Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Corrections Department

In a couple of previous posts, I unfairly characterized the coverage of the Irving-Lipstadt trial by T.R. Reid of the Washington Post.

Specifically, in the first post, I charged that Reid hadn't attended the trial itself, but only became involved in coverage of the trial at its tail end. I clarified this further in the second post, but let the charge remain uncorrected.

It is clear to me, after some conversations with Mr. Reid, that he did in fact attend at least several days of the trial itself.

This characterization of his work (largely a surmise from the actual reporting that Mr. Reid produced) was incorrect and unfair. I owe Mr. Reid a sincere apology for that.

However, all other aspects of the posts, including the observation that the Post did not cover the trial in the traditional sense -- which is to say, by assigning a reporter who was there nearly every day, who in addition to regular (if not daily) reports, filed pretrial and postrial reportage as well -- remain uncorrected.


Some background on this:

I was a cops-and-courts reporter for some time, and have covered a number of trials in subsequent years as well (most notably the Washington State Militia trial in 1997 and the Minh Hong/Ocean Shores trial in 2000). "Covering a trial" has always meant, for me, two things: a) having a reporter there for most court sessions, and b) consequently providing your readers with regular reports from the court. I've also attended sessions of certain trials (notably the Montana Freemen's trial), but decline to claim I've "covered" those trials.

I've always tended to take a dim view of those of my colleagues (TV reporters and major-metro types especially) who show up on the day the trial opens and then return the day of the verdict, and then proceed to report on it as though they were as expert on its contents as the rest of us (and often, subsequently, go on to claim they've covered the trial). This is, of course, something of a gross insult to those who've done the nitty-gritty work of sitting through those tedious daily court sessions and gleaning facts from them, reporting on the ebb and flow of testimony as it occurs.

From the outside, it certainly appeared that this was what Reid had done at the Irving trial. If you look at the index compiled by Dan Yurman of the Irving trial coverage, you'll note that there were some 430 pieces written on the trial -- nearly four months' worth of coverage -- before the Post ran any pieces on it by Reid. This first piece, titled "Historians Fight Battle of the Books," ran April 6, 2000 (the trial opened on Jan. 11 that year). This was just after closing arguments. Reid wrote only one other piece on the trial, from April 12, describing Lipstadt's court victory.

My characterization of Reid's work, though, jumped the gun. He wrote me over the weekend:
I see from your web site that you are an award-winning journalist. So I'd expect you'd would want to be sure you have the facts straight before you report something. But your "reporting" about T. R. Reid's coverage of the Lipstadt-Irving trial is wrong.

You didn't bother to check with me before maligning me. And Dan Yurman specifically told you that your reporting on me was wrong.

You say I did no reporting on the London trial, and did not attend it. But this is wrong. I interviewed almost all the principals, plus lawyers, historians, etc. I did attend the trial, over and over again.

You also "report" that I didn't mention on C-SPAN the historians who testified. If you would watch the program, you'll see that that I did.

Once again I ask you to correct your mistakes about my reporting. When you post these errors, they show up all over the Internet, copied by people who believe, incorrectly, that David Neiwert is a reporter who checks his facts before writing.

I don't understand why you're so reluctant to get this right.

I replied:
I'm more than happy to run a correction if I'm factually in error; however, like any journalist, I also want to make sure the correction is accurate.

For instance, you'll have seen, I'm sure, the fact that I clarified what I meant by saying that you didn't cover the trial: Specifically, I meant that you didn't cover it in the traditional sense of having provided the Post's readers with reportage from the trial as it happened. Why should I correct that when it's a simple part of the record that there were no stories in the Post on this trial until the judge began deliberating?

I'm an old cops-and-courts reporter, Mr. Reid, so perhaps you'll excuse me if I'm over-rigorous, but for me, "covering a trial" means something specifically: being there every day of the trial itself and, if I'm writing for a daily, filing daily reports from the trial. If I can't make it (not an uncommon occurrence), I've always made sure I had immediate access to transcripts or other details of what transpired. Trial coverage, to me, also includes pretrial reporting; that is, not merely gathering info before the trial, but also providing my paper's readers with background before the trial even begins. And you don't appear to have provided that, either.

I've covered over the years several federal trials. I've also, as it happens, been forced to only partially cover other federal trials, poking my head in when possible. In these latter cases, I've always been careful not to claim that I actually covered the trial. Because, as you know, covering a trial daily provides you with real expertise in its contents in a way that secondary coverage simply cannot.

Now, I was careful to say that it only appears that you didn't cover the trial, because I couldn't say so definitively. But your protests notwithstanding, I haven't seen any indication that you actually did. The trial, after all, lasted 32 days -- not counting the days the judge spent deliberating, and the announcement of the verdict. How many days did you actually sit through the court session? I'm not insisting, of course, that you have covered every single day, but in order to claim you covered the trial, you should at least be able to demonstrate you were there a majority of the time the court was in session.

But if you can at least do that, I will correct my post to indicate that you did cover the trial, and will offer an unconditional apology. However, regardless of your work, I will note that the Post itself (as per my description) did not cover the trial until its end. Because as far as the Post's readers were concerned, there was no coverage of it at all until the final stages. Certainly there were no regular dispatches.

I'm hoping we can clear this up to everyone's satisfaction.

He responded:
As you know, it's fairly common for a foreign correspondent to put in days, or sometimes weeks, of work to produce one or two stories. I did cover the trial, in the traditional sense and every other sense. I did do "pre-reporting," days and days of it, and in fact interviewed everybody I could find, including the principals.

It's not surprising that the WashPost didn't have room for a daily file from a trial in London. I don't think any American paper did. For that matter, I don't think the London papers ran stories every day. Given all that was going on in the world in early 2000, I think our coverage was about right. We fronted the trial at the end, and I think we gave our readers a good picture of what happened. That was possible because I was there covering the trial even when we didn't run stories on it.

I don't understand why you didn't contact me before you wrote about what I was doing in the winter of 2000. I don't understand why you are so reluctant now to get this right.

Actually, I'm quite serious about getting this right, which is why I've been trying to explore the facts of it with Mr. Reid and weigh them.

One minor point, first of all: I didn't "report" that Reid didn't mention on C-SPAN the historians who testified. What I said was this:
The worst part of Reid's description of the trial was his failure to explain the many historical facets that emerged, particularly the testimony of other historians that laid bare the utter poverty of Irving's methodology. He regaled the TV audience with quaint details about the courtroom setting and the appearances of the bewigged barrister, solicitors, and judge -- but seemed incapable of describing some of the key historical points involved.

... Reid also was content to characterize the bulk of Irving's "Holocaust denial" as consisting of a claim he actually does make: that Hitler himself was unaware of the mass murder operation his underlings had set into motion. This is, of course, only a small portion of the distortions and falsehoods which he promotes.

I stand by that in every regard, and I think a review of the C-SPAN program will corroborate it.

More to the point, I think it's instructive to look at reportage from other major American news outlets. Returning again to the index of Irving coverage, you'll note that, for instance, Ray Moseley of the Chicago Tribune filed a story from the trial's opening day, and continued to file stories for its duration (again on Jan. 23, Feb. 4, March 11, and March 16), finishing with verdict coverage on April 12. D.D. Gutenplan wrote a piece for the New York Times on the case June 25, 1999 (the first piece in the index) and went on to file dispatches for the Atlantic and Guardian on the trial, as well as conducting a couple of NPR radio interviews. Guttenplan, who evidently did attend nearly all of the trial, is writing a book on it as well. Both of these constitute what I would fairly characterize as having covered the trial.

Perhaps more comparably, the Los Angeles Times ran a pretrial story on the Irving matter Jan. 7, and an opening-day piece Jan. 12, but had only a few pieces in between, with a wrapup on April 12.

At the same time, it's perhaps worth noting that when it comes to covering the Michael Jackson trial, the Post so far been running nearly daily reports (mostly by Libby Copeland). That too would constitute what I think most journalists and editors see as "covering the trial." I'm sure a case can be readily made that the Jackson trial is the more newsworthy and significant of the two, but I'm not sure I want to hear it.

As Yurman has noted in my comments, there are more than a few mitigating circumstances, of course: Being a foreign-office bureau chief is usually a thankless and over-assigned affair, and reporters like Reid are always being spread thin. He also had to cover proceedings in the Augusto Pinochet trial there that winter. Much as I might not have liked the Post's choices, they were at least defensible.

What's not as defensible, I think, is the relatively thin gruel that Reid served up for BookTV's national audience -- a natural result, I think, of his not having read Lipstadt's book. I also think, given what we saw on TV, it remains an open question just how deeply Reid was acquainted with the trial testimony; "days and days" certainly represents honest and hard work, but I still doubt that he comes close to having attended a majority of the trial's 32 days.

That said, I'd like to also apologize to my readers for this bit of sloppiness. I can't promise it won't happen again, but I can only try.

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