I wrote to the Chronicle’s “readers’ representative” — in quotes because I’d like to meet the readers who appointed him — to ask what the paper might do to explain how it wound up identifying a picture of a cabdriver/security guard, played over six columns, as that of a notoriously violent police officer. I wrote, in part:
“… Does the Chronicle intend to offer a detailed explanation of how the picture wound up in the paper? It’s clear the mistake has damaged what I’d call the presumption of credibility such a thoroughly reported and well-executed investigative project might otherwise be accorded. It’s also clear that a mere acknowledgment of error, or covering a press conference convened by an attorney for the misidentified citizen, doesn’t begin to repair the damage. At a time when papers everywhere are struggling to hang on to readers, and when more and more of the news-consuming public has become dismissive of the established media, it seems the Chron’s long-term cause would best be served by full disclosure of the steps and processes involved in this picture making it into the paper. I think readers have moved on from being a passive audience and want to be treated as partners in the project of journalism. A detailed explanation of the error would be responsive to that demand and help the paper learn how to avoid repeat episodes. …”
Although the readers’ rep is someone I worked with for a decade or so at the old Examiner, I didn’t really expect an answer. So I was pleasantly surprised to get one just a day after I emailed my note. The germane part of the reply:
“Phil [Bronstein, the Chronicle’s executive vice president and editor] has said to me and to the public (Ronn Owens show) that he’s disposed toward telling whatever he can, but he doesn’t want to compound the mistake by misstating what happened. I think that’s a fair position. I certainly wouldn’t address this until I was darn sure what I was talking about. Like you, I’d like to see this clarified sooner rather than later but I’m wary of a rush to judgment.”
That’s a pretty responsive note, I guess, though I’m bothered by the suggestion that the paper’s position is cast as a matter of how the editor feels about things. Beyond that, two observations: First, it stretches credibility a little that the paper and its editors don’t have a pretty good idea what happened. And second, it’s at least a little ironic to hear a paper that often shoots first and asks questions later plead for restraint in examining its own faux pas.