Scandal-stung Bee columnist talks to SN&R

Diana Griego Erwin says she never made anyone up, criticizes the American journalism ‘witch hunt’

Diana Griego Erwin says she didn’t put this T-shirt on specifically because a reporter would be coming over to interview her. But as I am invited into her McKinley Park-area home, her white top is the first thing I notice. Its pink lettering reads: “Speak freely, while you still can.”

The irony of the phrase will become increasingly apparent over the course of the morning.

I’ve come here armed with a Manila folder packed with several months of Griego Erwin’s popular newspaper column, which, for nearly 12 years, appeared Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at the bottom of the front page of The Sacramento Bee’s local-news section. I’ve highlighted names and phrases in the columns that I hope to ask her about. I set the folder on a living-room couch and sit down as she steps out of the room to reheat her cup of coffee.

Griego Erwin, a journalist for 21 years, was, until last week, one of the Bee’s most popular and highest-paid writers, whose emotionally engaging writing style relied upon real people’s stories to illustrate larger social issues.

The problem is that Bee editors now believe some of those “real” people—many of whom Griego Erwin referred to in print only by their first names or by pseudonyms—don’t exist at all. They believe she fabricated some of her sources, violating a basic journalistic tenet: Tell the truth.

Griego Erwin’s column was suspended when, according to the newspaper, an assistant city editor questioned a column that was slated for publication April 23. The paper then began an inquiry into Griego Erwin’s recent work, asking her to verify the existence of some of the people she had written about. Her column appeared once more, on April 26, and then was replaced with an uncharacteristically vague editor’s note: “Diana Griego Erwin is taking the day off.” During the first week of May, SN&R caught wind of the inquiry and began asking about Griego Erwin. On Wednesday, May 11, Griego Erwin resigned. The next day, her story was strewn across the Internet, posted on at least 90 newspapers’ Web sites, and her name was quickly ampersanded to the end of the list of debased journalists—Janet Cooke of The Washington Post, Stephen Glass of The New Republic, Jayson Blair of The New York Times, Jack Kelley of USA Today, etc.

This past Monday, Griego Erwin sat down with SN&R for an exclusive interview, during which she insisted she’d done nothing wrong, explained her column-writing philosophy and talked about what she’ll do now that her journalism career appears over.

But she wouldn’t talk specifics about her columns.

“I’m concerned how all this is going to come off,” she says, sitting toward the front of her seat and trying to recollect why she agreed to this interview in the first place. “Because I’m a really good journalist … and I’ve lost my job and lost my income.”

The reason she says she resigned: personal crises, including a divorce, that left her emotionally unequipped to deal with an inquiry that she says quickly turned ugly.

“Trust had been broken both ways,” she says. “I didn’t feel trusted anymore, and I didn’t trust their process.”

Griego Erwin’s supervisor at the Bee, City Editor Stuart Drown, declined to comment for this story, deferring to Bee Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez. Rodriguez returned a phone call but said he would not elaborate on the situation, preferring to let his less-than-detailed May 12 column about the resignation speak for itself.

Sources inside the paper told SN&R that editors’ alarm bells were rung by a Griego Erwin-penned column about the recent deadly altercation following a Sacramento Kings basketball game. But Griego Erwin says that column, her last to be published, is not the one that led to the inquiry. She will not elaborate.

A look at her recent columns shows a clear pattern.

Her April 21 column—about parents who discovered their daughter’s disturbing Internet diary entries—identified the supposedly local family as “the Thompsons (all names changed).”

April 17’s column centered on “two bored girls, ages 13 and 14” whom Griego Erwin purportedly came upon “in front of a Dairy Queen somewhere in suburban Sacramento.” She never named the girls but used them to tell a story of the dangers faced by teenage runaways—ostensibly real-life local examples of a story that had played out nationally the previous week.

On April 10, Erwin wrote about the difficulties of illegal immigrants who establish lives here but have families elsewhere. She profiled “Israel Bueno,” but did not tell her readers until nearly halfway through the story that there was no Israel Bueno. “Bueno is not his real name; I changed it because he is here illegally,” she wrote.

On March 17, her main character was simply “Catherine.” Her March 8 column began with an anecdote about “a woman whose child was on one of my daughters’ sports teams years ago.” Erwin’s February 27 column focused exclusively on a California Highway Patrol officer bending the thin blue line. “I’m using the pseudonym Officer Joe today because the actual … officer involved likely would catch trouble for helping with this story,” she began.

Those kinds of unnamed sources are usually questioned by high-level editors at daily newspapers, especially today, in what is known in the journalism world as the “post-Jayson Blair era.”

But if Griego Erwin’s version of events is accurate, no Bee editors ever raised a red flag to question her continual use of unnamed and pseudonymed sources or her almost-uncanny ability to find a local person who perfectly illustrated her column’s theme or topic.

“It was never a big deal,” she says of writing about unnamed people.

And she has done it as far back as 1994, when she was first hired by the Bee. In December of that year, for example, she wrote about “a Davis couple I’ll call Rick and Karen Taylor, although those are pseudonyms.”

At one point during our conversation, mid-sentence and without emphasis, Griego Erwin says: “I didn’t make anybody up.”

In May of last year, Erwin wrote about a homeless man whom she called “Joey”—“I don’t want to use his real name,” she wrote, “because some of the things I’m about to reveal about him might be embarrassing.”

Michael Fitzgerald, who for 12 years has written a thrice-weekly metro column for The Record newspaper in Stockton, said embarrassment is no reason to obscure the truth from readers.

“No paper should allow anybody to use anonymous sources unless it can be proved that those sources will be endangered or fired,” Fitzgerald said. “Because then you’re the National Enquirer.”

Griego Erwin has a different view of the practice.

“I only agree to that to protect someone’s privacy,” she says, citing as an example the recent column about a 13-year-old’s Internet diary entries. “What value is there for the Bee to expose that teenager to ridicule and—or just to have their friends know?”

Sometimes, Griego Erwin says, getting a story in the paper—letting her readers know what was going on in their communities—trumped her desire to be 100-percent transparent in her reporting. She was more concerned with giving voice to those who are rarely quoted in newspaper stories and with finding the unexamined angle of a news event, she says.

“I feel it was a great honor to tell people’s stories,” she says.

Griego Erwin was a regular news reporter once. She even was part of a team at the Denver Post—her first full-time gig—that won the prestigious Public Service Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for a series of stories outlining how national statistics for missing children were exaggerated.

Just a few years into her career, after being hired by The Orange County Register, Griego Erwin became a columnist.

“Despite what reporters and some editors think, writing a column three times a week is not a cush job,” Fitzgerald said. “It is taxing.”

He said that because a columnist’s picture appears in the paper, and because he or she writes with more voice than a straight news reporter, readers develop more of a perceived relationship with the columnist. The result: phones that never stop ringing and a timecard that rarely gets punched out.

“It doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. when you walk out of the building—if you ever get to walk out of the building at 5 p.m.,” Fitzgerald said. “You become an ambassador to your paper.”

And, Fitzgerald said, if a columnist’s personal life is in disarray, the job becomes that much harder.

Those issues, however, are apparently moot with Griego Erwin, who, again, says only that she has done nothing wrong.

“Looking back—and I’m going to stop here—there are a lot of things I would do differently,” she says. “I would never, now, put anyone in the paper without a name, phone number and address on record.”

The Bee has not been immune to journalistic scandals. In the mid-1990s, Bee television critic Bob Wisehart left the paper after editors discovered he was plagiarizing. Last year, baseball writer Jim Van Vliet was fired when editors discovered that he’d written about a Giants game after watching it on TV while quoting players as if he’d interviewed them in the locker room; the canned quotes had been handed out to reporters the previous day.

“Reporters from other newspapers blew the whistle on him,” said Tony Marcano, who was the Bee’s ombudsman at the time.

Marcano, who is now an editor at a Florida newspaper, said that he only met Erwin a couple of times during his short tenure at the Bee. He said readers never called with complaints about the accuracy of her columns.

Inside Bee headquarters, reactions varied from sadness to anger. Columnist R.E. Graswich, who described himself as “embarrassed” by the scandal, said, “I feel it’s a real stain on all of us—not just at the paper, but in the journalism industry.”

Back in Griego Erwin’s sitting room, the Manila folder remains closed. She says again that she’s not going to discuss the specifics.

I again ponder the irony of her T-shirt.

Throughout the conversation, it becomes clear that Griego Erwin has already resigned herself to the fact that her journalism career is probably over. “There’s a witch hunt going on in American journalism,” she says.

Still, Griego Erwin plans to continue writing in some fashion. “There are different chapters to your life,” she says.

During this next chapter, Griego Erwin perhaps will concentrate on fiction writing, something she has been pursuing in recent years as a challenge to herself, she says. A few years back, a short story of hers was published in the Mississippi Review. And she has two novels in the works. One of them takes place, in part, in Italy. So, she will be traveling there soon to “flesh out” those chapters, she tells me.

But she still needs to make a living, in order to care for her two daughters, one in college and the other in high school.

She says that maybe instead of writing about people in need and crossing her fingers that everything works out for them, she will find a job more directly helping people.

“There are opportunities out there—probably more satisfying than journalism,” she says.

“Truth is I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna do.”