Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fact Checking Mark Bowden's Curious Vanity Fair Article on Stephanie Lazarus, Part VI

Complete Series on Fact Checking Mark Bowden's Article HERE.

Continued from Part V....

Yes T&T readers, there's still more to write about Mark Bowden's Curious Stephanie Lazarus article.

Bowden’s article ran in the July 2012 issue of Vanity Fair.  Late last month, Craig Silverman at Poynter published a detailed story investigating my claims about Bowden’s article.   I am very grateful to Craig for backing up my findings and getting some answers on the record from Vanity Fair.  It was from reading Craig’s article that I first learned the name of Mark Bowden’s editor, Cullen Murphy.   Speaking for Vanity Fair, Mr. Murphy told Poynter, “We’re always grateful to have errors called to our attention . . . We take fact-checking very seriously, and when issues arise, we look into them carefully.”

Some of Vanity Fair’s other quotes seemed odd to me, and raised additional questions I wanted to ask the magazine. A few days after Craig’s story was published, I emailed him for Cullen Murphy’s contact information.  Since Craig was away, I didn’t receive a response from him until October 10th. Craig told me his initial contact at Vanity Fair was Beth Kseniak, the magazine’s Executive Director of Public Relations.  I immediately sent Beth an email, introducing myself and asking her to forward my questions to Mr. Murphy.  I explained to Beth that I wanted to give Vanity Fair plenty of time to respond, and if Mr. Murphy replied by October 15th, I would include his answers in my next post.  Beth wrote me back that she had forwarded my email to Mr. Murphy.

Here is the email I sent to Mr. Murphy on October 10th:

Dear Mr. Murphy,

I’m sorry not to have introduced myself to you sooner.  I only learned your name recently, when I read Craig Silverman’s piece for Poynter.

I was glad to learn that Vanity Fair is always grateful to have errors pointed out, and that you take fact checking very seriously. Now that I know you are Mark Bowden’s editor at Vanity Fair, I wanted to ask you a few questions, and give you the opportunity to comment in my next post. 

When Poynter first contacted you, you told them:

“The central charge made by T&T is that Mark Bowden does not accurately quote the interrogation of Stephanie Lazarus and in one instance even adds his own material. This is false... The author of the T&T post relied on a transcript of the interrogation. Bowden, rather than use some unknown person’s transcript—transcripts are notoriously unreliable—went to the actual videos of the interrogation to confirm his quotations. Further, to make sure the speakers were being identified correctly, the quotations were read back to Detectives Stearns and Jaramillo of the LAPD. When the article was published, Vanity Fair put the videos online to make the source readily available. On review, we confirmed that Bowden’s quotations are indeed accurate and that the transcript is not. (We did find that two sentences in a single quotation in the VF piece had been inadvertently transposed, with no impact on meaning.)”
Poynter verified that the official transcript matched the video perfectly.  You then admitted you were mistaken and apologized for “inadvertently introducing a red herring.”

My questions are below.

1. In what way was your initial statement “inadvertent?” 

2. When did Bowden speak to Detectives Stearns and Jaramillo to verify their quotations? Did Bowden also ask the detectives about their experience interviewing Stephanie?

3. Why did Bowden use some unknown person’s transcript of Stephanie Lazarus’s interview, rather than the official court transcript which Judge Perry made public in November 2010?

4. Have all the quotations in Bowden’s article been checked against the official transcript?

You also told Poynter:

"Having gone back again to compare it’s hard to see a substantive issue. Much verbiage and crosstalk has been cut out for concision and clarity—pretty standard when dealing with a long, rambling, and shaggy interrogation—but the quotations used in Bowden’s text correspond with relevant portions of the video. Some things are hard to make out, and there may be an occasional small variance, but a fair reading would conclude that the quotes track accurately and correctly capture the dynamic of the interrogation. There has been no distortion."
5. The primary focus of Bowden’s piece is Stephanie’s Lazarus’s 2009 interrogation. Can you cite another piece of journalism in Vanity Fair, or any other publication, in which a “long, rambling, and shaggy interrogation” was compressed in this way, without disclosure that it had been?

You also told Poynter:

“We take fact-checking very seriously, and when issues arise we look into them carefully.”
6. How carefully has Vanity Fair looked into Bowden’s article?

7. Did Vanity Fair fact check Bowden’s article before it went to press?

In his article, Craig Silverman said he raised two errors with you. But I noticed Vanity Fair corrected four errors online.

8. How did Vanity Fair decide which errors to correct, and why did Vanity Fair only correct four?

9. Are you aware there are at least five more significant factual errors in Bowden’s article that remain uncorrected?

Thank you very much for your time. I would appreciate it if you could please respond by Wednesday, when I plan to publish. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Betsy A. Ross, Owner
Trials & Tribulations Blog

On October 15th, I received a reply from Cullen Murphy, in which he requested to respond “privately and off the record.” I wrote Murphy back the same day:

Mr. Murphy,

Thank you for your response. I will honor your request not to publish what you emailed me. However, I am disappointed by your decision not to comment on the record.

To be clear, my sole intent in writing this series has been to keep the public record as accurate as possible, given the very serious circumstances of Sherri Rasmussen’s murder. I appreciate the background you provided, but it doesn’t acknowledge the scope of the problems with Bowden’s article, the factual errors that remain uncorrected, or your recent statements to Poynter. 

I hope you will reconsider, and answer my questions on the record. I think my questions are very reasonable. I will give you and Vanity Fair a few more days to decide. Please respond by Wednesday evening if you would like your perspective in the post.

Betsy A. Ross, Owner
Trials & Tribulations Blog

Mr. Murphy wrote me back two days later:
Dear Ms. Ross,

I'm sorry that you're unable to take up the offer to have a conversation with Mark Bowden, and I've passed that information along to him.


Cullen Murphy
I responded the same day, October 17th:

Dear Cullen,

I think you may have misunderstood my email. I'm perfectly willing to have a conversation with Mark Bowden about his article, but not off the record.  For transparency's sake, and so there's no confusion about who said what, I prefer to communicate via email.

To confirm, you have forwarded my questions to Bowden?

I know I had offered Vanity Fair until tonight to comment, but in case Bowden only received the questions today, I want to give him and the magazine plenty of time to respond. If you or Bowden answer my questions by Friday, I will include your comments in my next post.

Betsy A. Ross, Owner
Trials & Tribulations Blog

Later that day, I noticed that Vanity Fair added numerous additional corrections to the online version of Mark Bowden’s article.  Vanity Fair offered no explanation for the timing of these new corrections. I received one more email from Mr. Murphy on Friday, but again, he declined to speak on the record.

I have one additional question for Vanity Fair:

10. Are you aware that one of your recent corrections is factually inaccurate? John Ruetten and Stephanie Lazarus did not take a trip together to Hawaii.  Stephanie traveled to Hawaii with her friend Greg, and John Ruetten independently met them there. Stephanie discusses this in her interview (see pages 28-29 of the official court transcript).

Continued in Part VII.....


ritanita said...

To quote Sonny and Cher out of context, the beat goes on!

I can't wait for the next chapter.

Anonymous said...

as of 12:30p EST on 10/24, the new "correction" is still wrong on Vanity Fair's website

Vanity Fair and Mr. Murphy seem incapable of defending Bowden's article without making things worse for themselves

if they want to put this debacle behind them, perhaps VF and Bowden ought to consider a different public relations strategy than lying and hiding

Anonymous said...

if a police detective were caught fudging what a suspect said in a murder interrogation, they would be blistered on the stand, and rightfully so. the conviction might even be lost for it - guilty people have walked for less. just sayin

meanwhile bowden's editor says "its hard to see a substantive issue"?!?

Jane from PA said...

It seems to me that the truth and correct facts is always a substantive issue. Unfortunately, the incorrect "facts" in the article seem to be a sign of the times. You can have your own opinions but not your own facts.
Thanks as always for your hard work.

Anonymous said...


Forgive me as I open my mouth . . . I was the one who called the Vanity Fair article "riveting" shortly after it was published. I found your blog shortly after you began covering the Stephanie Lazarus case and I was smitten with your blogs; how in depth you covered the case, I was with you every step of the way. I see your point with the Vanity Fair article, however I also see it as a piece of journalism which covers a murder trial and the background, including the people involved. I by no way see it as having to reach to the factual integrity of a court proceeding. I get what you are saying about the inaccuracies, they are there, like they are in so many other publications-even the campaigns that are going on now-for the highest offices in our land. It's everywhere! Reader beware! As I learned in college as a criminal justice major-don't believe anything you read-check it out! I followed the Lazarus case like a squirrel after a nut. Several of my friends, to whom I showed the article, consumed it. I had one friend, a professor, who stayed up late reading until she finished. The lively discussions that continued, for the person just reading the article, was not about inconsequential errors, at least for them, who had no knowledge of the case. Rather it was about so many huge issues that the Lazarus case brought to the surface: DNA evidence viable after 23 years, a successful police detective keeping a secret of murder, finally justice for a family that always knew-to name a few.
You can say fact check and you are correct, they should have done better but I will say this, no one potentially knows this case better than you. If every sentence that was ever printed was fact checked perhaps our reading would be "correct" but then again by who's definition? That can open a whole other interpretation.
I think you are fantastic. I think you should be writing the articles!

Sprocket said...

Anon @ 7:25 PM yesterday.

I'm sorry this comment was approved late. Real life responsibilities to my family have to come first.

I'll respond to this in depth later, but the short answer for now is, there are journalistic standards that every media outlet, and individual journalist should strive for, whether it is reporting on Lindsay Lohan's latest drama, the next hurricane to hit land, corruption in government scandals or a murder of an innocent woman.

There is no excuse for not following journalistic standards in each and every story that's reported, and fact checking is one of those important standards. We need to hold our media sources to those standards each and every time.

Just because a story reads well should not exempt it from thoroughly fact checking the story.

More later...

NYU Ethics Journalism Handbook - PDF

Read Mr. Bowden's bio at Vanity Fair.

"He is an adjunct professor at his alma mater, Loyola College in Maryland, where he teaches creative writing and journalism."

Mr. Bowden KNOWS these standards.

Anonymous said...

Bowden is the author of a long article (from an upcoming book) in the current issue of VF on the months leading up to the Navy Seals killing Bin Laden - now I have to wonder if we can trust the reporting in the that story!

I'm disappointed in the magazine that I've been buying for several years now.

Maddie said...

I can only imagine what the late, great Dominick Dunne would have had to say about this! I miss his writing.

Thank you (again and again) for keeping us up to date with this. You're the best!

Sandy said...

As a former journalist, I know these standards, too, and I agree that one cannot have just some of the facts and then leave the rest to imagination and call the article a factual report. Clearly VF is all about readership and damn the facts, full steam ahead.

I also think that when a major magazine makes any inference that a reporter such as yourself has made errors and then, realizing their mistake, fails to correct that statement, they are leaving themselves wide open for libel or slander suits. I take this as seriously as you do, and am intending you are getting both the answers to all your questions and a retraction of their incorrect statement about you!