Monday, March 1, 2010

When big bureaucracies fail – in foster care and in journalism

There was one warning sign after another, yet nothing was done. Lower level people reported to higher ups, but either they were ignored or the information "fell through the cracks." In some cases, they were afraid to bring up their concerns – until the whole thing blew up in everybody's face.

A child welfare agency ignoring warning signs about an endangered child? No. Our intelligence community, failing to connect the dots in the case of the attempt to bomb a plane on Christmas Day? No. I'm thinking of another great big bureaucracy: The New York
Times, and how it allowed serial fabricator Jayson Blair to get away with making stuff up for such a long time.

The similarities are eerie. Don't think so? Just compare any in-depth account of how a child welfare agency's screw-ups contributed to the death of a child known-to-the-system to this story: The Times' own account of how Jayson Blair's fabrications "fell through the cracks."

Top editors at the Times came in for plenty of criticism and two of them, including Executive Editor Howell Raines, lost their jobs. But no journalist ever said those editors "didn't give a damn." No journalist said they didn't care. No journalist said they were "automatons," all of which are among the characterizations Portland Oregonian columnist Steve Duin used to characterize some Oregon child welfare workers he does not know and never met, after a child was starved and tortured to death on their watch, despite repeated warnings. (I don't mean to pick on Duin, who has done some very good work; his column is just the most recent example of this genre.)

No, those are characterizations reporters tend to save for other lines of work – at least publicly. And while Duin might be right about these workers, when throwing around those kinds of insults, "might" isn't good enough. (Going to the other extreme and finding some worker to canonize, what I've come to call the National Model Worker story, doesn't help either.)

Some might argue that the Times is different because, after the Blair fiasco, it fired people and it learned from its mistakes. But child welfare agencies also fire agency chiefs after high-profile fatalities; quite often, in fact. And it's not clear how much the Times has learned.

Consider the case of Alessandra Stanley, a reporter whose job is to write sneering columns filled with maximum condescension about television. Since many print journalists hate television, especially television news, they tend to love stuff like this. That explains why the Times' "public editor" (a job created in response to the Blair case) could describe Stanley as "… much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television."

It also made her editors remarkably forgiving of mistakes. Stanley's reign of error became a public issue when the Times had to run a correction setting the record straight on seven separate mistakes in just one story, an assessment of the life of Walter Cronkite. It was published shortly after he died – but written well beforehand. (Stanley said she'd meant to go back and check the facts before it was published.)

As to how the story fell through the cracks, according to the public editor: "even a newspaper like the Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done." Sure sounds like a child welfare agency to me.

But there's more. When the public editor looked into Stanley's record, he found she made so many mistakes that, at one point, she was assigned a personal copy editor to keep her blunders from getting into print. Stanley's work improved, the arrangement ended and, it is claimed, things went fine until the Cronkite story.

But just imagine, for a moment, what any columnist or editorial writer would say if it were revealed that the CPS worker involved in some tragedy had a record that was so bad she'd been assigned a personal supervisor whose specific job was to keep her from screwing up.

None of this excuses the very serious and very real failings of child welfare agencies – failings that go in all directions. But it does suggest that before assuming a posture of sneer and swagger toward frontline workers, those who write about these systems might want to do a little more reporting, and dispense with some of the, uh, "intellectual heft."