Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"If Your Mother says she love you, check it out."

It appears that today many in our media were victimized by a hoax.  A false news release from General Electric (GE) indicated that GE had agreed to “donate” the entirety of its $3.2 billion tax refund to the federal government.  The news release was totally false, but it was accepted at first because GE had been under attack recently for not paying any federal income tax in 2010 despite making more than $5 billion in profit.

The Associated Press (AP) was the largest media organization taken in by the hoax, but withdrew the story 35 minutes after it was published.  AP admitted it did not adhere to its own standards of checking on the veracity of the news release.

This type of news media laxity is hardly new to anyone who has been in the media or has worked with the media.  As someone who has been a professional communicator for more than three decades, I have seen reporters accept charges from advocacy groups at face value before calling the target of those charges for a response.

This has been particularly disappointing for me because I grew up in Chicago where many journalists trained in the now defunct City News Bureau under the direction of the legendary Paul Zimbrakos.  He has been credited with telling every new reporter that “if your mother says he loves you, check it out.”  It was his way of telling rookies that if they want to be true journalists, they shouldn’t take anything they hear from the news makers they cover at face value.  True journalists are supposed to check the veracity of everything they are told.

As a former director of media relations for the Archdiocese of Chicago, I witnessed a great example of what can happen when journalists do not check something out. On July, 13, 2005, I personally was involved in one of the worst examples of journalism I have ever known.  On that day, a news conference was held outside of the Pastoral Center of the Archdiocese of Chicago by Philip Aaron, an attorney from Seattle, WA.  He represented several young black men who claimed to be sexually abused as minors by a priest named Victor Stewart of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who died 11 years and one month prior to the date of that news conference.

The primary reason for Aaron’s news conference was to condemn the Archdiocese for not trying to find more victims of the now deceased priest, which was a common refrain of plaintiff attorneys representing abuse victims of priest.  However, Aaron injected a new twist to the usual scenario. He claimed that Stewart died of AIDS and infected the accusers standing with him at the news conference.  He offered no evidence, and admitted that none of the men standing with him had ever been tested for AIDS, but the media expected the archdiocese to defend itself against an allegation that day that no one had provided one shred of proof to back up the accusation.

As part of my usual routine, on the next day I read the print accounts and looked at the videotapes of the news conference.   I couldn’t help wonder why none of the reporters I talked to asked questions that any curious journalist would have asked Aaron and his group of victims.  If they had been infected by Stewart with AIDS, it would have had to happen no later than 11 years and one month prior to the news conference.  That is assuming, of course, that Stewart could have infected anyone as he was lying on his death bed, one tall assumption to make.  I told every reporter that called the day of the news conference that records indicated Stewart died on June 10, 1994, of what was believed to be a subdural hematoma, which is a bleeding on the surface of the brain.

What really struck me when viewing the videotapes was the physical condition of the alleged victims of Fr. Stewart who were lined up behind the plaintiff attorney.  Each of them seemed to be in fairly good condition.  In fact, most of the men actually seemed to be a little overweight, which would hardly fit the physical profile of someone who contracted AIDS more than 11 years ago as they claimed they might have.

My journalistic curiosity prompted me to call the Center for Disease Control in Washington, D.C.  The Center is one of the premier clearing houses on information regarding infectious diseases.  When I reached an AIDS expert at the Center, the first question I asked was whether or not a person infected with the AIDS virus more than 11 years ago would still be alive.  That person told me that it is very likely that a person could still be easily alive 11 years later because of the tremendous advances in the medications to treat the disease.  When I told him that none of those claiming that they might have been infected 11 or more years ago had never been tested, let alone taken any medication, he paused and said that these people could still be alive, but they would certainly be showing significant signs of the disease.  He paused once more and then related that there was a remote possibility that a person might have what he described as a “super-human” immune system that could fight off the disease for a substantial period of time, but he said those instances were very rare.

  The logical conclusions was that yes, they could still test positive for the AIDS virus, but it would be highly improbable that they were infected by Stewart.  I don’t know of any of the reporters who attended that news conference that had the journalistic curiosity to check with an AIDS expert, and I kept wondering why?  Even if you want to skew the story against the archdiocese, wouldn’t your journalistic curiosity cause you to check with an AIDS expert when an allegation and the reality of the men’s condition just don’t match?  How could I see something that none of them appeared to see?

To my knowledge, no reporter in Chicago has yet to do a follow-up story on the validity of Philip Aaron’s claim that Fr. Victor Stewart may have infected several young men with AIDS before he died.  One would think that such a serious charge would be fully investigated by the media and merit more than a one-and-done story.  As a consumer of the news, I would like to know if the charges were accurate.  What bothers me is that the news media in Chicago doesn’t appear to care.

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