Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Part II: Three journalism ethics experts weigh in on Kurt Eichenwald's failure to disclose his wife's relationship to an organization he skewered in a Newsweek story

Kurt Eichenwald (source)
Triggered by a suggestion from Newsweek's Editor-In-Chief, I obtained comments from three journalism ethics experts re: whether or not former NY Times reporter and best-selling author Kurt Eichenwald should have disclosed his wife's relationship to a recent story he wrote for Newsweek.

In Part I, I reported about a dust-up between Eichenwald, who lives in Dallas, and the Philadelphia-based American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), which, according to the organization's website, certifies "more than 200,000" physicians.

In a March 10 Newsweek item, Eichenwald raked ABIM over the coals, claiming the organization charged member physicians excessive fees to take re-certification tests, required diplomates to shell out big bucks to attend conferences as a re-certification requirement, and padded tests with irrelevant information, making them more difficult to pass.

The result, according to Eichenwald, has been a significant increase in the number of doctors who flunked the test and were left uncertified by ABIM, a big deal for doctors trying to make a living.

Apparently he landed a direct hit, because ABIM's chair fired back with a next-day media statement that claimed Eichenwald's article contained "numerous and serious misstatements, selective omissions, inaccurate information and erroneous reporting."

Here's the part that caught my eye.
Finally, the author failed to disclose that his wife is an internist.
What the statement didn't say was whether his wife, Theresa F. Eichenwald MD, had ever been certified by ABIM and, if so, when?

Per my previous item, when I tried to find out, no one would talk.

The only information I could find was that, according to ABIM's website, Dr. Eichenwald was first certified by ABIM in 1993, but is no longer a diplomate. And according to the Texas Medical Board, in 2003 she informed that agency she was an ABIM diplomate.

So when was she last certified by ABIM and why is she no longer an ABIM diplomate? Is she certified by another board?

When I e-mailed Eichenwald and politely asked for details -- the first time I've ever communicated with the guy -- he went ballistic, throwing baseless, dumb insults at me.

I then politely asked Newsweek Editor-In-Chief Jim Opoco if he'd ask Eichenwald and let me know the results.

He promptly replied:
We disagree with your concept of what constitutes a conflict in journalism. I urge you to read some of the voluminous handbooks that exist on journalistic ethics rules regarding the definitions of a conflict.

I never suggested there was a conflict. I was simply trying to obtain facts to evaluate whether or not there might be a disclosure issue.

If so, it wouldn't be the first time. As widely reported, Eichenwald got into hot water over a 2005 front-page New York Times story he wrote about child porn.

Kurt Eichenwald and Justin Berry (source)
Via Seizures Hurt Memory, Ex-'Times' Reporter Says by David Folkenflik, NPR, October 19, 2007:
Eichenwald's reporting stemmed from his efforts to aid Justin Berry, who was both a victim and perpetrator of a Web pornography ring, and who was in league with several older men. 

...(Revelations) have surfaced that have raised more profound questions about Eichenwald's own actions. Most notable was his failure to inform editors at the Times that he and his wife had made a series of payments worth at least $3,100 to Berry and his business partners.
Folkenflik also reported:
In a story airing Friday on NPR's All Things Considered, Eichenwald reveals a secret that he had carefully guarded for more than two decades: His epilepsy had triggered so many and such severe seizures that, according to his neurologist, he suffers from "significant memory disruptions."
That condition must be a serious challenge, so Eichenwald can surely be commended for continuing to produce deeply-reported, high-profile journalism. 
In any event, since I have no expertise in journalism ethics, I welcomed Impoco's advice and contacted three prominent expert authors for comment.

In order to avoid coloring their perceptions, I provided them with an accurate general description of the situation and left out all names and identifiers.

Gene Foreman (source)
First from Gene Foreman, retired newspaper editor, Penn State professor of journalism, and author of the textbook The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News, published in 2009. According to Prof. Foreman, a revised/updated edition is scheduled for publication on August 1:
Journalists should be willing, even eager, to disclose any relationship that might possibly reflect on their perceived impartiality. In the case you described, the writer should disclose his wife's status. I see that as a minimum.

Disclosures are ethically a positive step but not always sufficient. Disclosures are appropriate for cases in which a perceived conflict is unavoidable or insignificant. In the situation we're discussing, a reader who has been made aware of the writer's relationship might still doubt that the story has been impartially reported and written.

As a managing editor for 33 years, I preferred that such a story be done by a reporter who has no personal connection to any person or organization being covered. To be clear: I wanted staff members to bring us news tips that they picked up through personal connections. However, the tip would then be independently evaluated and, if a story is assigned, it would be independently reported.

Chris Frost (source)
Next up is Chris Frost, Professor of Journalism at Screen School and John Moores University, both in Liverpool, England, and the author of several books about journalism ethics:

Clearly the journalist has the right to write about this accreditation body and, provided the evidence used for the critique stands up, at least to the extent of requiring a response, also has a duty to write about it as it is clearly a matter about which the public has a right to be informed. We then move on to the more subtle point and the focus of your question. How much of a part did the journalist’s spouse play in motivating the story or providing information and evidence?
My view is that journalists should always be as transparent as possible about sources in order to maximise trust amongst readers with regard to the evidence and its sources. When the journalist writing a story is directly involved, being clear about that does not mean the story may not be true, but it is important to inform readers of that so that they may rely more on evidence from external sources rather than believing the journalist has entirely limited subjective involvement.

Things get more complicated when journalists use sources that require confidentiality. Often stories are gathered and published using evidence from sources who would face considerable detriment if their involvement was known. It is not unusual to offer such sources confidential protection. That is the journalist would use the information they provide but would keep that sources involvement secret. Usually this would involve simply using phrases such as “sources within the company…” or “sources with inside information…”. Confidential sources should always be kept to a minimum and journalists should give as much information about them as possible without compromising their safety in order to allow readers to reach their own judgement about their reliability.

That becomes even harder when the source is a close family member. Journalists, just like everyone else, have a duty to protect their families but when family members give them inside information that is very unlikely to become public knowledge without that insider view they may also feel they have a duty to publicise a story that only someone in a similar circumstance is likely to be able to access. They are then obliged to treat that source as a confidential source and might be much more limited in what they write about the source. Of course, without reading the story it is impossible to judge the extent of the spouse’s involvement in the story. I have for instance written stories myself in the past that were triggered by my wife’s knowledge from her profession or personal interests but I have not needed to mention her as all the research for the articles was gathered from other sources. Her involvement was simply in tipping me off the existence of the issue.

If it were to turn out that the article was driven by the fact that the spouse was not re-accredited and was driven by a desire for revenge, then yes, we would need to know the connection. However if sources from elsewhere are used and the evidence is strong, the spouse’s profession might be purely coincidental or at least incidental to the story.

Kelly McBride (source)

Finally, this from Kelly McBride, Vice President of Academic Programs at the Poynter Institute and co-editor, along with Tom Rosenstiel, of the book, The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century
In general, conflicts of interest should always be disclosed so the audience can decide. On top of that, news organizations have an obligation to mitigate conflicts of interest, by adding layers of editing, finding alternate reporters or adding reporting bandwidth to the story.

Because I don't know the specifics here, I can't really say what this newsroom should have done. I also can't say whether or to what degree the conflict created an ethical issue with story, without knowing the details.

It could be a big deal, or a little deal. It's hard to say.
Since my previous inquiry was something of a blindfold test, I'll send this item to the three experts in the event that they wish to comment further.

An eagle eyed journalist alerted me to this goof in a previous version of my item: "The result, according to Eichenwald, has been a significant drop in the number of doctors who flunked the test." Should have been "a significant increase," of course. I regret the error, have fixed it, and am grateful for the eagle eye.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

R.I.P. Gordon Thomas Pratt (July 17, 1945 - April 6, 2015)

Via Skin & Ink magazine, October 2007

My friend Gordy Pratt, an entrepreneur turned self-taught graphic artist, died last month at the VA Hospital in Milwaukee, the city where he was born and spent most of his life.

The photos above are from a three-page article and photo spread I helped arrange that was published in the October 2007 issue of Skin & Ink, a hip tattoo arts magazine.

Via the article by British journalist and documentarian Tim Coleman:
There can't be many stranger or sadder tattoos than those adorning the body of Gordon Pratt. The words and pictures depict the terrible saga of a Milwaukee father's grief, the loss of custody of his three daughters and a trail of systematic abuse. Today, only one of the daughters is alive. "Getting tattooed," he says, "was a way to make sure l'd never forget what my children went through - the living and tormenting hell with their mother."

...In 1968, Pratt married his wife, Carol. It was the worst decision he ever made. During their 13 years of marriage, they had three daughters, Carlotta, Christina and Ciprina. It was only after their divorce in 1981, when the courts awarded Carol custody of the children, that the abuse began. In his many pages of recollections and illustrations, Pratt catalogues the horrors that Carol and her new partner, David, meted out to Christina.

...As well as abusing her children, Pratt's former wife, now remarried as Carol Spizzirri, has lied about her background. According to Pratt, she lied about having a college education, being trained as a nurse and having a Bachelor of Science in nursing. He also states that she perpetrated a scam on the state of Illinois by setting up a not-for-profit organization called the Save a Life Foundation (SALF), whose stated aim was to teach first aid to the nation's children. According to Pratt and a local TV news station, which investigated SALF, President and CEO Spizzirri's credentials are completely bogus.

...Perhaps the saddest chapter of this truly terrible story ended when, in 1992, Christina's troubled life finally came to an end. Intoxicated and not wearing a seatbelt, she accidentally lost control of her car, rolled it over and was flung onto the road. She died, about an hour later, in the hospital. Not content with the suffering she had caused when Christina was alive, Pratt says, "Carol manipulated the circumstances of her daughter's death for financial gain. She falsely claimed," he asserts, "that Christina died on the highway and could have survived, if she had received emergency aid. She then used this bogus claim as a way of boosting funding for the Save a Life Foundation."
Click here for the compilation page on my website of dozens of print and broadcast media exposes about  SALF, Carol Spizzirri's now-defunct nonprofit that's reportedly the target of an ongoing investigation by the Illinois Attorney General.

Spizziri -- once the darling of prominent officials, Illinois media, and my father(!) -- is also a defendant in a wide-ranging federal civil rights lawsuit filed by former SALF employee Annabel Melongo.

By providing documents and information to reporters and criminal justice professionals about his ex-wife (reportedly a twice-convicted adult shoplifter who now lives in a trailer park in Southern California), Gordy's efforts significantly contributed to both cases and to the downfall of her bogus nonprofit. 

Gordy told me that after making two small fortunes -- the first in commercial real estate, the second in speculating in the silver market -- he became an artist as a means to tell the story of his experiences.

Pages from The Oh No! Book reproduced in the October 2007 Skin & Ink article

Besides designing the tattoos that adorned him from the waist up, he created a handful of dynamic and engaging self-published graphic arts books.  

His most intimate work is the 285-page Oh No! Book, which chronicled the issues discussed in the Skin & Ink article. (Click here to download a pdf copy -- patience, it's a big file.)

Gordy is survived by: his daughter Ciprina Spizzirri Nugent (an actress and former Director of Communication's at SALF) and her husband Brian K. Nugent (a special effects artist in the film industry) both of Los Angeles; his sister, Sandra Marie Powers, and her daughter, Dawn Marie Ridgewell, both of Oconomowoc, WI.

Per Gordy's March 1, 2011 "informational data sheet" below, along with his sister and niece, Gordy named his longtime friend, Joseph A. Santoro of Milwaukee, a former restaurant owner, as his successor representative and agent. (As a courtesy, I've redacted their addresses and phone numbers, but I can share that information with interested parties. Click here to download the page.)

I'd welcome hearing from anyone who knew Gordy, including any reminiscences for possible publication in a future blog item. Click here to e-mail me.