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You can take our word for it - but check to make sure

At least 98 stories and opinion columns in U.S. newspapers said former FEMA head Michael Brown, above, was a college roommate or friend of his predecessor, Joe Allbaugh, below. He wasn't.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published November 1, 2005


At first, it seemed a perfect example of the Googlization of news.

That's what experts say can happen when a detail appears in one reputable news source and then is widely quoted in other stories as reporters discover the item, courtesy of popular search engines such as Factiva, Lexis/Nexis and Google.

The item in this case? That former Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown was a college roommate and/or friend of his predecessor, Joe Allbaugh.

A quick Lexis/Nexis search revealed 98 stories and opinion columns in U.S. newspapers citing this fact, from the Kansas City Star and Roanoke Times to U.S. News & World Report , the New York Times and the St. Petersburg Times . Often used as shorthand to imply that Brown was appointed FEMA head for his friendships and political connections, the detail even surfaced in a blistering satire on Comedy Central's The Daily Show .

One problem. It wasn't true, according to Allbaugh.

After Allbaugh's office began notifying news outlets of the error in early September, several organizations published corrections - including a note on Oct. 1 from New York Times editorial page editor Gail Collins correcting columns by Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich.

"Not once was I called by a major publication to fact check this ... not until after corrections started to run," said Patti Giglio, a spokeswoman for Allbaugh, who said the two men - alums of two different colleges - met sometime after their school years, remaining friends for decades.

"Journalists are inclined to use other journalists as sources," she said. "When you see it in one or two other publications, the assumption is that it must be true."

But there is another twist. The authors of two early stories that stated the two men were college friends have said Brown himself told them of the relationship.

"I interviewed him one day, and based it on what he told me ... I must have gotten the idea from him," said Bill McAllister, former Washington bureau chief for the Denver Post , who wrote a 2002 profile of Brown when he was confirmed as deputy director and chief operating officer at FEMA.

"When I wrote the piece, I didn't hear any complaint from him," said McAllister, who has since left journalism.

Another pivotal mention of the college relationship came in an Aug. 16, 2004, Wall Street Journal story outlining how FEMA officials were struggling to maintain their resources while merging with the Department of Homeland Security. When asked why he said Allbaugh and Brown were college friends, author Robert Block had a simple answer.

"Mike Brown told me that," said Block, the Journal's homeland security correspondent. "He never said they were roommates, he just said he knew (Allbaugh) from college. The question left: Is Joe bailing on his buddy, or is Mike just confused about the time? Given Mike's testimony about how he remembers events in Louisiana (in Katrina's aftermath), he seems to conflate time frames."

Michael Brown did not return telephone messages left at a number listed for his Alexandria, Va., home, and Allbaugh's representative, Giglio, said her boss could not say why Brown might have said they were college friends in the past. She also said Allbaugh could not recall the circumstances or time frame when he and Brown first became friends.

"That happens to be the reality. ... All I have is Mr. Allbaugh's word (that they weren't friends in college)," said Giglio, noting that Brown attended Central State University and Oklahoma City University, while Allbaugh attended Oklahoma State University.

Jill Lawrence, longtime political reporter for USA Today , admitted that her mistaken reference to Brown and Allbaugh's college friendship in a Sept. 7 story may have come from a Google search showing multiple previous references. But another problem was the lack of comment from FEMA and Brown.

"Michael Brown wasn't available, his former employer the Arabian Horse Association - I called them four times," she said. "It was hard to talk to anyone who was involved with this."

But even as Brown declined to assist reporters in verifying the facts of his life, he did complain about inaccurate press coverage at least five times during his Sept. 27 appearance before a U.S. House committee examining FEMA's slow response to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

"I guess they wanted me, in the middle of the disaster, to run back to Virginia and dig through my papers," said Brown. "I guess it's the media's job. But I don't like it."

That kind of generic devaluing of news coverage - at one point, Brown decried a "hysteric media reporting rapes and murders" in New Orleans - is what concerns Boston Herald business editor Cosmo Macero, who saw one of his reporters break an early story questioning Brown's qualifications after Katrina.

"The responsibility is always on the news organization to get the facts right," said Macero. "Nonetheless, it is a time-tested technique to ... attack inaccuracies that are not germane to the most important element of the story."

Preston Gralla, a technology columnist who has written for the Los Angeles Times , Dallas Morning News and USA Today , said search engines can pass along inaccurate facts "with amazing speed," as deadline-pressured reporters snatch up widely reported facts. One of Gralla's biggest peeves is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia where users can revise entries, adding or correcting facts themselves.

"It has made the news less trustworthy ... (because) people read things online and then they think it is true, even among professional journalists," he said. "That's the problem journalists face: If you don't get the small things right, it will make people disbelieve the entire story - or other stories you've written."

--Times researcher Carolyn Cedds contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/

[Last modified November 1, 2005, 02:15:27]


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