By: Ross Sneyd, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The managing editor of The Times Argus in Barre, Vt., was dismissed Monday because the existence of a heroin-addicted teenage prostitute he wrote about can’t be verified.
Publisher R. John Mitchell said the newspaper investigated after readers questioned the veracity of the Sept. 15 story.
“It was brought to our attention that some of the details of the story were not accurate or true and we checked them out,” Mitchell said. “It turns out they were not true. The person in the story, it wasn’t proven that she exists.”
Managing Editor Scott Fletcher, who wrote the story that led off a five-part series, stood by the piece Monday.
“Everything that’s in that story is verifiable from the notes that I took on our interview,” Fletcher said.
The story describes an encounter with a 16-year-old, identified only as DeeDee, in a park in Montpelier. It suggests she was propositioning men for sex to pay for heroin.
“What I was looking for was a local person who was involved with heroin,” Fletcher said. “In the course of interviewing eight, nine, 10 people, I met this young woman.”
But neither Fletcher nor anyone else has been able to find the girl since the story ran.
“Just the nature of this young woman and her chosen profession makes it practically impossible,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher said he had difficulty tracking down the girl’s last name and therefore was “purposely vague” in writing the story. After his work was questioned, Fletcher said he investigated further and found out her given first name was Deirdre. He remained uncertain about what the girl’s last name might be.
“I heard anecdotally as soon as the story came out she moved on,” Fletcher said.
Mitchell said the heroin series “created a dialogue in the community” and that’s what brought allegations that the 16-year-old didn’t exist to managers’ attention.
When her existence could not be confirmed, Mitchell and the general manager for the Times Argus decided to dismiss Fletcher.
“Our credibility is sacred and our readers have an expectation of the truth when they read the Times Argus,” Mitchell said. “It’s one of the most sacred things about journalism.”
The Times Argus has a daily circulation of 11,232 and is owned by Mitchell’s family.
Fletcher’s dismissal comes two decades after Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke had to return a Pulitzer Prize for making up a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict.
Cooke won a Pulitzer in 1981 for “Jimmy’s World,” the story of a Washington boy addicted to the drug. But editors at her former newspaper noticed inaccuracies in the biography she supplied to the Pulitzer board, which appeared in a brief Associated Press profile.
After being notified, her editors at the Post found more discrepancies in her original application. Eventually, she admitted to making up “Jimmy’s World.”
Cooke left the Post and eventually left journalism entirely.