once complained in a Slate memo, "American journalism is encrusted with useless anecdotes." Even wire copy, which should be transparent and lucid, has become so barnacled that readers have learned to skim through the "innocuous" and "tangential" in their search for quintessence.