Trouble at The Columbia Journalism Review?

Newsweek Cover

Rhonda R. Shearer, the widow of Stephen Jay Gould and proprietor of media watchdog site iMediaEthics, just published an extensive article on her site investigating a Newsweek article from 1967–and a follow up article that was published last month by The Columbia Journalism Review.

The long and winding tale starts way back in 1967, when Newsweek ran a cover story called “Trouble in Hippieland” by a then 28-year-old writer named Bruce Porter. The scare piece told the sad tale of a drugged out and washed up teen-runaway named Marcy.

Mr. Porter went on to write the book-turned-Johnny Depp movie Blow and teach at Columbia Journalism School, where he often used the story as a cautionary ethical tale. He had promised Marcy anonymity, but then revealed not only her name, but her hometown, drug use, back alley abortion and other identifying details.

In 2011, three years after retiring from Columbia,  Mr. Porter decided that he would find Marcy and apologize for betraying her, a documentary crew in tow. Along the way, Mr. Porter, managed to reveal many more details of her life. Mr. Porter writes about his quest in the November/December issue of the Columbia Journalism Review and ends the piece by acknowledging that he seems to have  betrayed Marcy’s trust once again. “It was as if I’d never learned a thing,” he writes. “Oh, Marcy, I thought, I’ve done it to you all over again!”

The CJR piece revealed Marcy’s last name, the names and identifying details of her family. Additionally, an accompanying photo showed her home address. Mr. Porter didn’t tell Marcy that the piece was running in CJR, although she did sign a release and was interviewed on camera for the documentary, which is still in the works.

Marcy did not hear about the CJR article until Ms. Shearer sent it to her.

“He should have let me know before he did that,” Marcy told Ms. Shearer. “I’m hearing something from you but I didn’t hear anything from them.”

Mr. Porter acknowledged that, in retrospect, he should have told Marcy about the CJR piece.

“The CJR piece was a way of getting attention for the documentary,” Mr. Porter told Off the Record. “In the best of all worlds I would have called Marcy to tell her about the piece.” Mr. Porter explained that he didn’t think of it because of her involvement with the documentary.

Ms. Shearer also contends, however, that she found factual errors in the original story, noting that a 1967 radio story contradicted many of the key details in the Newsweek piece. In a WNEW radio broadcast, also from 1967, Marcy, who said she was 19 (not 17) was given the phone to call her family. “They lied, mother, they really lied” and “it isn’t like they said,” Marcy said, in a one-sided phone conversation that makes for difficult listening.

According to Ms. Shearer, Marcy wasn’t informed that she was being recorded at the time and had never heard the radio piece.

Over the years, whenever Mr. Porter played the tape for his journalism classes, he would get a lump in his throat. The tape has been sampled by  pop bands and is widely available on the Internet.

According to Ms. Shearer, CJR should have used this material to correct the original Newsweek story.

“Memory is a funny thing,” Brent Cunningham, CJR’s deputy editor, told OTR. “Our intention was not to re-report a 40-plus-year-old Newsweek story.”

Mr. Cunningham said that CJR relied on Mr. Porter’s notes from the original story, the Newsweek story itself and certain factual details about Mr. Porter’s trip to Flint, Michigan.

“It seemed like the bigger problem was what happened after the story,” Mr. Cunningham said.

Mr. Cunningham was referring to an article in The Flint Journal, Marcy’s hometown paper. After Mr. Porter enlisted the local paper to help publicize his search for the one-time flower child, a reporter from the paper called him the following week for an update.

Mr. Porter told the reporter that they had found her and she was living in Hawaii, although he knew that was not true. Marcy had lived in Hawaii for a time but was by then back in Flint. The Flint Journal published a story, based on the conversation with Mr. Porter, saying that Marcy was living in Hawaii, which upset Marcy.

“It was the wrong thing to do,” Mr. Porter told OTR. “What I should have done is confided in the reporter and said, ‘Yes, we found her but she doesn’t want more publicity.’”

Still, neither Mr. Porter nor Mr. Cunningham felt that that had a place in the CJR story since it happened after the narrative of the piece ended.

“It’s funny that Rhonda is trying to turn Bruce into a journalistic villain when he was really just trying to make amends for a youthful mistake,” Mr. Cunningham said. “Maybe it backfired, but not in this piece.”