Wednesday, April 20, 2005

There Are Questions About The Eric Slater Firing At The L.A. Times

I'm taken aback and disturbed about the firing of Eric Slater, as I'm sure other L.A. Times veterans are. If he made up quotes, did a consciously poor job, or never spent much or any time in Chico at all, as is implied, then he may deserve being fired, although another option would have been counseling.

But it strikes me there may be other possibilities here, and some of the experiences I had with the assistant metro editors stir some thoughts I'm going to put down here. If they stir things up, so be it.

The editor's note in the Times is not very revealing. This is nothing like the New York Times lengthy revelations about the Jayson Blair affair, and that is probably not a coincidence, since the comprehensive piece the NYT did about Jayson Blair stirred up so much feeling it led to the publisher ousting the executive editor. In short, it was a process that exceeded all reasonable bounds, and I'm sure John Carroll and Dean Baquet did not want to stir up some such process at the L.A. Times.

I referred to the assistant metro editors. The editing process at the L.A. Times for a second tier story such as the Chico story is nothing like the comprehensive effort put in on the major investigative pieces that have recently led to Pulitzers. In fact, editing on both the national and foreign desks is vastly superior to the routine metro desk editing.

I say this, because of experiences I had in my final years at the L.A. Times. The metro editing on second tier stories is so slapdash, so filled with editors' feelings and changes that don't make any sense that it is a struggle often for reporters to ride the process through without bowing to gross errors being inserted into their stories. And when errors do appear, they are often not corrected, at least not in a way as to imply gross incompetence as was the first correction in the Chico case.

One of my last experiences with a front page story at the Times was a piece I did on some minor quakes that were occurring near Lakeport and Geyserville in Northern California. That story last year was a struggle throughout. I thought the metro desk had its agenda on that story, and nothing I could do to indicate that I felt it wasn't they way they saw it was availing. They had their desires for that story and the facts of the matter be damned.

Now, I don't know what happened with Eric Slater and the Chico story. I did exchange a couple of small messages with Eric on this, mainly to say at the initiation of the inquiry I wasn't going to write about it in my blog. Now that he's been fired, and may sue the paper, I don't feel bound by that earlier decision.

I do feel that Eric's "apology" was poorly done. It's as if he was trying to pass this off as a humorous or perhaps minor matter, when it's obvious now his job was at stake. So whatever he wrote in his apology was obviously a mistake.

But I'd like to know whether Jim Newton, in his investigation of what went on in Chico, bothered to check to see what went on in the editing of this story in Los Angeles, what changes were made, how Eric was relating to his editor during this process, whether the errors in the story were all his or not.

It used to be the Times was a writer's newspaper. Beginning with Noel Greenwood that changed, and it came to be with many stories that the assistant editors weren't satisfied with a story until they had changed virtually everything. This reflected the desire of Greenwood and other senior editors that the assistants "take the writers in hand." That has not made the L.A Times a better paper, I assure you, since by and large the reporters are better writers than the assistant editors, although I can think of some exceptions, such as Frank Clifford and others..

So what happened here? The results make me uneasy, as I said. But I know Eric Slater did some good work for the L.A. Times in Chicago and elsewhere, that he was well liked by many, and I hope he has been treated fairly.

If there are further developments in this matter, you can be assured I will write about them.


Blogger Matt Weinstock said...

Agree with you. I have long said that the editors of non national stories at LAT can't edit. Your inside experience is revealing.


4/20/2005 1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Reich:

I can't find an email address to contact you privately. Any way to do that?



4/20/2005 1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He made stuff up--he needs a swift kick, not "counseling"! What sort of headshrinking does a fabricator need? He knew it was an unimportant story, probably figured he'd get away with a slipshod job, and he got caught. I have no sympathy--but I'll bet he tells us that he was stressed and overworked and needs the job so he can have health insurance.

4/20/2005 8:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You raise a good point about counselling. In The Best and the Brightest, Talese even writes about an in-house shrink at the New York Times. And this was back in the 1960s. From experience, I suspect many more emotional breakdowns occur in the newsrooms and among newspaper people than anyone is willing to admit or acknowledge. I don't know Eric Slater, but you have to wonder what self-destructive streak might have been at work.

4/20/2005 8:45 PM  
Blogger jason said...

What I find amazing is that it's the journalists, the very people whose job it is get all of their facts straight, are the ones who have called Slater a fabricator without as so much having a shred of evidence to back up their claims. Journalism has turned into such a bloodsport. Journalists love to eat their own. It's as if we're rooting for our own kind to fall and fall hard so we'll having something good to talk about.

Who knows what the real story is behind the Slater affair. Having been in a similar situation as his I know first hand that there's more to a story than what an editors note--a press release--says.

Slater's got every right to toss some of the blame onto his incompetent editors at the Times, where I used to work, if that editor screwed up his story.

No one has the right to accuse Slater of journalism's worst crime without presenting the facts to back it up. That's what I hate about the Internet. People say what they want and hide behind anonymous posts and could give two shits how it may affect a person's career or life.

If Slater is guilty of making up sources than let the evidence decide that. But don't lynch the guy and act like you're some racist Alabama mob in the 1950s, without first getting your facts.

I hate you all.

Jason Leopold

4/20/2005 10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason has a point here. Journalists are a fickle bunch these days.

Gone are the days when a byline by Ken Reich or a similar veteran reporter was something you could rely upon as being factual.

Many was the time that I disagreed with Ken, but a call and a discussion usually resolved the differences and got the story straight.

These days, most don't want to be bothered by the facts, and are almost as unreliable as the editors and assistant editors who mess with the facts even more.

A similar issue that always rankles me is that when you criticize a writer for a seemingly unsupportable headline to a story, they all respond uniformly, "I don't write the headlines".

Gawd how I hate that phrase!

4/21/2005 5:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I think Jason might grow up. Eric for whatever reason made things up--hence the use of the word, "fabricator". And if Eric showed as much concern for his career and his reputation as Jason is suggesting, then he'd still have a job. You don't need to be an armchair Sigmund to explain lazy and careless.
Rachel Cohen

4/21/2005 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Nick Franklin said...

Mr. Reich:

I'm not entirely sure what you know about the Chico article, but I can assure you that Eric Slater either was not here or it was just very, very sloppy reporting that should have anyone fired from The Times. There were 13 fact errors for one thing, some of them just inexcusably sloppy. For one, he got the population of the city wrong. That's plain idiocy. But then he also said a Butte college student died, yet in reality the kid was only hospitalized. There are others, look below please. But I honestly don't believe that Slater even came up to Chico. There is no fraternity row up here, they are scattered throughout downtown. What makes me most suspicious is that in a town with 15,000 college students, he could only find one source that would identify himself? The one that did identify himself has no records of ever existing in Chico. I don't think it was really that hard to find someone to go on the record, I just think he didn't bother to come here. And as a Chico State student, I find it appalling that The Times has not ran an apology. Slater's careless reporting put a major dent in the school's reputation. Parents are coming up here for tours and asking about what goes on here because of Slater's article. Students and alumni have degrees that don't mean as much now, and admission standards have been dropped to make up for the impending lull in applications. Slater got what he deserved, hopefully he can get a management job at Barnes and Noble. As for what role the editors might have played, I can't bring myself to believe that they would screw things up that bad. But if they did, Chico State deserves an apology.

Errors in Slater's article

The effect

4/26/2005 12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh jeez.

Slater wrote humorous fiction and tried to pass it off as news. He got caught and got fired.

How does that make you feel?

Give me a damn break.

5/03/2005 7:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting that "TC," a Slater apologist, credited Gay Talese with writing "The Best and the Brightest."

That book was about the men who got us into Vietnam and it was written by David Halberstam.

Talese wrote "The Kingdom and the Power," a revealing look at the New York Times.

As for the matter at hand, Slater lies when he claims he reported from Chico.

The whole point of the Chico story was to look at fraternity hazing. So why did Slater spend his time (allegedly) at bars, where the frat types might or might not hang out?

Why did he not interview the university president, the campus cops and the medical examiner? It seems pretty obvious why. He blew off the assignment.

2/23/2006 12:19 PM  
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