by Max Brantley
Last Wednesday, Jan. 27, a “Forces of Nurture” column by Cathy Frye appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette under the headline “Mothers in Haiti Face Living Nightmare.” The column described a Haitian mother of two trying to survive in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, trying to find food and shelter for her children, trying to find her missing husband.
It read like a true story, one told by a reporter on the ground.
“Her infant son remains naked much of the time. She has nothing with which to clothe or diaper him. It’s easier to keep the baby loosely wrapped in the grubby T-shirt she found.
The toddler doesn’t understand. ‘Why can’t we go home?’ she asks. ‘Where is Daddy?’
And again, and again — ‘I’m thirsty. I’m hungry. I have to go potty.’”
Frye has never been to Haiti. The column was fiction, a creation of the writer’s imagination. But there was nothing in the paper to tell the reader that.
Deputy editor Frank Fellone said that sometimes a columnist’s reach exceeds her grasp.
“It was meant to suggest what a mother would think of the suffering of the suffering mothers of Haiti,” he says. “It wasn’t meant to tell the reader that Cathy had been in Haiti but it was her imagining of what it would be like to be a mother in Haiti.”
After a brief pause Fellone continued, “It seems to some of us that that wasn’t properly conveyed. It was an outpouring of emotion rather than an actual observation. An editor’s note would have worked.”
Frye has not responded to an email request for an interview.
When asked if the column had caused any internal conflict in the newsroom, Fellone says there is always some internal back-and-forth.
"When something is in the paper that makes us scratch our head, we say to each other, ‘Did we miss on this one?’ or ‘What should we have done better?,’” Fellone says. “But keep in mind that we trust our columnists and give them leeway.”
-- Gerard Matthews