Sympathy for the Devil (Almost)

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The latest journalism scandal evokes memories of the man in the street

By Michael Ray Taylor
Henderson State University

On Nov. 8, after a lengthy investigation, the Houston Chronicle retracted eight articles written by political reporter Mike Ward. Many of the people quoted in these articles appear to have been invented. Ward, who joined the paper in 2014 after a long stint at the Austin American-Statesman, resigned in the wake of the accusations after they surfaced in September.

While a far cry from the journalistic norm President Trump would have us believe, fake quotes from fake people have become all too familiar. From the famous cases of Janet Cooke, Jason Blair and Stephen Glass to more recent transgressions discovered at The Intercept and CNN, some “journalists” have in fact chosen to invent people rather than interview them.

As a journalist for over 30 years, I deplore any act reducing press credibility at a time when journalists face daily attacks from the President. As a journalism professor, I worry about the ever-decreasing number of students willing to consider our maligned career. How, I wonder, can I promote ethical behavior in an age of shock radio and Russian trolls, especially when even prominent professionals take heinous shortcuts?

But when I first read the Sept. 10 letter in which Nancy Barnes, the paper’s executive editor, notified readers of the investigation, one line jumped out at me. In denying the charges against him, Ward predicted that the paper “would eventually find the individuals behind his ‘man-on-the-street’ interviews.” That line momentarily transported me to downtown Houston on a hot July day in 2006. I remembered standing anxiously on a sidewalk, working up the moxie to accost total strangers. My response to Ward’s misdeeds flickered from disdain to something that felt almost like empathy.

I have taught journalism since 1991 at Henderson State University in Arkansas. The first time I walked into my office by way of the campus newsroom, I like felt a bit like a fraud. I had fallen into journalism as an English major with a knack for features. Before teaching, I had freelanced for many magazines, but I had never reported breaking news. As a new college newspaper adviser, I could offer plenty of personal experience on features, but most of my news advice came from books.

That all changed in the summer of 2006, when I joined a program then run by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Each summer the “Institute for Journalism Excellence” took a dozen or so college journalism professors, gave them a week-long refresher course in reporting basics, and tossed them into newsrooms around the country. For six weeks we were basically the oldest living interns. We took assignments, shared our far-flung experiences in group emails, and then met at the end of the summer with ideas on how to improve our teaching using what we had learned.

Fantasizing scenes from All the President’s Men, I asked that I be assigned to a “big paper.” I wound up in Houston with a new photo ID, a parking pass and a desk in the gigantic Chronicle newsroom. Even in 2006, it was clear that the newsroom had many empty seats reporters had once occupied. I was given an old desked pockmarked with cigarette burns surrounding the unscathed outline of an IBM Selectric.

I reported to the city editor, who let me take baby steps the first week. I started with science features of the type I had routinely produced for magazines, visiting interesting people who were eager to discuss some new discovery or other. For an article on life in the Edwards Aquifer, I took a photo the Chronicle actually published, despite the fact that I’m a pretty lousy photographer.

My first taste of real news came the second week, when a heavy thunderstorm flooded swaths of downtown Houston (a regular occurrence, I soon learned). The newsroom was all hands on deck, with reporters fanning out through floodwaters in search of stories for pages of team coverage. Following a phone tip, I interviewed a woman who had rescued injured wildlife from flooded suburban yards.

My next—and unforgettable—news story came when I contributed to a team report on a circulating petition that attacked Houston’s status as a sanctuary city for illegal aliens. My assignment was to spend 20 minutes on the phone with someone I had never heard of, the sitting sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz. It turned out Joe Arpaio had some views on immigration, sure enough.

A week after that, I landed the first assignment that made me nervous. Interest rates had risen to a new high, and the business editor asked me to fill in for a reporter on vacation by interviewing experts on what this meant for the average consumer. No problem. But he also wanted me to go outside and interview average consumers on the sidewalk, to ask how the interest change would affect them.

The reporter on vacation had left me her extensive contact sheet of financial analysts, so I started dialing. I could do the expert part. Five or six interviews later it was 2 p.m. and I had quotes out the wazoo. Deadline was 4 p.m. I knew I needed to get down on the street, but something kept me frozen at my desk.

So I called yet another expert, this one the creator of website dedicated to reducing credit card debt. I started typing the story, leaving holes for man-on-the-street quotes I was sure to get. Before I knew it, it was 3. In my reporting classes, I had chastised students who couldn’t seem to get off their asses and talk to people. Here I was doing the same thing. Thinking of those students finally pushed me toward the elevator and reluctantly down into the scorching sun.

I ambled around the block for 10 minutes, holding my reporter’s notebook in hopes someone would just talk to me. They didn’t. The clock was ticking, so I stopped the next pedestrian I saw, a man in a suit.

“Hello, I’m a reporter…” was all I managed.

“Meeting,” he mumbled and was gone.

I tried another. Shot down again. The third person, a smiling middle-aged woman, listened politely to my introduction and gave me a usable quote about her CDs. I got the spelling of her name and took down her phone number, as I did with the next two people willing to talk to me. I had been schooled by magazine fact-checkers, who called people quoted in stories to confirm their quotes. No one had told me that newspapers didn’t have fact-checkers. With three quotes in my notebook, I had 15 minutes left to get upstairs, plug them into my story and file it.

The experts I had phoned to avoid going outside had given me multiple views on interest rates. My last man on the street, an oil worker named Fernando Ruiz, provided a perfect kicker for the end. I hit “send” on the piece no more than two or three minutes late.

The result was my first Page 1 story, an achievement I crowed about to my fellow professor-interns on the group email the next day. Beyond feeling like a real journalist, my byline above the fold, I learned a valuable lesson that I’ve shared with all the students since: To do this job, you must daily cast aside any fear of talking to strangers. Talking to strangers—actual living people—is the essence of journalism.

I can’t know whether Ward’s dark slide into fabrication began with not taking that same elevator to that same street. One fact to come out of the Chronicle’s investigation makes Ward’s fabrication all the more reprehensible, in that he appears to have invented at least some fake sources in order to push a political agenda in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. It is fitting and proper that he will never work for another newspaper. Yet for an hour or two one summer, I might have briefly understood his temptation.


Michael Ray Taylor is a professor and chair of the communication and theatre arts department at Henderson State University in Arkansas. He has written for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and many other publications while advising Henderson’s student newspaper. He was recently named a distinguished newspaper adviser by the College Media Association.