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March 23, 2006
All The News That Fits Our Mindset, Volume II

The New York Times has been suckered again, although this time they manage to avoid blaming everyone else for their mistake. In providing coverage of the victims from Hurricane Katrina, they published a lengthy profile of one refugee, Donna Fenton, a little over two weeks ago. Imagine their surprise when Fenton got arrested for welfare fraud and grand larceny, having never been a Katrina refugee in the first place.

The Times issues the correction today:

An article in The Metro Section on March 8 profiled Donna Fenton, identifying her as a 37-year-old victim of Hurricane Katrina who had fled Biloxi, Miss., and who was frustrated in efforts to get federal aid as she and her children remained as emergency residents of a hotel in Queens.

Yesterday, the New York police arrested Ms. Fenton, charging her with several counts of welfare fraud and grand larceny. Prosecutors in Brooklyn say she was not a Katrina victim, never lived in Biloxi and had improperly received thousands of dollars in government aid. Ms. Fenton has pleaded not guilty.

For its profile, The Times did not conduct adequate interviews or public record checks to verify Ms. Fenton's account, including her claim that she had lived in Biloxi. Such checks would have uncovered a fraud conviction and raised serious questions about the truthfulness of her account.

Why didn't the reporter, Nicholas Confessore, check out Fenton's story before writing his article? Why didn't the editors fact-check the piece before publishing it? Because it fit with their mindset of how Katrina should be portrayed -- as a government bungle-up. If the story fits the mindset, they run it, just as they did with the hoaxer claiming to be the man under the poncho in the infamous Abu Ghraib photo. As Power Line notes, reporters and editors don't find it necessary to engage all those vaunted quality checks that makes the Exempt Media so much better than bloggers if the article sounds true.

And in this case, it's hard to just criticize the Gray Lady when our government apparently couldn't be bothered to do the same thing until her picture got put into the paper. Fenton managed to fleece us pretty well before getting too cocky and allowing Confessore to profile her "plight":

A Red Cross worker placed Ms. Fenton, her husband, and four of her five children — Akreem, 16; Ashley, 14; LaTanya, 10; and Danielle, 9 — at the Ramada, and gave her a debit card with a $1,565 limit. The children were placed in public school, but debit-card money quickly dwindled. "That doesn't go far for six people," she said.

So Ms. Fenton began working the phones. A $2,358 check for rent assistance from FEMA arrived in October. But a second check, for what the agency calls "immediate needs," never materialized. [Don't you think this would have piqued a reporter's curiosity? --CE] ...

FEMA granted her an extension to stay at the hotel, she said, but then forgot to issue an authorization code for the second of the two rooms her family occupied. That meant more time pleading on the phone.

A FEMA spokeswoman, Nicole Andrews, acknowledged last week that the process could be "pretty tough for anyone who has been traumatized like these people have."

It seems that FEMA must have learned its fact-checking from the New York Times. At what point do they finally scratch their heads and check their records on Ms. Fenton? Only when she got her name in the paper, apparently.

That doesn't let Confessore completely off the hook. His article descends into a morass of woe that would have made Charles Dickens envious. As Confessore reports, Fenton wound up hospitalized two weeks for a burst appendix in February -- a burst appendix? If she had a burst appendix in February, how could she be on her feet and shopping for knick-knacks with her friend, as shown in the picture? People die from burst appendixes, and when they survive, they're not out shopping at the five-and-dime a couple of weeks later. But that's not the end of Fenton's tough luck; her son has post-traumatic stress disorder (from a hurricane that he never experienced), her daughter ran away, and a hit-and-run driver demolished the family car.

None of this indicated to Confessore that he had a pathological liar in front of him. None of this tripped the editorial checks that make our media outlets so reliable. The Times never questioned Fenton's story until the feds finally caught up with the fraud.

While the Times managed to avoid blaming everyone else in their correction, they also managed to avoid correcting the original article. They put no note or disclaimer on the March 8th article by Confessore, not even at the bottom as they did with the Abu Ghraib hoaxer. Anyone reading this article from the archives will not know that it has been discredited, along with the editorial reliability of the Times.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 23, 2006 6:54 AM

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Tracked on March 23, 2006 11:51 AM


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