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Newspaper Columnist Resigns After Inquiry

Times Staff Writer

The Sacramento Bee announced Thursday the resignation of an award-winning columnist, the latest in a series of cases across the nation in which journalists had been forced from their jobs because of questions about the veracity of their reporting.

In an explanation to readers, Bee Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez wrote that Diana Griego Erwin could not adequately answer questions that first arose last month about whether “people mentioned in several recent columns actually existed.”

Griego Erwin, who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 while at the Denver Post and who was a columnist for the Orange County Register, said in a statement to the Bee that she had done “nothing wrong.”

“This inquiry came at the end of a six-month string of personal crises in my life,” Griego Erwin told The Times in an e-mail, “and, frankly, I didn’t have the emotional reserve to answer The Bee’s questions quickly enough.”

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The departure of Griego Erwin, who wrote three columns a week, continues the run of recent embarrassments for newspapers, many of which have cost writers their jobs.

Last week, USA Today Pentagon correspondent Tom Squitieri resigned under pressure after lifting quotes from another newspaper and using other quotes without attribution.

That followed on the heels of the resignation of veteran Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Al Levine, who pilfered information from two Florida newspapers without crediting them.

Los Angeles Times reporter Eric Slater was dismissed last month when editors at the newspaper could not verify information in an article he wrote about fraternity hazing at Cal State Chico.

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The recent headliner in the string of news scandals was bestselling author, sports columnist and TV personality Mitch Albom, who was suspended from the Detroit Free Press for describing a scene in the stands at an NCAA basketball tournament game before the game had been played.

With polls showing journalists already held in low esteem, the run of bad news has alarmed many in the business.

Some reporters and editors theorize that shortcuts and sloppiness have increased because of more competition from Internet news sites and 24-hour television news. Others think standards have been raised and that newspapers insist on more exact reporting than they did in the past.

But there is agreement about a greater recognition of industry transgressions, which are posted immediately by several journalism websites, most prominently Jim Romenesko’s column on the Poynter Institute’s site at poynter.org.

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Managers at the Bee said concerns about Griego Erwin’s work began on a Saturday in late April, when an editor could not get satisfactory answers to questions about a column.

The piece centered on a fatal fistfight between fans after a Sacramento Kings basketball game. The column proposed that a fan had died needlessly, perhaps because of “male testosterone, alcohol and the sometimes unsavory fanaticism that’s part of the sports experience.”

Those familiar with the situation said Griego Erwin could not provide more details to confirm the identities of an unnamed bar and a bartender who she had quoted in the man-on-the-street-style column.

The piece was held from its normal spot on the front of the newspaper’s Metro section on Sunday, April 24. It ran two days later -- rewritten and with the suspect elements removed, two people familiar with the process said. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

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Bee editors reviewed several other recent Griego Erwin columns, and said that in about half a dozen cases the writer could not satisfy them that individuals mentioned in the columns were real. The newspaper did not identify the columns.

“We are continuing to investigate. What more will happen I’m not prepared to say,” Rodriguez said in an interview.

Colleagues said the mistake might be especially hard for Rodriguez, who last month was elected president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Rodriguez said that during his tenure he intended to emphasize ethics and the watchdog role editors must play. On the organization’s website, he listed his pet peeve: “Sloppy mistakes.”

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Griego Erwin came to the Bee 12 years ago. She began her career as a freelancer for The Times before working for the Denver Post and the Register.

She was a lead reporter in a Post investigation that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service for articles about missing children. She also won a George Polk Award at the Post.

Griego Erwin did not detail the personal crises that she mentioned in her statement, but Bee employees said she was going through a divorce.

Asked about her future, Griego Erwin responded:

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“Plan? I don’t have a plan. As I said, I’ve had a lot of personal drama lately and I just need a break. I plan on resting and sleeping a lot. I deserve it.”


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