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'If it's right, very good. If it's wrong, not very bad.' (ombudsmen) (column)

Takeshi Maezawa, ombudsman at the Yomiuri Shimbun, was shocked! Doubly shocked! He was shocked at what the baseball reporters had done. And he was shocked that one of them was shameless enough to write about it.

Here's the story as Maezawa tells it in his column:

Masanao Nakamura, reporter for the Daily Sports, was bar-hopping in Hakata with other reporters assigned to cover Hideo Nomo, hotshot rookie pitcher for the Pacific League's Kinfetsu Buffaloes. They were awaiting the outcome of the Seibu Lions game against the Lotte Orions. If Lions pitcher Hisanobu Watanabe should lose, then rookie Nomo would become the league leader in four categories: wins, winning percentage, earned-run average and strikeouts.

They got the word: Watanabe had lost. Now they needed a reaction comment from Nomo. They called his hotel room. No answer. He had disappeared from the hotel!

"We had to have a comment from Nomo," Nakamura wrote later. So they got together and "agreed" on what Nomo would say. "We had to compose his comment from understanding his previous remarks and conduct," Nakamura told Maezawa later.

The next day the writers found Nomo, explained what they had done, and, according to Nakamura, Nomo said, "That's good; I have no complaint about that."

The quotes appeared as follows:

In the Daily Sports: "'Is that so?' Nomo said. 'Since theeginning I have never worried about other players, just about doing my best. Also, the season isn't over yet. When everything is finished, I suppose I will feel as if so-called titles are a reality.'"

In the Sankei Sports: "'As the season isn't over yet,' Nomo said, 'I have nothing to say myself. If I am leading in wins at the end of the season, I suppose it will feel real then.'"

In the Hochi Shimbun: "'As the season isn't over yet,' Nomo said, 'I have never worried about other players. Maybe, at the end of the season (the titles) will feel real. Now I'm only concerned with winning the next game.'"

"No such fabrications appeared in general dailies," Maezawa wrote.

Maezawa learned of the faked quotes in an article ironically headlined, "Covering Nomo," written by Nakamura in the Nipon Press Club Bulletin.

Nomo confirmed the story, and his team's public relations person said such fictions are common in the sports newspapers. They manifest a policy called "kakidoku," he said. Maezawa said kakidoku can be interpreted as, "Write something even if it might be false. If it's right, very good. If it's wrong, not very bad."

Maezawa ranked the practice right up there with Janet Cooke's fabrication of Jimmy, the 8-year-old heroin addict, in The Washington Post. He asked rhetorically, "Should we admit special standards for sports pages or (sports) newspapers that are different from those of other media?"

His answer was an unequivocal no: "Fabrication of any story, fact or quotation is the most shameful conduct for a journalist and a basic violation of media ethics."

For support he referred to the Ontario Press Council's recent decision in a conflict-of-interest complaint against a Toronto Sun sports editor. The newspaper contended that "one does not look in the sports pages for objectivity." The press council rejected the newspaper's argument and found the complaint valid.

In the Japanese case Maezawa said the Nipon Press Club became an accomplice in the Nakamura deception when it published his article without any comment that "such an incident is a travesty of journalistic ethics."

It's hard to tell whether Nakamura was chastened by Maezawa's indignation. He said, "I heard no complaints after the essay was printed. I realize now that I damaged my colleagues by carelessly relating this episode to illustrate inside affairs."

"I had the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that I was doing things no one had ever done before in journalism."

Tom Wolfe, The New Journalism

Unwanted watchdog

The newsroom was bursting with pride, wrote Kerry Sipe, public editor of The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star in Norfolk, Virginia.

"Reporters and editors have been reminded why they became journalists in the first place. They have seen truth prevail over a lie. A wrong has been set right. A man who turned to the press after all else failed him, has cried out in gratitude, 'Thank God for The Virginia-Pilot.'"

But if the Virginia journalists thought their readers would rejoice with them, they were disappointed. Their effort was dismissed as sensationalist, racist and worse.

At issue was the newspaper's performance in the case of Melvin Moore, a 22-year-old black college student, who police said was arrested with an armful of clothes by an off-duty security guard during the Greekfest riots in Virginia Beach in 1989. Moore denied he had been involved in the looting, denied he had touched the clothes and said he had been beaten by a police officer after the security guard handcuffed him.

Nevertheless, he was charged, tried and convicted of petty theft and burglary. His conviction hung largely on the testimony of the security guard, who testified that Moore had been the leader of a group of 50 youths who had ransacked a store.

Last fall, months after Moore's conviction, he wrote a desperate letter to Virginia Beach reporter Jim Haner proclaiming his innocence and asking the newspaper to investigate. He said his parents had spent $12,000 trying to defend him, and when he had been convicted, the Navy had torn up his enlistment contract, thereby cutting him off from the medical career he had dreamed of. Moore said he had written to national television investigative and talk shows without result.

Haner began what turned out to be an eight-week investigation culminating in a page-and-a-half story pointing up contradictions and inconsistencies in the case against Moore. He found, first of all, that the police had not investigated the security guard's story, and as soon as Haner began his own investigation, he found that, as he wrote later, the guard "had tol different stories at different times to different people."

The manager of the looted store, for example, said the guard had given him the names of two white men who had allegedly been in the store. But the guard testified in court that he never knew their names. Similarly the guard first said that a white civilian had hit Moore with a stick. But when a witness alerted by the newspaper investigation insisted that it was a police officer who hit Moore, the guard changed his story and identified a particular officer as the attacker. However, an investigation (which included a lie detector test) showed that the accused officer was home in bed with this wife at the time.

Finally, Haner learned from a secret source he considered incontrovertible that the security guard, who, like Moore, was 22, had been posing as a police officer in various Tidewater communities since he was 17 -- even to the point of wearing clothes that looked like police uniforms and driving a police car he bought at an auction. All this was known, but no action had been taken against the guard nor had his story been subjected to the kind of scrutiny dictated by his history.

As the security officer's story began to unravel on the front page of the newspaper in mid-November, other witnesses came forward and helped the process along. Finally, on November 30, Commonwealth Attorney Robert J. Humphreys acknowledged that his chief witness had lied under oath and asked the court "as a matter of fundamental fairness" to void Moore's conviction.

That had been the newspaper's goal, said Haner. From the start the guiding principle had been not to prove Moore was innocent, but only that he had been unjustly convicted.

Hooray for the newspaper? Forget it! Sipe quoted excerpts from the people who called him:

"How long are we going to have to see 'Greekfest, Greekfest, Greekfest' on your front page? What makes you think this is what people want to read?"

"The Greekfest case concerning Melvin Moore probably has had more coverage than World War II in this paper . . . . It appears you have a vendetta against the Virginia Beach police and the city of Virginia Beach."

"I am really upset the way this thing is being driven down everybody's throat."

Some readers canceled their subscriptions. One business man demanded that the newsspapers remove their vending machines from his property. The editors were accused of being unfair, careless, sensational, biased and negative. Some whites accused the newspapers of taking up Moore's case simply because he is black. Some blacks were suspicious of the paper's intent.

Sipe filled in some background: The riots remain a disgraceful sore in the minds of many area residents. They believe the difficulties under which the police worked have never been adequately recognized. Moore was one of a tiny handful convicted of crimes connected with the looting and the only one convicted of a felony; were the newspapers now determined to get even him off the hook? And, finally, the newspapers were not modest about their discoveries; they played them on page one day after day for two weeks.

The prosecutor's complaints were predictable: He did not, he said, begrudge the newspaper credit for coming to the rescue of a man who had been "jammed by the system"; Jim Haner "probably ought to get some kind of award for that," said Humphreys.

But, he said, "(Haner) just has not been objective or fair in the way he has presented the involvement of the police department . . .

"I just have never, ever seen a story that, to my judgment, got attention that was all out of proportion to what happened. I felt like this was not a case where the facts were being reported; I felt like this was a crusade by the newspaper."

What would the prosecutor have preferred? A small story inside the paper, he told Sipe. If he had seen such a story, he assured Sipe, he would have opened an investigation of the security officer's testimony, and the result would have been the same.

Dennis Hartig didn't buy that. Hartig is the assistant managing editor responsible for the Moore stories. He said, "There are some truths that just won't be revealed except by the press, no matter how good the process is. In the Moore case everybody did what they were supposed to do. There was a fair trial, but in the end a wrong was done, and the only safety valve for the correction of that wrong was the press."

Sipe commented: "Whether one views the press as a vigilant watchdog or a vicious cur depends largely on which way its muzzle is pointing. Some people find it uncomfortable to see respected institutions such as the police, the courts and the government beleaguered by the press. And, yes, journalists have been guilty of excesses and abuses, maybe on this story, maybe not, but certainly on other stories.

"The relationship between a free press and government isn't always nice and neat, and it doesn't always produce results that are satisfactory to everybody. It hasn't in Mr. Moore"s case."

When Sipe's column appeared, revealing the criticism to which the newspaper had been subjected, there was a wave of support for the journalists, not only from spokespeople for black community organizations but from white suburnites. They apparently found raucous journalism preferable to an unjust prosecution.

Richard P. Cunningham, former readers' repesentative for the Minneapolis Tribune and associate director of the late National News Council, teaches journalism at New York University.
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Author:Cunningham, Richard
Publication:The Quill
Article Type:column
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Words:1907
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