By the looks of it, the tale of Tania Head appears to be the story of a troubled woman who created a dramatic alternative to an otherwise prosaic, if not sad, life. But the Times' double-barrel expose of her evident deceit seems to abandon its usual standards of balance and decency.
After sending no less than three reporters after Tania, the Times started the story on page one with a two-column color picture and then jumped it onto two-thirds of an inside page with two additional pictures.
What had she done to deserve this? Here’s a summary of what the Times reported:
Tania, who until this week had been the unpaid president of a 9/11 victim-support group, said she was a Merrill Lynch executive who suffered burns while on the 78th floor of the south tower when a hijacked plane hit. She was escorted to safety by a Good Samaritan who perished himself in the tower collapse – but not before being given the wedding ring of a mortally burned man who asked that she return it to his wife. As she recuperated days later, she learned her fiancé died in the collapse of the other tower.
“But no part of her story, it turns out, has been verified,” said the Times, stating elsewhere: “No one has suggested that Ms. Head did anything to profit financially from her position as an officer of the Survivors’ Network, the nonprofit group for which she helped to raise money. But the organizations with which she has been affiliated have also questioned her account after learning of the inquiries from the Times.”
If Tania is a private individual who has done nothing dangerous, self-enriching or illegal, was it appropriate for the New York Times to go off on her the way it did?
How was the community served by exposing so harshly an individual whose fabrications suggest – to this armchair psychologist, anyway – that she is emotionally troubled? My guess is that this will be a significant setback to a person who, most likely, was in a pretty fragile mental state even before the Times outed her on page one.
Journalists have an abundance of opportunities to write about nutty people all the time, even during non-election years. But they owe it to their readers, if not to themselves as ethical individuals, to choose wisely about whom to pursue and how hard to hit them.
If the Times felt, upon due consideration, that it was the best use of its resources to go after Tania – instead of all the other stories it could have pursued this month – then a short story on an inside page should have been sufficient to do the job.
When a powerful newspaper like the Times bashes gnats with a sledgehammer, it looks like a bully. And nobody likes a bully.