No newspaper editor likes corrections. We want our newspapers to be right. When we discover an error, we do our best to set the record straight.
If an error is bad enough -- especially when it crosses the lines of journalistic ethics -- we may be forced to remove the offender.
That is what happened last week at the Herald. Columnist and arts critic Eric D. Snider was fired -- not for his edgy, sometimes controversial humor, but for violating the ethical standards of this newspaper.
Over the last couple of days, I have received numerous questions from readers, especially Snider fans, whose common thread is whether his firing was an overreaction induced by the frenzy of ethics violations of recent months, from The New York Times to The Salt Lake Tribune and other organizations.
Snider himself framed the question well. While he freely admitted his error, he wasn't sure the Herald's response -- my response -- was proportional to the crime.
"Whether it's worth being fired over, I guess that's the question," Snider wrote on his personal Web site. "I get the sense that it's very hip to be fired for an ethics violation nowadays. I think that's the feeling at newspapers. They'll fire anyone, even the editor if they have to, just to say to the public, 'Look how noble and trustworthy we are.' "
This is a fair question. And I can answer unequivocally.
I would have made the same decision last year, five years ago, or any other time. I would make it regardless of the talent and ability of the reporter or his value to the newspaper. Snider's was considerable.
But there are simply some things that cannot be tolerated in a news organization whose very existence depends upon the fact that people can depend upon what it says.
When the Grove Theater altered the script of a Neil Simon play to delete profanity, the copyright holder got wind of it through at least two tipsters. The play, ironically titled "Rumors," was canceled.
In reporting the incident, Snider wrote that the identity of the tipster "is a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie." But he knew the answer.
One tipster who alerted copyright monitor Samuel French, Inc. to the script modifications was Snider's roommate, a Herald employee who also happened to be starring in the play. Another was Snider himself.
To some, it may seem a reasonable thing for a reporter to point out such information. This would be true if the pointing out were done in the context of regular reporting. For example, Snider could have taken up the subject a month ago in a news story. He could ask the Grove about the modifications, then ask Samuel French, Inc., or Simon, or Simon's lawyer how they felt about it.
Had the copyright information been revealed to the Simon camp in the course of straightforward journalism, there would be no problem. And the Herald would have published a legitimate news story weeks earlier.
As it was, we became entangled in an ethics problem. Here's why:
First, it is the job of a reporter to gather and recount facts. It is not appropriate for a reporter to get involved in creating news. The Grove story, at the very least, has a cast of impropriety in this respect. The Herald did not publish, though we should have, a legitimate story about copyrights. We waited until the shoe dropped on the production, the result of tips whose source was purportedly unknown.
Second, reporters are required to avoid conflicts of interest. They are required to bring possible conflicts to the attention of their supervisors. In this case, a clear conflict of interest existed. Snider's roommate was part of the story. He was a member of the play's cast and had reported the script alterations to Samuel French. The Herald's code of ethics states that reporters "must disclose any possible conflicts ... that might prohibit them from working on certain stories," including personal relationships.
Third, the Herald believes credibility is its greatest asset. Our code of ethics, for that reason alone, requires that reporters "make every effort to fully identify the news source in a story." We require openness, honesty and transparency in our news reporting. We sometimes get it wrong despite our best efforts, but we don't deliberately hide the truth.
Fourth, if there was ever an ironclad law for journalists, it is that a reporter must never knowingly write a falsehood. In writing that the identity of the tipster was a mystery, Snider broke that cardinal rule.
And so a very talented journalist no longer works for the Daily Herald. Simply, we require our reporters to gather facts in an honest way and to disclose them in a straightforward manner.
The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. Poynter is a professional organization -- a "think tank," the Trib called it -- devoted to study and support across a wide spectrum of journalism issues. Steele is a senior faculty member in ethics.
Celia R. Baker of the Tribune wrote that Steele sees several problems with Snider's approach:
"The story is not factually accurate because it leaves out key information that the reporter was aware of," said Steele in the Tribune article. Steele goes on to say that the approach was unfair to the Grove Theatre and to readers because Snider had "a specific and significant involvement in the story. He supplied the tip that led to the copyright action, which has now led to him writing about it."
If there was a legitimate story to be told -- and there was -- Snider could have told it. The copyright holders could then respond to the theater, but "that's their choice," Steele told the Tribune.
Eric Snider is a talented writer and observer. He was a valuable, often delightful, contributor to pages of the Herald.
But the most precious asset a newspaper has is trust. If our credibility is undermined, if our fairness is in doubt, if our sources are questionable, we might as well pack it in.
Randy Wright is executive editor of the Daily Herald.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A7.