Newspaper stories in question

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(Host) This week, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus fired its managing editor after it could not substantiate a story he wrote about a teenage heroin addict. Now, the paper is questioning other stories the editor wrote.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Times Argus publisher John Mitchell says the story that forced him to fire his editor had to do with a 16-year-old heroin addict in Montpelier.

Editor Scott Fletcher wrote the first part of a series on heroin this fall. Fletcher described a young addict named Dee Dee, who worked as a prostitute to support her drug habit. Mitchell says the paper’s internal investigation could not confirm information Fletcher had provided:

(Mitchell) “It was on the front page of our paper. There were real questions.”

(Dillon) Mitchell believes the paper’s credibility is its most important asset. He says that’s why he published a story on why Fletcher was fired:

(Mitchell) “I don’t think you want to leave something like that to the rumor mill. I mean, if we didn’t, we would look like we were trying to cover something up.”

(Dillon) The publisher says that the story about Dee Dee now makes him wonder about other articles that Fletcher produced:

(Mitchell) “This situation calls into question anything he wrote.”

(Dillon) According to Mitchell, the paper’s readers and staff have raised concerns about at least two other Fletcher pieces. The first is a story that appeared on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Fletcher tells the story of a woman named Martha Harris. He says she lost her only relative, a nephew, in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Her reaction to the tragedy was to drop out of society and live on her own in the wilderness. According to the story, Harris moved to her late husband’s hunting camp in the remote Northeast Kingdom town of Ferdinand.

Fletcher describes Harris as a teacher of creative writing, who worked at colleges and prep schools. He told newsroom colleagues that Harris worked at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, where Fletcher also studied.

But Saint Michael’s professors cannot recall a Martha Harris and a college spokesman says her name does not show up in personnel records going back to the mid-1980s. VPR’s search of land records in Ferdinand and the eight towns surrounding it in the Northeast Kingdom shows no hunting camp owned by a Martha Harris. The town lister in Ferdinand says he knows all 23 people in town and has never heard of Martha Harris.

Fletcher says he could locate the Harris camp, but he would not provide directions. And when asked to travel to Ferdinand, he says he’s not ready to do that.

(Fletcher) “I’m a journalist and you’re trained to be skeptical and curious. And looking back on it now, it doesn’t sound good. And maybe that’s part of my reason for being less than anxious to go do this. That would clear up the story about Martha. Terrific. What do I do about Dee Dee? If I thought it would do some good, I would.”

(Dillon) Fletcher also wrote the first chapter in a history book the newspaper published in 1999. His chapter described Vermont life in the 1900s. In the book, Fletcher quoted extensively from a diary written by a woman named Molly Riordan, who is said to have lived in Charlotte in 1900.

According to Fletcher, Riordan died 12 years later in a tragic fire in a New York City shirt factory. The fire at the Triangle Shirt factory, in which hundreds of workers died, is well known and well documented. Riordan is not listed as one of the 146 victims, according to a Cornell University research center.

VPR could not find Riordan in the 1900 census in Charlotte. The Charlotte Historical Society also could not locate any family of that name after checking the 1890 census, poll tax records, and property tax records in that time period.

Fletcher says he had Molly Riordan’s handwritten diary, which he says he bought in a used bookstore years ago. But he says the diary was lost two years ago when the Times Argus basement was flooded. He denies falsifying any story:

(Fletcher) “Everything was written in the diary and if I had it, I could show it to you.”

(Dillon) Fletcher says he also believes he showed the diary to the book’s editor, but the editor says he never saw it.

Journalism professor Diane Lynch teaches at Saint Michael’s College. She says the newspaper has to work now to rebuild its credibility with readers:

(Lynch) “The public is very willing to mistrust the media. And the media’s only hope of rebuilding that trust, digging its way out of the hole it seems to have dug itself in the last decade in terms of its credibility with the public, has to do with being extremely proactive, and very visible and very explicit in its dealing with and addressing this kind of situation.”

(Dillon) Lynch says a fundamental rule of journalistic credibility is to tell the public what it knows. Other news professionals say reporters must always be able to verify the stories they write.

Publisher Mitchell says the new allegations are just coming to his attention. He says the paper may advise readers that questions have been raised about other stories that Fletcher wrote.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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