Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sign of the Times: Oops!

The New York Times' corrections bin contained this little jewel this morning:
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.
Maybe it is just my own inherent cynicism, but it sounds to me like the Times editor is almost more sorry that the original story exposed Ms. Fenton's crimes than he is for getting the story wrong. In today's follow-up story, the Times reporter is quick to point out that it wasn't the paper's fault this woman got caught:
Ms. Fenton was the subject of an article in The New York Times on March 8, more than a month after Brooklyn prosecutors, prompted by suspicious officials at the city's welfare agency, began investigating her.
Hidden on page two of the new story are these paragraphs that show exactly how inadequate the Times' original fact checking really was:
Public records indicate that Ms. Fenton may have used as many as 18 addresses in half a dozen states since 1989, including nearly a dozen in Brooklyn and in Columbus, Miss. She has at least two criminal convictions, for fraud and for grand larceny, and has left behind a trail of creditors and angry landlords.

Public records and interviews also indicate that in December 2001, Ms. Fenton was charged with assault, a misdemeanor, in Valley Stream, N.Y., just across the border from Queens in Nassau County. She failed to appear at a 2002 court date, and a bench warrant still exists for her arrest in Nassau County. Also in 2002, apparently while living in Brooklyn, she received a summons in a dispute with a bank over a $7,814 loan.

Hat-tip: David Benzion of Lone Star Times

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