June 4, 2002







Fall Girl:
Nikki Finke and the New York Post


It wasn't long after the World Trade Center collapsed that reporters began to examine the crumbling U.S. economy.

One veteran business reporter, Nikki Finke, had been hired by the New York Post last December to write about the entertainment and media industries. But Finke lasted less than two months at the Post. Finke's attorneys say that Disney, which has numerous business dealings with the Post's parent company, News Corp., fumed to Post editors about "inaccuracies" in stories she wrote about Disney's legal battle over Winnie the Pooh merchandising rights. After Disney complained, the Post fired Finke.

Finke recently sued Disney and the Post, alleging breach of contract, interference with contract and libel, among other things. She is asking for up to $100 million. It will take more than a lawsuit, however, to fix all that went wrong at the New York Post during the Finke fiasco.

The ethical mess began when Finke's stories appeared in the Post Jan. 29 bearing headlines "Deep Pooh-Pooh" and "Pooh Scandal is $hred Hot." The articles, quoting newly unsealed court documents, alleged that Disney destroyed hundreds of boxes of documents in an 11-year legal battle with a Florida family over Winnie the Pooh commercial rights. If Disney lost the case, and thus the Pooh rights, it could lose up to 25 percent of its annual revenue, the story stated.

According to Finke's attorneys, Disney then complained to the New York Post about the story. News Corp., not wanting to upset an advertiser and ally, decided to sacrifice Finke.

The Post maintained that it corrected Finke's work, but searches of Lexis-Nexis and the paper's online archives also turned up no such corrections. And Finke's original articles, contained in the lawsuit, reveal that her story underwent substantial revisions after she filed it. Among numerous adjustments in story tone: Arthur Andersen appeared in the lead to the article; more material was added referencing document destruction; and the Post ran a picture beside the story of Mickey Mouse shredding Winnie the Pooh documents. Finke's attorneys say the Post made these revisions and Finke did not see or approve of them before publication.

It is an all-too-common practice in newsrooms for the reporter alone to take the fall. Gary Webb's career at the San Jose Mercury News effectively ended when he wrote a 1996 series on how the CIA introduced crack cocaine into inner cities. Jim Dyer, also of the Mercury News, was forced to resign after misrepresenting himself for a story he wrote on Iowa orphans. The editors of both stories evaded public accountability and possibly discipline, notes William Woo, a visiting professor of journalism at Stanford University.

"Shoddy reporting ought not to be tolerated, but failures in journalism are rarely the fault of one individual," said Woo, former editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "The publication of stories that cause trouble are almost always collective efforts and so the failure must also be collective. The public accountability ought to be collective, as well."

The Finke imbroglio differs from other cases: Disney's destruction of documents in the case was a matter of court record. Also, other reporters wrote on the controversy in a similar manner, and Finke's alleges that Post editors substantially altered the tone of her article without her approval.

The New York Post stands by Disney in its belief that Finke's stories were unfair and inaccurate. Even if Disney is right, editors are supposed to watch out for accuracy - at the very least fairness. The Villlage Voice notes that the New York Post's news desk is notorious for cutting writers out of the editing process. All of this makes the firing of Finke looks like a sacrificial hatchet job, with cowards holding the handle.

- Chris Raphael

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