05/15/2003 11:00PM

Three degrees of blame: Reporters, editors, stewards


BALTIMORE - It has been a rough week for journalists, who already ranked only slightly lower than heroin salesmen and slightly higher than brokerage analysts in the court of public esteem.

First came the revelation that The New York Times has printed dozens of made-up stories by a reporter named Jayson Blair. Then came the national frenzy over a Miami Herald article that raised questions about whether Jose Santos might have carried something more electrifying than a whip while winning the Kentucky Derby.

If this keeps up, newspaper reporters might join the dead heat between lawyers and politicians for the title of America's Most Hated. Already, Internet chat boards are filled with postings likening the Herald's misdeeds to the Times's, and some people in the racing industry have called for sanctions against the reporters, such as the possible denial of press credentials.

While Herald staffer Clark Spencer and freelancer Frank Carlson shouldn't win any awards for their story, they are not the problem here. They deserve no more than a dead heat for show in the hierarchy of blame, and there's a reasonable argument that they were simply doing their jobs.

They say a fan alerted them to the ambiguous photograph and they showed it to Walter Blum, a veteran Florida racing official and jockey, who told them they were on to something. They called Santos for his reaction. They showed the photograph to the Churchill Downs stewards, So far, so good. This is what they get paid to do.

Editors get paid to challenge and review reporters' stories, and the Herald's editors are to blame for not asking Carlson and Spencer the questions that virtually every reader had the next day. They should have looked at the widely available body of other pictures, both still and video, that would have clearly indicated they were chasing a red herring. They should have insisted that the reporters make a second attempt to talk to Santos when it was obvious that a language barrier had led to a bizarre misquotation.

Yet for all these failings, the editors still win only second place in the blame sweepstakes. The winners are the people who effectively forced them to run a story, incomplete and premature as it may have been: the Churchill Downs stewards.

Presented with the photograph, the stewards should have said three things: thank you, we'll look into it, and we'll get back to you. Had that happened, the Herald would not have gone into print with the story. Instead the stewards said two very different things: that the photo was "very suspicious" and that they were opening an investigation.

No sports editor in the history of journalism can be expected to suppress or delay the news that the stewards of the world's most famous horse race are investigating a suspicious result. The news was not that there was a dark spot on a picture or that Santos might have said that he had something in his hand. Once the Churchill stewards went on the record with the words "suspicious" and "investigation" rather than "no comment," the horse was out of the barn. They say they were quoted without full context but do not deny using those two inflammatory words on the record.

A day later, the stewards clammed up, citing regulations that prohibit comment on an ongoing investigation. Were those regulations not in effect a day earlier?

As fiascoes go, at least this one had a quick and happy resolution. The stewards subsequently acted with commendable speed and thoroughness, fully exonerating Santos. He and his family did not deserve 48 hours of doubt and discomfort, but suggestions that the incident severely damaged the sport seem exaggerated. Is there a single person in America who lost his taste for racing or changed his plans to watch the Preakness as a result of all this?

Calls for the heads, or at least the jobs, of those who could have behaved better also seem like an overreaction. The reporters, their editors, and the stewards all were acting in good faith and without malice. It's a good case study for journalism students and racing officials but ultimately all amounts to a massive misunderstanding.

I learned more than a decade ago to listen very carefully to Santos. One night at Saratoga we were at the same poker table in someone's rented living room. The game was five-card draw, and I took one card to a four-flush while Jose drew three cards. I hit the ace of my desired suit and bet the limit. He called and I triumphantly turned over my ace-high flush.

"Fool hoss," he muttered. I reached for the pot, wondering whether he had spoken an ancient Chilean curse or if he was likening himself to a foolish horse for having made a bad call. Then he smiled angelically and turned over the three jacks he had drawn to accompany his starting pair of sixes.

A full house.