Oh, Beehive!

Sac Bee management silent about ongoing Griego Erwin probe; city editor hands off investigation

SN&R’s exclusive interview with Diana Griego Erwin, published May 19.

It’s been more than a month since human-interest-focused metro columnist Diana Griego Erwin left The Sacramento Bee amid an investigation into whether several people she wrote about actually exist, and still the Bee has been largely silent to its readers about the extent of her alleged fabrications and its investigation into them.

SN&R, through interviews with several Bee staffers (most of whom spoke on the condition that their names not be printed here), learned how the investigation is progressing. Last week, Griego Erwin’s former supervisor, City Editor Stuart Drown, ceased working on the investigation after several Bee staffers complained to Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez and Publisher Janis Heaphy that an editor responsible for the questionable columns should not be charged with auditing their veracity.

Star investigative reporters John Hill and Dorothy Korber were asked to help track down people named in some columns Griego Erwin wrote throughout her 12-year tenure with the Bee. Hill and Korber, who earlier this year won journalism’s prestigious George Polk Award for their joint effort examining inequities in California’s state pension system, lend credibility to the Griego Erwin probe, said Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the journalistic think-tank The Poynter Institute.

“You clearly need some independent investigation” in situations such as these, Clark said, adding that independent can mean the newspaper’s own employees, as long as those chosen are “the reporters with the greatest integrity and who are less vulnerable to the consequences of telling the truth.”

Hill and Korber’s involvement in the probe is limited. Hill spent several days seeking Griego Erwin’s sources but has now returned to his duties in the Bee’s capital bureau. Korber said she would spend about a week, full time, investigating some columns. When reached in the newsroom on Friday, she said she was looking at columns from 1997.

The Bee’s head librarian, Pete Basofin, also has done much of the legwork of combing through Griego Erwin’s body of Bee work.

None of this, however, has been reported to Bee readers. Instead, Public Editor Armando Acuña has trickled out bits of information in two Sunday columns. The paper has not reported to its readers how the investigation is being handled or when—or if—they will learn the extent of Griego Erwin’s failures.

Korber said she does not know how or when the investigation will wrap up.

“It’ll somehow be reported, but it’s still up in the air,” she said.

Rodriguez, in a phone interview Monday evening, said he hadn’t decided how the investigation would be reported to readers. “It should be in the not-too-distant future,” he said. Drown, reached by telephone, declined to comment. Griego Erwin, who spoke exclusively with SN&R last month [“Scandal-stung Bee columnist talks to SN&R,” SN&R News, May 19], didn’t want to be formally interviewed for this story.

In comparison to the Bee, take the Detroit Free Press. When one of its sports columnists, Mitch Albom, was found to have written about an event before it took place, the paper’s editor/publisher publicly accepted blame for what she determined to be a newsroom-wide problem. Last month, the paper assigned several reporters to look into Albom’s past work. But at least one of those reporters complained, after a report of the investigation appeared on the paper’s front page, that the report had been edited to make the paper look better.

The reporters concluded that the Free Press’ ethics rules were not applied to columnists the same way they were to reporters.

That also may be the case at the Bee, where Rodriguez reportedly acknowledged, in the days following Griego Erwin’s resignation, that she was not held to the same standards as everyone else because of the nature of her column—because she often wrote touchy-feely stories rather than hard-hitting news.

If that is true, Griego Erwin may have been treated that way since her first year as a reporter, 20 years ago at The Denver Post. One of the stories she contributed to a 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning series about abducted children—suspect only in hindsight—includes quotes and information from several teenage runaways who are identified only by their first names.

Editor Chuck Buxton, who spearheaded the series of stories and now works at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, said he could not remember questioning Griego Erwin about where she found the teens.

“The stories rang true … and there was never a question raised,” Buxton said recently. “Diana was out in the community—that was her charge. We had a lot of confidence in what she was doing.”

In the meantime, word coming out of the Beehive is that about a half a dozen staffers—including sports columnist Marcos Bretón—have expressed interest in Griego Erwin’s old gig.