What Do You Think?
When Press Accountability is Compromised by Edward Wasserman
The U.S. government and five news organizations will pay Wen Ho Lee, the onetime Los Alamos scientist defamed but never tried for supposedly stealing nuclear secrets for China, $1.64 million for sliming him by publishing private information from his personnel files to support espionage allegations that nobody could ever prove and that apparently were unfounded.
When accountability is compromised
By EDWARD WASSERMAN, Miami Herald, email@example.com
The disgraceful affair of Wen Ho Lee, the onetime Los Alamos scientist defamed but never tried for supposedly stealing nuclear secrets for China, is over.
The U.S. government and five news organizations will pay Lee $1.64 million for sliming him by publishing private information from his personnel files to support espionage allegations that nobody could ever prove and that apparently were unfounded. Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement and had his career destroyed, thanks largely to leaks from prosecutors that were breathlessly published in 1999 by some of the nation's best news organizations.
Reporters wouldn't talk
Eventually, Lee pleaded guilty to a single charge of wrongly downloading classified documents; the 58 other charges were dropped, and the federal judge in the case apologized to Lee in open court for his treatment. He sued the government over the leaks, and tried to find out from reporters who it was that lavished them with the damaging allegations. They wouldn't say. Now, thanks to the payments, they won't have to.
What a mess. Of all the current cases involving confidential informants, the Lee affair raises, in my view, the most troubling issues. The media coverage his case received was enough to doom his career and ruin his reputation, long before the merits of the case could be fairly weighed.
Lee couldn't sue for his good name, but he could sue over the violation of his privacy rights constituted by the leaks against him, apparently fueled by anti-Chinese animus and promoted by political operatives who believed that the Clinton administration was impeding the case against him. (For excellent background on the affair, see Eric Boehlert's 2000 Salon article at http://archive. salon.com/news/feature/2000/ 09/21/nyt/print.html.)
A familiar line
Now, media organizations -- The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and ABC News -- contributed $750,000 to the settlement. They say they settled to avert further litigation that, courts have made clear, would likely have forced them to identify the people who dished them dirt against Lee.
They acted to prevent further erosion of their ability to protect confidential sources.
It's a familiar line, and the commentary about the affair has focused exclusively on whether the media will now be vulnerable to payoff demands from other plaintiffs who subpoena reporters to get at their sources. But circling the wagons around the principle of source protection gives the media an easy out. It enables them to avoid considering whether there might be anybody else in this drama who deserves protecting.
Not just Lee. How about the rest of us, whose lives and livelihoods are in the hands of powerful, so-called public servants who may be headstrong, vindictive, mendacious and wicked, and who are supposed to be held in check -- not shielded -- by a vigilant and dedicated press?
When the media decide that predatory bureaucrats with a good-enough story to tell are entitled to constitutionally sanctioned protection, regardless of their truthfulness and recklessness, where does that leave us, the citizenry? And what happens to that core principle of accountability -- of the government and the media?
The practice of source confidentiality needs an overhaul. The continuing Bob Novak affair, in which reporters have risked prison to safeguard the right of senior government officials to endanger a blameless CIA agent whose husband embarrassed the administration, should have been enough. Instead, the media's toothless response has been to treat this as a PR problem, to start disclosing the 'reasons' for withholding an informant's name, which generally boil down to, ``The source insists.'
The real question is, why are you telling these guys' stories in the first place?
Confidentiality promises are powerful and complex things. Sometimes brave and desperate people take great risks to expose important wrongdoing, and the reporters who shield them accept legal exposure. Good for them.
The powerful's use of the press
But are we so morally obtuse that we can't distinguish that from the much more common scenario where the powerful use the press first as pack animals and then as guard dogs?
The Wen Ho Lee affair is over, but far from settled. The intrigues that destroyed him may never be exposed, because the media organizations that are best qualified to uncover those intrigues were parties to them, hopelessly compromised. Nurturing a source may be a professional necessity; protecting the source may sometimes be a public boon. But there are other duties, such as exposing the truth, that may be even more imperative and that don't vanish in the glare of a self-serving agreement to keep an undeserving source secret.
Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.
Fake news, fake reporter
Why was a partisan hack, using an alias and with no journalism background, given repeated access to daily White House press briefings?
By Eric Boehlert
Pages 1 2February 10, 2005 | When President Bush bypassed dozens of eager reporters from nationally and internationally recognized news outlets and selected Jeff Gannon to pose a question at his Jan. 26 news conference, Bush's recognition bestowed instant credibility on the apparently novice reporter, as well as the little-known conservative organization he worked for at the time, called Talon News. That attention only intensified when Gannon used his nationally televised press conference time to ask Bush a loaded, partisan question -- featuring a manufactured quote that mocked Democrats for being "divorced from reality."
Gannon's star turn quickly piqued the interest of many online commentators, who wondered how an obvious Republican operative had been granted access to daily White House press briefings normally reserved for accredited journalists. Two weeks later, a swarming investigation inside the blogosphere into Gannon and Talon News had produced all sorts of damning revelations about how Talon is connected at the hip to a right-wing activist organization called GOPUSA, how its "news" staff consists largely of volunteer Republican activists with no journalism experience, how Gannon often simply rewrote GOP press releases when filing his Talon dispatches. It also uncovered embarrassing information about Gannon's past as well as his fake identity. When Gannon himself this week confirmed to the Washington Post that his name was a pseudonym, it only added to the sense of a bizarre hoax waiting to be exposed.
On Tuesday night, the reporter who apparently saw himself as a trailblazing conservative "embedded with the liberal Washington press corps" abruptly quit his post as Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent for Talon News, that after earlier taunting those digging into his past that he was "hiding in plain sight." Contacted by e-mail for a comment, Gannon referred Salon to the message posted on his Web site : "Because of the attention being paid to me I find it is no longer possible to effectively be a reporter for Talon News. In consideration of the welfare of me and my family I have decided to return to private life. Thank you to all those who supported me."
The Gannon revelations come on the heels of the discovery that Bush administration officials signed lucrative contracts for several conservative pundits who hyped White House initiatives and did not disclose the government's payments. The Talon News fiasco raises serious questions about who the White House is allowing into its daily press briefings: How can a reporter using a fake name and working for a fake news organization get press credentials from the White House, let alone curry enough favor with the notoriously disciplined Bush administration to get picked by the president in order to ask fake questions? The White House did not return Salon's calls seeking answers to those questions.
The situation "begs further investigation," says James Pinkerton, a media critic for Fox News who has worked for two Republican White Houses. "In the six years I worked for Reagan and Bush I, I remember the White House being strict about who got in. It's inconceivable to me that the White House, especially after 9/11, gives credentials to people without doing a background check."
Gannon reportedly did not have what's known as a "hard pass" for the White House press room, which allows journalists to enter daily without getting prior approval each time. Instead Gannon picked up a daily pass by contacting the White House press office each morning and asking for clearance. Mark Smith, vice president of the White House Correspondents Association, says it's up to White House officials to decide whom they want to wave in each day. "They don't consult us." If they had, Smith says, he would have been "very uncomfortable" granting Gannon the same access as professional journalists.
And the association never would have backed a reporter using an alias. Says Pinkerton: "If [Gannon] was walking around the White House with a pass that had a different name on it than his real name, that's pretty remarkable." Smith, who covers the White House for Associated Press radio, says he "could have sworn" that he saw credentials around Gannon's neck with the name "Jeff Gannon" on them.
"Somebody was waving him into the White House every day," notes David Brock, president and CEO of Media Matters for America, an online liberal advocacy group that led the way in raising questions about Gannon and Talon News.
Earlier this week, when asked about Gannon's access, White House press secretary Scott McClellan essentially threw up his hands and said he has no control over who is in the press room and whom the president calls on during his rare press conferences. "I don't think it's the role of the press secretary to get into the business of being a media critic or picking and choosing who gets credentials," he told the Washington Post.
"That's like [McClellan] saying, 'I'm chief of staff at a hospital and when a patient dies in surgery and it turns out the guy operating wasn't a doctor ... [it's] not my business to be a medical critic,'" says Ron Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who has written extensively about the inner workings of the Bush administration. "Nobody is asking him to be a media critic. They're asking him to make sure people in the press room -- the ones using up precious time during extremely rare press conferences -- are acting journalists, honest brokers dealing with genuine inquiry to get at the truth."
Suskind questions the White House's explanation that Bush had no idea who Gannon was when he called on him during the press conference. "Frankly, my sense is that almost nothing happens inside the White House episodically. They are so ardent with their message discipline. It all happens for a reason."
And it's not as if finding out the connection between Talon and GOPUSA was difficult. The Standing Committee of Correspondents, a group of congressional reporters who oversee press credential distribution on Capitol Hill, did just that last spring when Gannon approached the organization to apply for a press pass. "We didn't recognize the publication, so we asked for information about what Talon was," says Julie Davis, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun who is on the committee. "We did some digging, and it became clear it was owned by the owner of GOPUSA. And we had asked for some proof of Talon's editorial independence from that group ... They didn't provide anything, so we denied their credentials, which is pretty rare," says Davis. She adds, "There's limited space, and particularly after 9/11 there's limited access to the Capitol. Our role is to make sure journalists have as much access as possible, and to ensure that credentials mean something."