- - Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Philadelphia, a city magazine once considered among the country’s best, has become a disgrace.

The magazine’s March cover story, “Being White in Philly,” focused on race relations in the city and outraged almost everyone.

An April story in the magazine centered on a Marine sniper who claimed he was haunted by his actions.

He apparently made up the whole thing.

Simply put, the authors and the magazine did not let facts stand in the way of a story. A template existed of a racial divide in one article and the troubled military man in the other.

The author of the race story, Bob Huber, began the report with his concerns about his son, a college sophomore, living in a neighborhood near Temple University in North Philadelphia, where I teach. I travel through the neighborhood several times a week and my daughter lives nearby. Trust me, it isn’t that bad.

Mr. Huber focused much of the article on one neighborhood, which has roughly three times as many whites as blacks. He quoted an 87-year-old man identified only as “John,” who reportedly recalled an encounter with a young black man. “It was a ni**er boy, a big tall kid. He wanted money.” After many years as a journalist, I could find a man named John in any city to say the same thing. But is it representative of race relations in the city? No, it’s not. The most serious race issue in most cities is black-on-black crime.

I have lived in Philadelphia for eight years. Even though racial issues exist here, they are far less serious than those in other places I have lived, including Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Despite the almost universal condemnation of the article’s portrayal of blacks, Philadelphia followed with an April story, “The War Within,” which was written by radio host Anthony Gargano. The article profiled a man the author called “The Tree Pruner.” He claimed he killed hundreds of people as a sniper in the Middle East.

In both stories the reporters used anonymous sources to provide information the magazine failed to adequately check, including whether the man, now identified as John Boudreau, even served in the military.

That’s the problem with anonymous sources in most cases. The readers and the editors cannot adequately check the accuracy of the information. After readers questioned the veracity of the sniper account, it was proved to be false and taken off the magazine’s website.

Tom McGrath, the editor of Philadelphia, wrote: “Philly Mag has never shied away from controversial topics or edgy stories [witness the hubbub that ensued over our cover story last month about race in Philadelphia]. But no matter what the story, we have always prided ourselves on trying to tell the truth to the best we can discern it in our pages. With this story, we failed in that mission.”

The author, Mr. Gargano, a former reporter for The New York Post, added in his apology: “I will tell you that I had countless correspondence with this man, and I sit here stunned. I was actually quite proud of the piece.”

Almost every journalist I know has made mistakes, including me. But these two articles diminish the credibility of all practitioners. If people don’t believe what they read or see — a growing problem journalists face — it makes all of us look bad. The magazine should be more than apologetic; it should be ashamed.

• Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20” for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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