Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Journalism or “Just a Blog”?

Originally I set out to write a simple post about London erecting a statue to honor cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on the 50th anniversary of his becoming the human being to ever travel in space, which occurs next week on April 12. As part of that post I intended to include a bit about a new book called Starman by authors Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, which adds a new chapter to the mythos surrounding Gagarin, who became an iconic figure both in the old Soviet Union and remains one in today's Russia. Starman, however, paints a disturbing picture of the Soviet space program in the late 1960s. Noted journalist Robert Krulwich, formerly of ABC and now of NPR, received an advanced copy of the book and made it the subject of a lengthy blog post two weeks ago where he recounted in detail the book's more explosive allegations surrounding the death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov during the flight of Soyuz 1. In short, authors Doran and Bizony allege that the flight of Soyuz 1 was pushed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution, and that the ship was in no shape to fly in space, a fact known to Cosmonaut Komarov, who was sure that he would die if he went up on the mission. He tried to get the mission delayed to no avail. While he could have simply refused to fly, his back-up was his good friend and now Soviet icon, Yuri Gagarin. According to the authors, Komarov decided to take the flight, sacrificing himself for Gagarin. After launch, when it became clear that he would not return alive, Komarov allegedly had a tear-filled conversation with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, before “crying in rage” against those who sent him up as his ship began its final, fiery plunge to Earth.

Soon after Krulwich's NPR blog account appeared, its veracity was attacked by members of the international space historian community, who pointed out that Starman contradicted the well-documented historical account of Soyuz 1 in many areas, and that certain key details – like the teary conversation with Kosygin – likely never happened. It turns out that the account in Starman is almost entirely from a single source, a former KGB agent and “friend” of Gagarin named Venyamin Russayev. The only problem is that there is no record of a Venyamin Russayev ever appearing anywhere before his inclusion in Starman. To make matters worse, there is evidence now that Doran and Bizony may have never even directly spoken with “Russayev”, whomever he may be.

While authors Doran and Bizony were quickly criticized by the space community for their lax approach to history, so too was Krulwich for his verbatim retelling of their tale without ever bothering to verify if any of it was in fact true. Sadly, despite his distinguished journalistic career (Krulwich has a knack for breaking complex issues down into easily understandable, yet still intelligent, TV packages), Krulwich decided to both pass the buck by blaming Doran and Bizony for feeding him a potentially false story sold as history, and to tell his critics to calm down since because of the “informal” nature of blogs, basic tenets of journalism – like fact-checking – apparently do not apply. “It's not an NPR news story. A blog is a blog,” Krulwich said via NPR.

It is both a disheartening and disturbing reply to a botched bit of reporting. First, one would hope that a journalist - the craft at which Robert Krulwich has earned his living for many years - would apply the same standards to their reporting no matter what the platform: television, print magazine, or yes, even a lowly blog. This implication that because something is “just a blog” is even more disturbing when one considers the trend among major media outlets to rely on “citizen journalists” to augment, or even replace, their traditional coverage. Blog posts, YouTube clips, Tweets, and cellphone videos are now a routine part of the reporting mix of most major media operations. If we look at the coverage of the “Arab Spring” revolts across the North Africa/Middle East region, we see that a preponderance of the coverage, particularly the early coverage of the uprisings, came not from paid correspondents, but unpaid “citizen journalists”. If we are going to give these public submissions the same weight as the formal packages filed by paid reporters, is it too much to expect that they should/would follow the same basic journalistic tenet of factual accuracy? That because something may be “just a blog” and “informal” does not absolve it of a duty to be accurate or for its writer to at least attempt to verify the salient details of the story he/she reports? And if we are not willing to hold these sources to these standards, then is it not time to remove them from our news-gathering mix?

Rather than traditional journalistic ethics, Robert Krulwich preferred to follow the one-time diktat of the famed supermarket tabloid, The Weekly World News: don't fact-check yourself out of a good story. The authors of Starman made some bold, and apparently dubious claims that were easily challenged, let Krulwich did not bother to attempt to check them before running with the story. Sadly he should realize that for journalists - real journalists - the same standards must apply, even if you are writing for “just a blog”.
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