(Part VI) Chicago Tribune Publishes Another Alarmist Mercury in Fish Story

The Chicago Tribune fears that it wasunclear in its previous letters. They wrote back yesterday to reiterate that they believe Mr. Hawthorne’s article was “factual and fair.”

But this rather terse and borderline patronizing missive leads me to question less their conclusion and more how they came to it. As I mentioned before in this blog we have brought examples of violations of journalism standards to papers such as the New York Times and it took the public editor there 30 days to review in full our concerns and offer a public comment. In the end the Times conceded that our concerns were valid. So confident they are in their standards at the Tribune it took a total of 2 days to come to a conclusion that there were no violations and dismiss our request for further investigation.

Let’s take a look at the tribune’s commitment to accuracy: “We take our readers’ concerns about accuracy seriously and will promptly investigate when we are alerted to possible errors.” We have called on the Tribune to fully and fairly investigate not just errors but violations of the basic tenets of journalism and they have refused.

The standards editor first told us, “Michael Hawthorne and I have gone over your letter at length and reviewed the concerns you raised.” Then she told us, “I have reviewed Mr. Hawthorne’s article.” Initially it would appear that unlike a thorough independent review of the issues at hand she AND the reporter reviewed our concerns. If this is not the proverbial fox watching the hen house I don’t know what is. As best can be determined the Chicago Tribune no longer employees a public editor and the standards editor simply refuses to answer whether she is filling that role.

This is not to say that the Tribune doesn’t own up to its mistakes. Even if those mistakes aren’t as black and white as a misspelled name or and incorrect figure. Just a few weeks ago the paper admitted it was wrong when it “left the impression” that President James Madison fathered a child with a slave, a suggestion that has never been proven.

But here we are talking about standards, standards that perhaps have changed at the Tribune as a result of the recent turmoil at the paper and within the company as a whole. As we discuss facts and fairness I do hate to speculate but it would appear that their reporters are free to speculate about the motives of the subjects in their articles so I will take the same privilege.

As the Tribune works on redesigns and focuses on new projects in TV and on the Web it has a new head of Tribune Interactive. The online biography of said executive may be a window into the question of standards I raise. The official online biography of the Tribune Company’s President and CEO describes a native of Chicago and a graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Michigan Law School who supports his alma mater by serving on the President’s Advisory Board at the university- pretty standard. The official online biography of the new media chief use the word “crap” 6 times and quotes him as discussing the “genesis of my crap craft.” While Tribune insists that it “value[s] the creative spirit and [is] nurturing a corporate culture that doesn’t take itself too seriously” perhaps it should take its standards a little more seriously.

Please see the Tribune’s latest letter to us below:

Dear Mr. Gibbons:

Perhaps I was unclear. Let me be specific: With all due respect, I have reviewed Mr. Hawthorne’s article. It is factual and fair.

Of course, I repeat my invitation to submit a letter to Voice of the People. I have cc’d Dodie Hofstetter in case you wish to pursue that avenue.


Margaret Holt

Standards Editor