The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, March 04, 2004

Altogether too much whooping over Uli Schmetzer's demise

I mentioned on January 29 the Private Eye cover Verwoerd: A Nation Mourns as descriptive of the Schadenfreude of sections of American journalism over the discomfiture of the BBC resulting from the Hutton Report.

I sense a small-scale version of much of the same over the Chicago Tribune's prompt dismissal of contract writer (or freelance) Uli Schmetzer.

Ombud Don Wycliff adopts a statesmanlike tone in his piece on the affair [1]. His final, end-credits-VO [2], hyperbolic graf can scarcely suppress the smirking:
I doubt that anyone here at the Tribune takes any delight in this -- I certainly hope not. It is a profoundly sad and sobering event. But all of us recognize we are part of an institution and a profession whose existences depend on being credible to our readers. If we lose that, we have no reason for being.

The details may be had of Tim Blair who made the spot. Schmetzer's offence - to attribute a quote from an acquaintance to a fictional person - is clearly one of intent rather than negligence. An open-and-shut case, surely?

Why am I too not high-fiving it with Brer Wycliff and the Trib newsroom?

Because, compared to some of the journalistic distortion and sharp practice detailed here over the months, Schmetzer's case vanishes to the width of an atom. Can you say, Scapegoat?

Let's review one or two items on the rap-sheet:

The putrid racket of anonymous government sources (March 1), for instance, which ombuds are wont to tut-tut over, generally just before they shrug their shoulders.

The conventions of objective journalism, which reports pols spouting complete bollocks [3], but cordons off its explanation of the errors to a different article, or different page, or different section. If they're corrected at all.

And the dysfunctional relationship of the golden names of the media with the US Administration - as illustrated by coverage of USG's justifications for the invasion of Iraq in the run-up to war and since: on which there is a Columbia Journalism Review article by Chris Mooney that I am looking forward to reading.

The trouble, from a PR point of view, with these suppurating wens on the face of American journalism is that to make any progress towards a cure would require a long-term commitment of resources and senior management time.

Kicking out a guy like Schmetzer does not.

It's classic misdirection. Poor Schmetzer will be remembered as often as the Maine when the Trib comes to rebutting complaints about its coverage: Schmetzer will surely be used as a talisman to ward off suggestions that the rag is not serious about rooting out bad practice.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking that there may be some guys in the newsroom with skeletons in their cupboards who are
  1. breathing a sigh of relief that the bullet had Schmetzer's name on it, and not theirs; and

  2. figuring that, if someone opens that cupboard in the near future, the Trib bosses won't be wanting to confess to another snafu so soon after Schmetzer's.

We'll see...

  1. You may need the usual.

  2. Peter Sellers' Balham: Gateway to the South, anyone?

  3. Kerry and death row DNA, for instance (March 2).

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