By Bill Kirtz
Leading news figures this weekend blasted expanding investigations of national-security leaks, detailed the dilemma of dealing with confidential sources and offered ways to restore credibility in a media universe that merges fact with fiction.
Their comments came at Boston’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference attended by some 1,200 established and aspiring journalists.
New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said the Obama administration’s widening probes have created an “urgent” problem because it has a “chilling effect” on confidential sources. She said the current Washington environment “has never been tougher and [confidential] information harder to dislodge.”
She said the attorney general’s latest attempts to ferret out leakers raise the question of whether the U.S. Espionage Act “is being used as a substitute for” Britain’s wide-ranging Official Secrets Act.
Using the Espionage Act, the current administration is pursuing six leak-related criminal cases. That’s twice as many as all previous administrations combined brought since the act was passed in 1917 to punish anyone who “knowingly and willfully” passes on information that hurts the country or helps a foreign power “to the detriment of the United States.”
The Official Secrets Act makes it unlawful to disclose information relating to defense, security and intelligence, international relations, intelligence gained from other departments or international organizations and intelligence useful to criminals.
Alluding to recent Times stories about U.S. drone strikes and computer attacks aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Abramson said the government’s policy on cyber warfare is an important subject about which the public needs to know.
The vast majority of her paper’s national-security disclosures come from “old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting” and not from leaks, she said. And before they run, she said, “We give all responsible officials a chance to reply” and will hold or cut information if they raise a legitimate security objection.
Times media columnist David Carr called the government investigations an “appalling” attempt to restrict information about significant issues.
“Whistle-blowers aren’t scarce but the people who blow them are,” he said, citing as an example the indictment of a National Security Agency worker who told a Baltimore Sun reporter about a failed technology program.
“As war becomes less visible and becomes its own ‘dark ops,’ reporters are trying to punch through and bring accountability,” he said. Carr added that while it’s easy to say leak-based scoops come gift-wrapped, they usually come from reporters working hard and asking the right questions.
That hard work includes nights and weekends, noted Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News reporter Sarah Ganim, the lead reporter on this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal.
“There are no hours to investigative journalism,” she said, amazed at a colleague’s reluctance to contact a good source on a weekend.
During nearly two years of digging, she learned “people can be really, really good at lying” to throw her off the story and praised her editors for encouraging staffers to follow up on incidents that “just don’t add up.”
Ganim said there’s no substitute for getting out of the office and “knocking on doors. ” Still, she found social media “incredibly helpful” when she was working 13- to 18-hour days to keep up with breaking developments. “Twitter is great for staying in touch with your readers and a good gauge of what they want to know.”
According to the New York Times’ Walt Bogdanich, “Everything you want to know is written down somewhere.” Thinking “I know it’s there” will keep you going, said the three-time Pulitzer winner.
For his 2005 Pulitzer series on the corporate cover-up of fatal railway accidents, he unearthed statistics people said couldn’t be found — in an unlikely place: a Coast Guard database. For a recent series on horse racing dangers, he and New York Times colleague Joe Drape got records of 150,000 horse races to show a pattern of injuries, deaths and illegal drugs.
He said reporters don’t need “fancy training” to crunch numbers but should “at the very least” learn Excel.
Several speakers underscored the urgent need to earn the public’s trust.
Pulitzer-winning press reporter Alex Jones, now director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said the Internet’s “mash-up of fiction and fact” makes it more important than ever for established news organization to establish their “brand” of credibility.
Times investigative reporter David Barstow, a two-time Pulitzer winner, noted, “There’s no longer the assumption that if it’s on page one of the Times it must be true. How do I make it clear that I nailed it, that I’m not making it up?”
How to nail it, to overcome what he called the “mountain of skepticism” about journalists’ trustworthiness? Barstow, who recently disclosed Wal-Mart’s hush-up of a Mexican bribery case, advises being very scrupulous in the reporting process and pushing for extra sources and more documents.
Boston Globe Spotlight Team editor Thomas Farragher does this with a “culture of obsession.” He and his reporters constantly ask, “How do we know this?” and continually challenge a story’s premise. To make sure every detail is accurate, they footnote their final draft.
Telling readers what the reporters don’t know adds credibility, he said, as does acknowledging the target’s point of view.
To make sure every point of view is included, Marilyn Thompson, Washington news editor of Thomson Reuters, makes a list of every person named in a story to make sure they’ve been contacted. “It always surprises me” that reporters sometimes don’t try hard enough to reach a subject of a critical story, she said. “Make 10 phone calls to a target-not just one.”
She recommends the advice of colleague Alix Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize winner: “Read the story over as if it were about a friend of family member. Would you find it fair?”
Finally, Thompson said, don’t be afraid to kill a questionable story: “If it’s not safe, don’t run it.”
While safety first is a lawyer’s standard priority, three prominent network attorneys stressed that their primary aim is to get out of their reporters’ way and help get compelling projects on the air.
“Our main goal is not not to get sued,” for libel, said ABC deputy chief counsel John Zucker. Instead, he and CBS assistant general counsel Andy Siegel said they try to make sure a report can withstand and win a suit.
Zucker and NBC Universal attorney Steve Chung see problems when reporters have “blinders on” and over-identify with the alleged victim. Zucker’s top tip: get and understand the other side of the story even if the target is ducking you.
The lawyers pointed out that a libel plaintiff can obtain every relevant email and that a questionable message can prevent the case being thrown out on summary judgment.
So before hitting “send,” said Siegel, consider carefully whether you’d feel comfortable showing an e-mail to your mother, seeing it on page one or explaining it to a jury.
There’s no way you can give a confidential source 100 percent protection,” Chung said. “Very few cases are worth making promises like that. Let them know how much you can protect them — what you’re willing to do.” Make sure you have a very clear understanding and document any agreement. (For example, “If I face jail, can I identify you?”)
The lawyers noted that in a libel case, judges can tell the jury that refusing to identify a source means that there is no source. So they stressed the need to back up an anonymous informant with documents or confirmation of a named source.
As the Washington Post marks Watergate’s 40th anniversary, the man who edited many of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s groundbreaking stories wonders how such investigative reporting will sustain itself as advertising revenues erode.
Leonard Downie Jr., former Post executive editor and now an Arizona State University journalism professor, sees “no magic bullet” for financing serious journalism. “There’s no single financial model now,” he said, calling arguments over pay walls “stupid.” It’s not question of good or bad, he said, but whether those walls will work for your organization.
He said nonprofit news organizations shouldn’t count on long-term foundation support but should use those resources to figure out their own economic model.
Ferreting out official misdeeds is an eternal battle, Downie said.
“It’s like whack-a-mole. Our job will never end but we have to keep trying.”
Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.