Dart to the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Triblocal.com

Send tips and suggestions to dartsandlaurels@cjr.org

Dart to the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Triblocal.com for shoveling dodgy online content into print. In April 2007, the Tribune Company launched Triblocal.com, a Chicago Tribune-affiliated suburban news site with a small reporting staff and a big appetite for user-produced articles. As Chicago Reader media critic Michael Miner later reported, the site published many glowing articles about Mark Pera, a local official running against an incumbent congressman, all written by Patrick Corcoran, a member of Pera’s staff. (The articles carried Corcoran’s name, but didn’t disclose his connection to Pera.) Triblocal looks like a news site, but it mixes staff reporting with gussied-up bulletin-board fodder: Catholic school employees write up diocese awards, a local hospital files advice for treating heartburn, and so on. And once a week, editors select a handful of articles to be distributed with the Tribune as an insert or a wrap. That’s how a Corcoran piece headlined DEMOCRAT MARK PERA PICKS UP SUPPORT ended up wrapped around subscribers’ papers on January 10. Triblocal editor Kyle Leonard told CJR that “in retrospect” he wished Corcoran’s online contributions had carried a disclaimer, and said that a staff member should have checked out Corcoran before the print article was published. According to Leonard, Triblocal now vets the authors of all politics-related pieces, online or not. Other contributors are asked, though not required, to disclose their affiliations.

The Plain Dealer is guilty of a similar lapse in the Journalism 101 maxim: check it out. The PD regularly selects user comments from its Web site to publish in its print newspaper, and on January 22, the paper reprinted a rant accusing a city councilman of tearing down neighborhood homes and felling historic trees. Problem is, as the paper’s reader representative disclosed, the Plain Dealer hadn’t checked out the false accusations or given the official a chance to respond, as it would have for a traditional letter to the editor.

Laurel to The Seattle Times for raising the alarm about threats to the health of freedom of speech and democracy in a creative multimedia series. James F. Vesely, the Times’s editorial-page editor, launched “The Democracy Papers” in September after discussions with publisher Frank Blethen, a keen thinker on the future of the newspaper industry. About twice a week in print editorials, columns, and op-eds, the paper tackles interconnected issues like media consolidation, open-access laws, and the newspaper industry’s shaky financial prospects. (A podcast and daily blog do similar work online.) It’s all about “how the media and democracy are fundamentally together,” says Vesely. And on one local issue, Vesely thinks the campaign is having an impact: state officials are pushing a bill to limit governmental use of “executive sessions,” a tactic used to bypass the state’s open-session law.

Dart to The Wall Street Journal for single-source puffery of a reporter who just happens to work for the Journal’s new corporate sibling, the New York Post. On January 19, the Journal published a “profile” of Frederic V. Dicker, the colorful Post state editor who has battled Governor Eliot Spitzer over his aides’ misuse of state-police resources. While the article disclosed the fact that both papers are now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the glowing piece didn’t quote anyone besides Dicker, or raise an eyebrow about his controversial reporting style. (For example, a September Dicker article claimed that Spitzer’s staff members were regularly driving about Albany holding offline “late-night ‘black car’ meetings,” citing only a single source described as “an experienced public employee who demanded anonymity.”) Worse, the Journal article grossly mischaracterized reporting by Dicker’s competitors.

Laurel to Charlie Gibson and ABC for hosting the best debate of the nominating season—so far. Republicans and Democrats met in back-to-back sessions on January 5, just three days before the New Hampshire primary. The network wisely relied on its reportorial bench to produce engaging and easily understandable video reports that set up solid policy discussions. The broadcast avoided the drabness of the otherwise admirable Des Moines Register debates, without grandstanding or gratuitous gotchas (see Russert, Blitzer, et al).

Laurel to Ari Shapiro of National Public Radio for his investigation into health care at Fort Drum, an Army base in upstate New York. In late January, Shapiro reported that Army officials had asked local Veterans Affairs personnel to stop helping injured soldiers navigate key Army-compiled medical paperwork, which can determine the level of health care or disability payments soldiers will receive. The VA staff helped ensure that the records were comprehensive and correct; without their assistance veterans could lose out on benefits to which they are entitled. While the Army acknowledged the stop request, after Shapiro’s piece aired the Army Surgeon General reportedly denied that the request had been made with his authority. But in early February, Shapiro obtained a document that, as NPR put it, “flatly contradicts” the surgeon general’s account by showing the request came from a colonel working in his office. Shapiro’s reporting sent New York lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, clamoring for answers and an investigation.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.