Los Angeles Times

Reporting shades of truth

Today, Spillman and Ford debate non-denial denials. Previously they discussed the changing role of the destination media, the role of blogs and mainstream press in the Mirthala Salinas story and the distinction between credentialed and non-credentialed media. Tomorrow they'll deal with mistakes in reporting.

Turn on the charm, and the blogBy Luke Ford

After three days of breaking new ground in journalistic thought, we're stuck with a clunker of a topic today.

I say there's no one answer to that challenge. Usually the news cycle dictates that you report the dubious assertion and then over time you assess its veracity.

If the assertion is libelous and dangerous, however, then you have to wait and do your due-diligence before publication.

In the Feb. 2 Los Angeles Times, then-City Hall bureau chief Jim Newton accurately reported the mayor's absurd claim that he had stopped wearing his wedding ring because loss of weight was causing it to slip off his newly slim fingers, along with his rebuttal of my report that he and his wife were not living together at Getty House.

Taken together, these claims seemed to indicate the mayor's marriage was stable, but the reporting of these narrow denials prepared the ground for the more thorough reporting of the Beth Barretts and Eric Longabardis of our world.

The traditional Los Angeles Times approach of "do it once, do it right, do it long" is less useful in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.

Most news consumers who are interested in the mayor's marriage will want to know that same day what the mayor said about his love life, even if what he said was false.

If a politician says something dubious but harmless at 9 a.m., you quote him accurately and then you begin to examine what he said.

How people lie is often just as important as the truth. Lying provides a window into the liar's psyche.

Before news organizations can figure out how best to deal with lies by public figures, they must first secure the truth.

I've found that the best way to get this is to have good unofficial sources. I don't care what publicists and spokesmen have to say. They're paid liars.

Professional journalists agonize about using anonymous sources, but I have no such compunction. I want the truth, and usually one well-placed and protected source will give me more of it than all the journalistic due diligence in the world.

I argue that there's nothing wrong with paying somebody for information.

As a professional journalist, you will say that is bad. That paying for scoops gives your subjects incentives to lie.

Poppycock. Information will only earn payment if it is accurate. Publishing bad information brings humiliation and lawsuits.

American journalists already pay their subjects, just not in money. They wine and dine them and sometimes fly them around the country and put them up in swank hotels.

Another great way to get information out of people is to convince them that you are their sincere friend. You don't have to lie to do this. You just listen attentively and ask follow-up questions that indicate that you feel for them.

I love to write long, ponderous self-published books that nobody buys. Why? Because people are more likely to give you a great interview if you say you're writing a book. Then after you've got the goods, you say: "This is so important. Do you mind if I put it on my website as well?"

Turning on the charm never hurts. I can always come up with something I admire about the person I'm talking to, and when I trickle it out with my Australian accent, I'm usually in like Flynn.

I don't understand why American reporters aren't more charming. When you get interviewed by a Brit, they're constantly telling you how wonderful you are and how honored they feel to talk to you.

Tag-teaming often works. I'll become friendly with one side of a dispute and publish their side of things. The other side will get outraged and tell their point of view to somebody else, and suddenly we're all a lot closer to the truth.

The Los Angeles Times should have dueling gossip columnists who can separately befriend their subjects and articulate their point of view. Sometimes gossip is just gratuitous cruelty (and is rightly stigmatized), but often, as with the mayor's marital troubles, it is a forerunner to news.

If you want to get ahead of the curve on the news, check out such gossips as Lukeford.net and drudgereport.com.

Another way to deal with a lying public figure is to blog the part of the story that you know to be true. Go with what you've got. The information will often build a momentum toward the truth.

Blogs are great ways to grow stories.

Luke Ford of lukeford.net has earned his living from blogging for a decade. He's the author of five books, four of them self-published.

The answer is shoe leather By Eric Spillman
Luke, I'll get to the topic of the day, but first I have to educate you on the value of local TV news.

In yesterday's entry, you lambasted my profession, calling it "shallow" and "worthless." Shallow, yes sometimes, but news on local television can enlighten and inform in a way your little blog has no hope of ever doing.

Nobody covers regional disasters like brush fires, riots and earthquakes as quickly or as well as those of us who work in this medium. The next time we get a 7.0 shaker, tell me you won't run to your TV screen to find out which freeways have collapsed. A live picture from a TV news aerial camera over a major brush fire can help homeowners decide if they should evacuate their neighborhood.

Is that "worthless"? Is that kind of information "eye candy," as you describe it?

Pictures have intellectual value, too. I'm surprised I need to explain this, but listening to how a politician answers a tough question on television can tell you much more than any printed description you'd read on a blog or in a newspaper.

Will anyone ever forget the intellectual conclusion they reached after seeing and hearing President Clinton say, "I did not have sexual relations ... with that woman"?

And for your information, local TV newscasts do break significant stories. Examples: restaurant sanitary conditions, port security, produce handling practices, mechanics who rip you off and plenty of others.

We also do a lot of reporting that is not groundbreaking but is still extremely important. There's no way any newspaper article or essay could describe the recent LAPD response to the rally at MacArthur Park as fully as the video that people saw on local TV.

Oh yeah, and we also help people with traffic, weather, sports and money news. Just little stuff like that — things that nobody cares about.

Now to my answer for today's question: What do reporters do when we suspect a public figure is lying?

Shoe leather, my friend. Leave that lousy computer screen behind and go out there and start digging. The L.A. Times uncovered a nugget in the story of the mayor's affair — the neighbor of Salinas who saw the mayor bringing take-out food and wine to her condo. A reporter actually had to go out there, find that person, and talk to her. Are bloggers doing that kind of reporting?

Also, I like public documents, too, when you can obtain them. It's amazing how many times politicians implicate themselves in memos, e-mails, etc.

Eric Spillman has been a reporter for KTLA's "Morning Show" since 1991. He blogs at ktla.com.

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