The Cape Cod Times — where I started my career in journalism in 1980 covering the waterfront and county politics — issued a public apology yesterday after discovering one of its longtime reporters had faked names in three dozen stories over the years.
One of those fictional characters was an imaginary 88-year old Cotuit resident named Johnson Coggins, fabricated in a 2011 story about the Cotuit Fourth of July Parade and introduced as the “patriarch of the family” and a “longtime Cotuit summer resident.” I note this because I remember reading the story and wondering who the f%^k this mysterious codger was and did he live in the pines somewhere in an alternative Cotuit universe I had never heard of. I also remember thinking, “damn, Cotuit is really changing and getting invaded with new faces when I don’t recognize the names of “longtime summer residents.”
Now I feel a little irked at the deception. Irked, not angry, just mentally tweaked at the memory of trying to put a face to a name and feeling mystified because, well, I was supposed to feel mystified. As a reporter I know the temptation of phoning something in, of fudging an age, a middle initial, but then it clicks that if I don’t the middle initial or the person’s age, if I didn’t take the time to get the little things right, well, the whole credibility began to crumble. It’s one thing to make an error and issue a correction. It’s another thing to deceive and have to deliver an apology.
The writer, Karen Jeffrey, used her imagination when populating the usual human interest stories about weather, parades, etc., inventing bystanders, observers, and participants. She got caught last month when she made up the names of some tourists surprised by a Veteran’s Day ceremony and the Times went deep into the morgue to discover that indeed, such chimeras as the fabled Mister Coggins didn’t exist.
Such a shame when a reporter goes down in flames. The news business has enough problems as it is, and trust shouldn’t be one of them.
I have fond memories of the Times. I was there the last year they used typewriters, and learned the reporter’s craft from some good reporters and editors like Don Brichta, Bill Briesky, Peggy Eastman, and Milton Moore. I learned how to properly use a reporter’s notebook, take a snapshot of a ribbon cutting and check passing ceremony, where to sit during a public meeting, and the true physical meaning of the term “cut-and-paste.” They have since become a Murdoch paper, their local news seems to shrink a bit every year (I rely on their sister weekly, the Barnstable Patriot for more hyperlocal coverage of town affairs), and they seem to be content with the usual light blend of car accidents, arrests, weather and features with no deep dives into Cape civic life. They took a pasting during the Wind Farm debates when a pair of critics wrote a book tarring their ethics for opposing the windmills are ardently as they did — but editorial pages are for taking a stand and they did.
If I were to make any request it would be to throw a little money at the local side — online can handle the page counts so the ad-edit ratio shouldn’t be an issue. The Cape needs the coverage which is now piece-meal between the one and only daily and a handful of weeklies. I know local news is expensive, but someone has to step up to the challenge and Patch is not it.