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MIT publication retracts two stories

Source in articles couldn't be found

A technology publication run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has retracted two stories it published on its website this year, after it was unable to verify the existence of an anonymous source cited in both stories.

The articles, both written by New York-based freelance journalist Michelle Delio, were about last month's dismissal of Carly Fiorina as chief executive of computer and imaging company Hewlett-Packard Co. Jason Pontin, Technology Review's editor-in-chief, ordered the articles removed from the site after receiving a complaint from HP officials. ''HP gave me a phone call," said Pontin. ''When I checked the sources, I could not in fact verify that the anonymous quotes were accurate. So we killed the story."

Each of the two stories featured quotes from an anonymous HP employee. In the first story, posted on Feb. 10 and titled, ''Carly's Gone. HP Celebrates," the source is identified as an HP engineer. In the second, titled ''Carly's Way" and published March 4, he is described as a Hungarian immigrant with the initials ''G.S." and as ''an electrical engineer who worked as a research scientist at the Hewlett-Packard Imaging Systems Laboratory starting in 1975 until he resigned in 2003."

''Carly's Way" was composed entirely of G.S.'s criticisms of Fiorina. ''I snuck out of Hungary in 1973, one week after I was told that if I ever wanted to advance as an engineer, I would have to join the Communist Party," G.S. says in the piece. ''Being a good party member was far more important than your skill level, and so my boss was a man who had been a pig farmer . . . Working for Carly Fiorina reminded me of my days working for that farmer."

But officials at HP's research labs questioned the story. Company spokesman Michael Burk said they launched an inquiry to find an employee who matched the description of Delio's source.

''No record was found of any person with those initials," said Burk, nor were they able to find an employee with a similar background and work record. HP contacted Pontin, claiming that G.S. did not exist.

Pontin ordered both stories removed from the Technology Review website on March 7. He next contacted Delio and asked her to provide more information to Brad King, who edits the website.

''I asked for all the contact information and gave it to Brad to fact check," said Pontin. But he said that while Delio provided some biographical data, ''she did not give him the phone number," Pontin said. As a result, ''there's a single source in both stories . . . that we were not able to talk to."

Delio did provide the name of her source, and claimed he belonged to two professional organizations.

But Pontin said that Technology Review contacted both organizations; each said the man's name was not in their membership list.

After two weeks of demanding more evidence from Delio, ''nothing she has told me convinces me that G.S. exists," Pontin said. So on Friday, he posted a retraction of the pieces, saying Technology Review could no longer vouch for their accuracy. ''We regret publishing the stories." Pontin wrote.

Efforts to interview Delio by telephone and e-mail were unsuccessful.

Robert Zelnick, chairman of the department of journalism at Boston University, said Technology Review practiced ''very questionable journalism" by running a harshly critical article about HP based entirely on the words of a single anonymous source. ''I think that it is riding a scrawny horse much too fast and much too far," Zelnick said.

He also said a retraction is not enough; Technology Review should find out whether G.S. really exists. ''In this case simply saying we cannot vouch for the story . . . is an unsatisfactory end to it," Zelnick said. ''If the story was worth doing in the first place, it's worth following through."

Founded in 1899, Technology Review is in the midst of a campaign to establish itself as a mass-market science and technology publication. Pontin was brought in last June as part of the transformation.

He has served as editor of Red Herring, a magazine that rose and fell with the Internet boom and bust at the turn of the century. Ironically, a year before Red Herring's collapse in February 2003, Pontin wrote an article calling for Carly Fiorina to step down at HP.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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