The New York Times published a poetic story April 26 on the anguish of Juanita Anguiano, a 45-year-old woman from Los Fresnos, Texas. Anguiano is the mother of Edward Anguiano, a 24-year-old Army mechanic who at the time was the last unaccounted-for soldier in Iraq. (The Anguiano family learned Sunday night that Edward had been found dead in Iraq.)
The Jayson Blair story opens by describing the nostalgia that would overcome Juanita as she looked around the house at all the things her son had given her. “Juanita Anguiano points proudly to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet in its red case and the Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio. She proudly points up to the ceiling fan, the lamp for Mother’s Day, the entertainment center that arrived last Christmas and all the other gifts from her only son….”
It’s powerful prose that resonates with readers. But it had another kind of resonance to readers in southern Texas, where the San Antonio Express-News had published a similar account one week earlier.
Here’s what Express-News reporter Macarena Hernandez wrote about Juanita Anguiano: “So the single mother, a teacher’s aide, points to the ceiling fan he installed in her small living room. She points to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet still in its red velvet case and the Martha Stewart patio furniture, all gifts from her first born and only son.”
The overlaps don’t end with the nearly identical leads. Blair wrote of Juanita Anguiano picturing her son in an Iraqi village “surrounded by animals and the Iraqi people he has befriended.”
One week earlier, Hernandez had written: “She said she has moments when she can picture her son in some Iraqi village, like the ones she has seen on TV, surrounded by a herd of animals and the Iraqis he has befriended.”
The Times, April 26: “She said that while she still might have hope, sleep these days came only in the form of a pill that the doctors gave her.”
The Express-News, April 18: “Sleep these days only comes with a pill.”
Another Times quote cites the feelings of Edward Anguiano’s sister Jennifer: “I’m just not feeling a lot of hope right now.”
That same quote had appeared in an April 14 story from the Associated Press.
Blair’s piece recounts an Easter family gathering at which the Anguianos watched the homecoming of seven U.S. prisoners of war. His story quotes Jennifer as saying, “It was tough because my brother wasn’t among them.”
A similar account from the Associated Press on April 22 attributes virtually the same quote to a different sister: “It was tough because my brother wasn’t one of them.”
At least two other passages in the Times story retell previously reported stories, sometimes with factual discrepancies. For instance, the Express-News story recounts a memory of Edward’s sister Rebecca, who was touched when her brother fell asleep alongside her on a car trip years ago. Blair’s version attributes the memory to Juanita Anguiano.
It’s an inopportune time for the Times to discover parallels between its work and that of other papers. Just this past Sunday, the Times ran an embarrassing editor’s note over reporting problems in a piece by sports columnist Ira Berkow. The Times’ nostra culpa spanned 450 words and replayed passages from a Berkow column that bore an uncanny resemblance to a previous story in the Chicago Tribune.
The paper may have to go back to that template over the Blair story.
“What I can tell you at this point is that we are still looking into the question about the Blair story,” says Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis. When pressed about how the paper would respond, Mathis said, “The only thing I can tell you at this point is that the editors are investigating the matter.”
The evidence under review will doubtless include a missive from the Express-News. The San Antonio paper’s editor, Robert Rivard, says that he will be sending a letter to Times editors on Tuesday afternoon spelling out his concerns over the matter. Rivard insists that he won’t comment on the specifics of the two stories until after he’s discussed them with the Times.
“They’re not guilty of anything we’re not guilty of here at the Express-News,” says Rivard, who says he had to kill a weather column last year on account of plagiarism. “I am not going to tell the New York Times what they have to do, but I am not going to throw rocks at them, either.”
Blair declined to comment on the matter. This is not the first time his work has drawn fire recently. In December, after he wrote a story on shaky evidence against sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, Fairfax County prosecutor Robert Horan called a press conference to refute Blair’s reporting, which he called “dead wrong.”
Washington Post staffers looking to snitch on their colleagues have a couple of traditional outlets: an anonymous note slipped under the door to Executive Editor Leonard Downie or an e-mail to Dept. of Media (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In an accountability breakthrough, however, Posties can now trash their peers anywhere they can get a dial tone. A toll-free “ethics hotline” announced by Post Publisher Bo Jones promises to digest every tip from chatty company insiders.
“We’re committed to the highest ethical standards throughout our organization and view the Ethics Hotline as a valuable tool to support this commitment,” wrote Jones in an April 24 e-mail to Post staff. The hot line brings the Post into compliance with the Corporate Reform Act of 2002, which requires publicly traded companies to provide anonymous channels for misconduct complaints.
Although its mission is to handle anonymous complaints, the hot line appears to be spawning them. “People think it’s idiotic,” says one Post writer. “It’s just an easier way to turn in people you don’t like.” Another calls it “truly corrosive of morale and trust.”
Newsroom skeptics hasten to point out that the Post has contracted hot-line management to Pinkerton, the corporate-security outfit with a history of union-busting. “The company investigated several options and determined Pinkerton could best meet its needs,” says a Post spokesperson.
Last Friday, the Post’s Rita Kempley reviewed Levity and Bollywood/Hollywood for the paper’s Style section. The reviews were nothing spectaculara cheesy joke here, a flat metaphor there. They’re noteworthy only in one respect: They’re the last reviews in Kempley’s 23 years as a Post movie critic.
Kempley built a major franchise in her two-decades-plus as a critic. She was among the 10-odd national film reviewers featured in Entertainment Weekly’s “Critical Mass” feature, which tabulates a “critics’ average” for the movies of the day. She also had devoted followers on her weekly Web chat, titled “The Unusual Suspects.”
Kempley says she gave up all that of her own free will. “There are just so many stories that exist,” she says. “You’ve got your thriller, you’ve got your Charlie’s Angels II, and I think I said all I had to say in Charlie’s Angels I.”
The seeds of the critic’s ambivalence about movie reviewing apparently germinated while Kempley was away on a one-year Alicia Patterson fellowship that ended in the winter. “Talk to anyone who has come off a fellowship. It’s hard to come back and be excited about doing the same thing you were doing before,” says Style editor Eugene Robinson, who insists that the move came at Kempley’s behest. “I didn’t in any way shove Rita,” Robinson says.
But if the one-year break changed Kempley’s worldview, it opened a few eyes at the Post as well. Critic Ann Hornaday, who substituted for Kempley, lit up her Style space with lively and penetrating reviews, prompting some Posties to ask how the paper could keep her in the rotation.
Robinson claims he hasn’t figured out how he will fill Kempley’s vacancy. “We have contract and money slots, and I literally don’t know what I am able to do. We’ll use Hornaday as much, or some, as I can,” he says.
For her part, Kempley is casting about for a new nichenot an easy undertaking after a career sitting in the dark. “All I know is that I am not doing [reviews], at least for a while,” she says. Erik Wemple