The following is a letter written by NAHJ president Veronica Villafañe to New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. in response to the newspaper's reluctance to run a correction on a story involving journalist Geraldo Rivera.
September 23, 2005
Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.
The New York Times
229 West 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036
Dear Mr. Sulzberger:
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists has had the opportunity to review the tape referred to in Alessandra Stanley's Sept. 5 column, in which she mentions Fox News Channel's Geraldo Rivera. In the article, Ms. Stanley chides Rivera, who (she says) "nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way so his camera crew could tape him as he helped lift an older woman in a wheelchair to safety."
The tape shows no such thing, and the New York Times owes Mr. Rivera an apology.
Mr. Rivera provided NAHJ with the footage shot from this incident. It showed Mr. Rivera interviewing rescue workers and helping wheel-chair bound evacuees. It also showed him assisting another gentleman carry an elderly woman in a wheelchair down several flights of stairs.
Truth and accuracy are basic principles of journalism, and if something happens “off camera,” it should be substantiated with eye-witness accounts. That did not happen in this case. There is no evidence whatsoever to objectively state that he nudged anyone. What is worse is that your editor, Mr. Bill Keller, acknowledges this but defends Ms. Stanley relying on the worst of technicalities to justify what was printed: that it happened off camera and could be implied.
In Howard Kurtz's Sept. 12 Washington Post column, Mr. Keller was quoted as saying, "It was a semi-close call, in that the video does not literally show how Mr. Rivera insinuated himself between the wheelchair-bound storm victim and the Air Force rescuers who were waiting to carry her from the building. Whether Mr. Rivera gently edged the airman out of the way with an elbow (literally 'nudged'), or told him to step aside, or threw a body block, or just barged into an opening -- it's hard to tell, since it happened just off-camera. Frankly, given Mr. Rivera's behavior since Ms. Stanley's review appeared . . . Ms. Stanley would have been justified in assuming brute force. . . . Ms. Stanley's point was that Mr. Rivera was showboating."
If the New York Times wants to accuse Mr. Rivera of showboating, then issue a clarification and state that. But the paper should not support allowing a reporter to assume an incident occurred without proper evidence.
More importantly, how can you continue to justify failing to run a correction even when your own editor stated that the video doesn’t show what Ms. Stanley's column definitively declared to be fact?
Let's put principle above personality. Geraldo Rivera has taken his lumps in the past (and, need we remind you, so has the New York Times). He didn't deserve this one. Journalists and media organizations will gain greater credibility with their audiences if they are more honest about the mistakes they make in their reporting.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists urges you to run a correction.
Founded in 1984, NAHJ's mission is to increase the percentage of Latinos working in our nation's newsrooms and to improve news coverage of the Latino community. NAHJ is the nation's largest professional organization for Latino journalists with more than 2,300 members working in English and Spanish-language print, photo, broadcast and online media.