Such was the axiom of the Old School editors who trained me when I was a young newspaper reporter who covered nothing more important than school-board meetings and Fourth of July parades. How was I to know then that their advice would some day lead to me getting a worldwide exclusive quote from the most famous female politician in the world?
Excuse the gloating, folks, but it's not every Saturday that this happens to me, and the spectacular idiocy of CNN's Dennis Zaki is worth a story all its own. Look at his online bio:
I was a newspaper photographer and magazine photographer in the 80's and 90's. I'm also a stringer for CNN news.
I'm available for assignments. My experience includes advertising, editorial, corporate work, portraits, and photojournalism.
Also, if you need a clown for your kid's next birthday party, give Dennis Zak a call!
Let's look at the story with which Zaki destroyed whatever scrap of credibility he ever had. Take a close look at what we call "sourcing" and "attribution":
- Zak first links a notorious anti-Palin blog;
- Next, he says, "Multiple sources in Wasilla and Anchorage have confirmed the news."
- Next, "A National Enquirer story exposing previous affairs on both sides led to a deterioration of their marriage . . ."
And next . . .? Zero, zilch, nada. Having touted these "multiple sources" in his lede, Zaki neither quotes, paraphrases nor describes them at any later point in the item. Nor is there so much as a "could not be reached for comment" indicating that he had attempted to get the Palins to verify what he heard from these mysterious "multiple sources" (who for all we know are his wife's hairdresser, the shoeshine man at the bus station and a night-shift clerk at the second-largest convenience store in Wasilla.)
Ask any newspaper editor in the country whether he would dare publish a story that alleged so much on the basis of so little. Among the Old School editors for whom I worked was the legendary Wes Pruden of The Washington Times. Wes would have personally fired any reporter who ever turned in such a smelly pile of steaming nonsense, which wouldn't have gotten past any assistant metro-desk editor who valued his paycheck.
Common sense: If it were definitely a fact that the Palins were "splitsville," as one anti-Palin blogger put it, why don't the words "lawyer" or "attorney" appear anywhere in Zaki's piece? Even if your source was merely a paralegal or a courthouse clerk who'd seen the filing, you might characterize that as "sources familiar with the legal proceedings" or some such term.
Given that divorce -- like a libel suit -- is a legal proceeding, any careful reporter might want to get his hands on some actual documents before alleging what Zaki alleges.
Beyond even such basic considerations of sourcing, however, the question occurs, "What's the hurry?" Other than some left-wing bloggers, who was competing with Zaki to be the first to pass along this unverified stuff from those "multiple sources"? Is it really so important to beat those people that you're willing to be the defendant in a libel suit? (I'm not an attorney, so I am certainly not qualified to say whether Zaki's item is what the lawyers call "actionable.")
This insane haste to pass along gossip is what Wes Pruden has always hated about the blogosphere. Wes's motto was and no doubt remains, "Get it first, get it right." There is no reason to rush to print (or, nowadays, pixels) with a story that's wrong. Better to miss a scoop than to get your facts wrong.
The bigger the story, the juicier the scoop, the more caution should be exercised in reporting. That worldwide exclusive quote from Sarah Palin? You can take that to the bank, baby. (I made sure that the quote was shared with veteran blogger Dan Riehl, by the way, so as to ensure rapid widespread dissemination on the blogosphere.)
After I'd filed that, however, I sent an e-mail containing the admonishment that now, no matter what happens, the Palins can never get divorced, as this would undermine my credibility. This was probably unnecessary, because I think that the Palins would agree that Wes Pruden's motto is equally applicable to marriage: Get it first, get it right.
Otherwise, you might end up like Dennis Zaki, whose next career -- according to "multiple sources" -- may involve a red nose and floppy shoes.
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