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The boston.com apology. (Credit: Boston.com)

Boston.com reporter Hilary Sargent was suspended and re-assigned for her coverage of Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman, who challenged a Chinese restaurant about being over-charged $4, according to Mediaite. (Edelman later apologized.)

Sargent had reported on Edelman’s e-mails of complaint to a restaurant called Sichuan Garden, located in Brookline Village.

But then she published a fake story, Mediaite reported, claiming Edelman sent a racist e-mail to the restaurant. That story was retracted because it turned out to be based on a fake e-mail.

If this were not enough, she started selling T-shirts related to the story.

On Dec. 12, Boston local news site Bostlnno reported Sargent received a one-week suspension for the T-shirt creation and sales – not the fake story, according to Bostino’s  anonymous sources.

“We certainly don’t condone this type of action and we are dealing with it internally,” Corey Gottlieb, executive director for digital strategy and operations at Boston.com told BostInno, according to Mediaite.

The fake story, “Ben Edelman Appears to Have Sent Racist Email to Chinese Restaurant Owner Today,” was published on Boston.com on Dec. 10. It claimed, in part, “Could it be Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman has a problem with people of Asian descent?”

The story has been replaced with the following editor’s note:

“Earlier tonight, Boston.com published a piece suggesting Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman sent an email with racist overtones to Sichuan Garden. We cannot verify that Edelman, in fact, sent the email. We have taken the story down.”

Edelmen told iMediaEthics he was upset about Boston.com’s coverage of him, noting that his complaint about being overcharged was valid — the restaurant did charge him prices greater than its online menu states, and his e-mails to the restaurant called for refunds for all customers who’d been victimized by the same charging errors.

“I recognize that the news business is tough,” Edelman wrote, “Boston.com’s approach to the story gave them a much bigger story, more page-views, more ad revenue.  I want to see journalists and journalism thrive.  But at what cost?”

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He went on, “From my perspective, the most distressing aspect of the media coverage was how little attention the articles paid to my true motivations.  Boston.com wanted to paint me as a bad guy, and in general it’s their right to tell the story as they see fit.  But my emails, right there for all to see, specifically indicated that I wanted the restaurant to refund all customers who had been overcharged.  Somehow that key fact ended up totally missing from almost all the media coverage.”

Edelman added that, “most of the media coverage gave strikingly little attention to the merits,” pointing out that “The initial Boston.com piece could have included an examination of when the restaurant’s online prices first became inaccurate, whether others had complained (Yelp reveals that they had, some as early as 2010 but more this year), and how much had been overcharged to how many customers.”

Edelman suggested instead that “A comprehensive article could have discussed the significant legal framework for protecting Massachusetts consumers from inaccurate prices, including multiple laws with enforcement systems combining government intervention with assistance from private citizens.”

And, he added that he often writes about company financial issues, which may have been relevant for the news coverage of his e-mails with the restaurant. “If an article was to focus on me rather than on the underlying practice of the restaurant, the article might have mentioned some of the other work I’ve been doing to protect consumers – calling out airlines for false statements of “tax” that are actually fees (http://www.benedelman.org/airfare-advertising/), revealing Facebook (http://www.benedelman.org/news/052010-1.html) and Google (http://www.benedelman.org/news/012610-1.html) collecting and sharing user information they had promised to keep private, Google overcharging advertisers (http://www.benedelman.org/news/011210-1.html and others), years of fighting spyware and ware (index at http://www.benedelman.org/spyware/ ) and more,” he wrote.

“Taken as a whole, I think this line of research presents me as a reasonably nice guy, trying to make the world a better place in my own small way.  But none of this would be consistent with the “Edelman is a jerk” narrative that Boston.com was determined to tell..”

iMediaEthics asked for more information concerning the suspension, fake story and T-shirt sales. A spokesperson for Boston.com provided iMediaEthics with the following statement from Corey Gottlieb, Boston.com General Manager: “As a policy, we do not publicly comment about personnel matters.”

Bostlnno pointed out that there’s a contact form on the restaurant’s website on which anyone could send a message posing as Edelman.

Edelman told the Boston Herald that he was flying when the e-mails were allegedly sent but the Herald‘s story had been taken down when he went to look at it.

“But I’ve seen screenshots that others kindly preserved for me. To my eye, the emails look like obvious counterfeits — formatting different from genuine emails from me, plus not the kind of thing I’d write. So far as I know Boston.com didn’t try to confirm their authenticity before posting them.”

iMediaEthics has written to Sargent for comment.

Hat Tip: Mediaite

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$4 Chinese food overcharge leads to fake racist email, T-shirt sales by reporter and Boston.com retraction

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