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Forgive Us Our Press Passes

I have recently taken a week off in the Colorado Rockies, brooding about the trouble we journalists are in with the public. (No, let me not exaggerate. I only brooded during a small part of the time.) On behalf of my profession, let me say it straight out: Journalists have erred. We hope you will forgive us our press passes.

How have we erred? Let me count the ways.

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First, some of us by telling you things that were totally made up. Like Stephen Glass with his imaginary anecdotes in The New Republic. Or, Patricia Smith with her invented characters in The Boston Globe. Or, going back a bit, Janet Cooke and her Pulitzer Prize-winning fantasy about a child heroin addict in The Washington Post. Talented people who went wrong.

Second, some of us by telling you sensational things conceivably true, but not adequately documented. That refers, of course, to the CNN allegations about nerve gas used against American deserters in Laos. Heads rolled for that. Peter Arnett, another Pulitzer Prize-winner, was reprimanded after his anguished defense that he was only reading a script someone else had written. Financial settlements were made by CNN with interviewees who complained of having been misrepresented. Well-meaning people caught up in a medium that blurs lines of reality.

Third, some of us by telling you true things, learned by questionable means. This is the one that troubles me most. I used to be a reporter and I can tell you that well-kept secrets are not generally dug out by conventional methods, but airing them may be an important public service.

ABC had its people lie on job applications and use hidden cameras to penetrate a Food Lion supermarket and expose tainted meat and unsanitary practices. So unpopular are the media today that ABC got socked by a jury for trespass with a $5.5 million judgment (later reduced by the judge).

A Maine jury socked NBC with a $525,000 judgment for defamation for telling a true story about a trucker who falsified logs to drive more hours than legally allowed, thus a potential menace on the road. But the trucker said he had been promised a more "positive" story.

In The Cincinnati Enquirer, reporter Michael Gallagher laid bare evidence that the Cincinnati-based Chiquita International had been involved in spraying dangerous pesticides on workers in Central America. On the allegation that he had tapped into the company's voice mail, Mr. Gallagher was summarily fired and the Enquirer paid $10 million to Chiquita without even being sued.

What will happen to investigative journalism when juries are against you and you can't count on your bosses to back you up? There is a phrase much used in First Amendment litigation: "chilling effect." The press seems to be in for the big chill.

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* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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