Over the past three years, a series of separate, disquieting events has attracted critical national attention to the practice and performance of the news media.
Each of these unrelated, self-inflicted wounds a magnet for news coverage and has been racked by controversy. Each in its own uniquely traumatic way has served to shake public confidence in the reliability of reporters and their news organizations.
Taken together, I submit, these events have damaged the credibility of professional journalists--the solid rock on which the news media always and finally must stand.
The news media need to take stock of the damage done by those within the institution. Every professional media organization has a role to play in protecting against future, self-inflicted wounds.
Let me briefly discuss the wounds--each of these recent events that has hurt the news media:
* It was three years ago that an editor of the San Antonio Express-News alerted news executives at The New York Times that an April 26 article in The Times had been lifted from an April 18 story in the Express-News.
The Times story had appeared under the by-line of Jayson Blair, a junior member of the staff who had been given challenging assignments on major breaking stories such as the "Washington, D.C. area" sniper murders.
Blair had been seen by some, but not all, of his editors, and no doubt by readers, as a rising star at The Times. But three days after the call came from San Antonio, The Times' editors had evidence of the obvious case of plagiarism--and Blair resigned.
Within 10 days, after an intensive examination of Blair's work over the preceding months, The Times, in a front page story, disclosed, with apology, that at least three dozen flawed stories had been published in the paper under his by-line.
Blair had fabricated facts. He had plagiarized the work of others. He had invented scenes, situations and sources to embellish deceitful reporting and writing. In all of this, he had deceived many of his editors-and, of course, the readers of The Times. And, he had damned his career.
The newspaper soon thereafter selected a team of journalists, most of them from inside the news organization but three from outside, and under the leadership of Allan Siegel, launched an in-depth examination of Blair's career at The Times and an investigation into how and why it had happened. The Siegel team report, which The Times made public, also proposed recommendations to protect the newspaper and its readers from future, similar frauds.
And it was two years ago that USA TODAY revealed, with apology to its readers, that it had discovered numerous flawed stories published under the by-line of Jack Kelley, a veteran of 20 years with the paper. Kelley had been viewed by his editors and by readers of the newspaper as USA TODAY's star foreign correspondent. He frequently had made appearances on television news and talk programs and on public platforms, speaking of his paper's commitment to excellence.
Kelley had resigned before the extent of his perfidy had been exposed. When earlier questions were raised by his editors about who his sources were, he admitted that-only on one story, he claimed-he had misled his superiors by manipulating an acquaintance to pose as one of his previously unnamed sources. It was not a single incident but massive deception. The full facts, when they came later were revealing and revolting.
Like Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley had a fertile (and sometimes sterile) imagination. Like Blair, he also had fabricated, but over a longer period--and on a monumental scale. He, too, had plagiarized the work of others, and again, far more often than Blair. He also had invented scenes, situations and sources to embellish his reporting and writing. In deceiving his editors and the paper's readers, he also damned his career.
The full extent of his fraudulent reportage ultimately was disclosed by a team of investigative reporters from USA TODAY and by three retired editors who worked with that team. (I was one of the three editors involved in the investigation.)
Kelley and Blair did not know each other. The similarities in their conduct were coincidental. True, they both had studied journalism at the same school, the University of Maryland, but many years separated their attendance there-and everything either man supposedly had learned about journalism at Maryland ran contrary to how they practiced it as professionals.
How, we must ask, could all this have happened at The Times and USA TODAY, both papers armed with experienced and talented editors?
It is interesting that at both newspapers, Blair and Kelley had critics. And these critics sometimes sought to be heard.
At The Times, an editor who had handled Blair's work warned colleagues in a memo. "We must stop Jayson from writing for The New York Times. Right Now," wrote Jonathan Landman. Those who should have paid attention ignored Landman-until it was too late.
At USA TODAY there also were internal critics. At one point, three line editors and a deputy managing editor met for an hour to review the complaints they had heard that Kelley was a dishonest reporter. The four concluded that they were dealing with "rumors and gossip." They failed to pass the criticisms up the editorial chain of command. Instead the four swore each other to secrecy.
When a staff member expressed concern that Kelley's reporting should not be submitted for a Pulitzer Prize because it might come to embarrass the paper, that criticism was met with scolding and hostility.
It is too simplistic to conclude that because both papers employ large staffs of journalists-numbering in the hundreds-that lines of communication were victims of "bigness."
That theory has no legs. Self-inflicted wounds of fabrication and plagiarism were certainly not limited to these two large papers during the three years after Blair's betrayal was first discovered.
In fact, there were at least 45 other incidents of similar self-inflicted wounds at other newspapers during that same time. And they occurred at newspapers as small as Cartersville, Georgia, circulation 7,500, and Sedalia, Missouri, circulation 11,500.
The list of mastheads that have been hurt by these wounds includes papers known widely and respected well--and others, little heard of outside their home communities. Each, in its own way, has suffered from damaged credibility and has contributed to national sentiments of mistrust and doubt.
What does such expansive breakdown in ethical standards mean? Has there been some gradual, imperceptible shifting of newsroom culture in recent years so that enduring traditional values of accuracy and accountability have diminished? Have journalistic codes of conduct and statements of principles ceased to have meaning?
Or have incidents of reportorial malfeasance always been part of news media conduct, but only have come to light in recent times of greater transparency?
The industry was shocked a quarter century ago when a reporter for The Washington Post, Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for her story, "Jimmy's World," that turned out to be fabricated. When the prize had to be returned and Cooke, resigned in disgrace, the news media concluded that it was an isolated happenstance.
There have been other "isolated happenstances"-as when NBC News failed to identify an on-camera explosion as "simulated," or when a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer gained access to the internal communications system at a company, invading the privacy of the firm. The newspaper paid a multi-million dollar settlement and apologized even before the corporation filed suit.
But more than 45 cases of fraud, fabrication and plagiarism in three years hardly can be described as "isolated." So the question remains: How could it happen?
Does any of it have to do with the fact that some papers treat "star" reporters differently in newsroom handling of copy? Perhaps sometimes in some news agencies. But most of the plagiarists and fabricators were not considered stars.
Turning to another self-inflicted wound: How could CBS News have accepted a lie from a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel about the source of copies of questionable memos dating back three decades--and make them the basis of a major news program dealing with President George W. Bush's military record?
The issue for journalists here is not whether Bush received favorable and preferential treatment as a National Guardsman. That was a legitimate story. The issue is relying on unreliable sources and questionable documents.
60 Minutes was aired by CBS on September 8, 2004, a few days after the Republican National Convention nominated President Bush for a second term. Dan Rather, relying on these documents, asserted that they were authentic and were copies of originals from the files of a former Air National Guard colonel, now dead. No original documents ever have been found-if they ever existed.
When challenges-first from bloggers and then from mainstream media-questioned whether the documents had been produced on modern computers, rather than by the typewriters that were typically in use when Bush was in the National Guard, CBS stood behind the documents for a full week.
Then the CBS source, Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, admitted that he had lied to the network about where the documents originated. Before the program had aired, Burkett insisted they had come to him from a National Guard warrant officer, then out of the country. (No contact was ever made by CBS with that warrant officer.) Once the news story exploded, Burkett said he received the papers from someone named "Lucy Ramiriz." (Ramiriz has never been located or identified.)
As the network was preparing to air the program, Burkett insisted that CBS staffers make a call to a ranking member of the John Kerry presidential campaign. Burkett apparently wanted the Kerry campaign to know who he was and what he (and CBS) were about to do to damage the Bush campaign. Whatever his twisted thinking, no network staff member should have made that call. It was made by Mary Mapes, Rather's producer. The call violated every rule in journalism's book on ethics.
On Sept. 20, with doubt piled on doubt, Andrew Heyward, the network's president, issued a formal statement: "CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic," he said. ".We should not have used them."
In the aftermath of that admission and apology, CBS called upon Louis Boccardi, the retired chief executive of the Associated Press, and Richard Thornburgh, former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and former Attorney General of the United States, to conduct an independent inquiry into how it had happened. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report, which was sharply critical of the way the story had been researched and telecast, detailed a series of actions by CBS producers that violated the network's own reporting standards. It was, the report said, "a rush to air" and should not have been televised without authentication of the documents.
Mapes was a veteran network journalist with an outstanding record that included breaking the story on torture at Abu Ghraib prison. Following the release of the Boccardi-Thornburgh report, Mapes and another CBS staffer were forced to resign,. When Rather stepped aside as the CBS anchor a few months later, the controversial documents story was not cited by the network as a reason for his departure, but other media organizations mentioned it. In June, 2006, Rather announced that CBS would not renew his contract at the end of the year. "It's time to move on," he said.
Again, the incident raises the question of whether a shift of newsroom culture effectively pervades both print and broadcast news media. And, it raises as well the pregnant issue of how journalists deal with confidential sources in today's news environment=and how the news media now grapple with pledges made to such sources.
Any discussion of confidential sources must begin with a recognition of "Deep Throat," the classic confidential news source who provided leads and confirmations that helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein expose the Watergate break-in and cover-up that brought about the resignation of President Nixon.
We now know that "Deep Throat" was Mark Felt, who at the time of the Watergate crimes was the second-ranking official in the FBI, just below the Bureau's authoritarian and dictatorial Director, J. Edgar Hoover. We know all this because Felt, with the support of his family, disclosed before his death last year that he was, indeed, the source who met covertly with Woodward and provided valuable information to The Post.
Three members of The Post staff-Woodward, Bernstein and Ben Bradlee, the paper's editor-knew Felt's identity and Woodward pledged to Felt that they would keep his name secret for the rest of his life. They would have done so, had not Felt himself made it public.
Given the legal actions that recently have emerged concerning the issue of confidential sources, it is worth considering the guidelines that The Post followed in the handling of "Deep Throat."
First of all, these two young, aggressive reporters were required to share the name and identity of their source and the information he furnished with their editor. Bradlee's involvement sent a message to Felt that The Post's ranking news executive took seriously his information and would protect his identity. It must have been reassuring to Felt, who knew that if his role as a secret source was revealed, his lengthy career at the FBI was over.
While some reporters bristle under their newspaper's requirement that he or she share the identity of the source, there can be no doubt that such an arrangement would have been of value to USA TODAY and The Times in dealing with Kelley and Blair. But Bradlee's involvement sent another clear message to Felt: The politicized Nixon Justice Department (John Mitchell, then-Attorney General, turned out to be a Watergate criminal himself) might have issued subpoenas for Woodward and Bernstein. But they had affirmed they would go to jail for contempt of court before divulging Felt's identity. In sharing the knowledge of the source, Bradlee also was sharing the risk of jail. That policy must have been reassuring to Felt and to the two young reporters as well.
In contrast, Mary Mapes, according to the Boccardi-Thornburgh report to CBS, gave her supervising news executives descriptive information about her source, but did not provide them Lt. Col. Burkett's name-and her superiors did not ask for it. Clearly, the "tell-all-to-the-editor" relationship among Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee did not exist among Mapes and her superiors at CBS.
Another self-inflicted wound caused by a blurred policy on the handling of sources involved the case of Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter. She spent 85 days in jail for contempt of court because she refused to tell a grand jury about a conversation she had with Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.
She had been subpoenaed to tell a Federal grand jury whether Libby, during a private conversation with Miller, had "outed" a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame, whose husband (former ambassador Joseph Wilson) had publicly criticized President Bush in print about the lack of evidence for the purchase by Iraq of uranium from Africa. It was an embarrassing disclosure, since that "purchase" was one of the justifications the Bush administration relied on for the invasion of Iraq.
Miller never wrote a story for The Times about her conversation with Libby. When she refused to talk to the grand jury, a judge held her in contempt. The Times' ranking executives supported her for standing on principle and for refusing to reveal her confidential source.
Libby's lawyer insisted that his client had given Miller permission to tell everything she knew to the grand jury a full year before she went to jail. Miller contended that she feared Libby's "go ahead" was not voluntary. After spending months in jail, she finally said that she was assured she had his permission and she did testify-but her account of her testimony, published the next day in The Times, was laced with ambiguities and she was less than cooperative with Times staffers who were writing a separate article about her case.
Miller claimed that she originally had offered to write a story for The Times about the Libby conversation. Her immediate editor denied it. Another Times editor indicated that Miller had misled him about whether she had engaged Libby in a conversation about the CIA agent. Then it was learned that Miller had been given government clearance to view some classified documents-but agreed not to discuss what she saw with her editors.
Bill Keller, The Times editor, wrote her memorandum to the staff critical of Miller, but acknowledging that he had not been adequately informed of all the issues involved in her dealing with Libby. Miller's lawyer shortly thereafter negotiated a resignation settlement from the paper. Miller left. Libby was subsequently indicted on five charges, one of which was lying to the grand jury about his conversation with Miller.
And then there was the separate wound that the news media suffered as a result of a sharp policy disagreement between Matt Cooper, a Time magazine reporter, and his ranking news executive, Norman Pearlstein. Like Miller, Cooper had conducted a confidential source interview with Libby regarding Valerie Plame, the CIA operative. His brief on-line story blew her cover.
Cooper refused to name his source to the grand jury and was found in contempt by a federal judge. He was prepared to go off to jail. But Pearlstein responded to the demand for the name by revealing Libby as one of Cooper's sources. Pearlstein said that he did so because he believes that freedom of the press--part of the First Amendment-does not trump the law, which requires citizens to testify when ordered by a court. Reporters are citizens and Time reporters cannot hold themselves above the law.
Some media critics have held for years that journalists should not withhold the names of sources when called to testify under oath in a grand jury hearing or in a courtroom. Most journalists, on he other hand, argue that a pledge of confidentiality to a source is a bond that must not be broken. Otherwise, they insist, sources, fearing exposure and retribution and possibly jail themselves (as in Libby's present case), will be unwilling to talk to reporters off the record.
And so the news media, bleeding from these wounds, must ask: Do journalists hold themselves above the law?
The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that members of the news media, unlike doctors and clergy, have no special right not to testify when validly subpoenaed. That means in federal court there is no First Amendment shield that gives journalists the right to decline to reveal the identities of their confidential sources. It is a rule that does not apply in the courts of 49 states where provisions are written into statutes or stated in court decisions that provide some "shield law" protection to reporters in.
So, in the absence of a federal shield law, how do reporters explain or justify their action? Can they be above the law? In the days I served as an editor or publisher it seemed obvious to me that since Thomas Jefferson was subpoenaed to furnish government documents in the trial of Aaron Burr, all citizens were expected to respond positively to court orders. I subscribed to the belief, however, that journalists could not perform their duty to readers or serve as monitors on societal institutions without the aid of confidential sources. Many journalists, and I agree with their position, assert that their refusal is an act of civil disobedience. They know that this stand ultimately can mean a jail term. In other words, they hold, as I do, that subpoenas and court orders have the effect of an unjust law in conflict with the First Amendment's constitutional assurance of freedom of the press, just as "Jim Crow" laws of the past supporting racial "separate but equal" segregation offended the Constitution.
To break the pledge of confidentiality granted to a source chills, in the minds of most reporters, any chance that future whistle-blowers will trust the media with hidden secrets the public needs to know. The journalists who hold to this theory believe their credibility depends upon their standing behind that pledge, even if it means imprisonment.
So how are future whistle-blowers to view the news media in light of the problems that surrounded Judith Miller's relationship with her own newspaper over her dealing with her source? And, how will those same sources view the media in light of the decision by Time magazine to expose the identity of Cooper's source?
And, is it not likely that politicians, prosecutors and judges, observing the confusion and lack of cohesion in the media, will shoot critical darts that will inflict wounds of their own? It is clear that at present a growing number of federal prosecutors are willing to subpoena journalists and there are federal judges ready to jail those journalists for contempt who protect sources with silence.
Finally, the last of the wounds I will discuss involves the Wen Ho Lee civil law suit in which a private citizen, rather than a federal prosecutor, subpoenaed reporters to testify about who their confidential sources were and what they said.
In early March 1999, The New York Times reported that the People's Republic of China was accelerating its nuclear weapons program. Two days later, relying on confidential government sources, The Times, followed by other news organizations, also relying on unnamed sources, listed Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico as a suspect in an espionage investigation.
The Times and then other news agencies continued for months to report on the government probe, leaving no doubt in the minds of readers and viewers that Lee was a suspected spy who our government believed had leaked nuclear secrets to China. An espionage investigation was clearly underway and the government sources left no doubt that Lee, a U. S. citizen and native of Taiwan, was the target.
Then in December 1999, the federal government indicted Lee on 59 counts of mishandling documents, charging that he had stolen secrets "with intent to injure the United States and gain an advantage with a foreign nation." Everything the media had been reporting seemed accurate and justified.
The scientist, a loyal American citizen, was arrested and spent 278 days in solitary confinement as federal investigators tried to prove that he was furnishing documents to China. When he sought to make bond in September 2000 a government lawyer described him in court as "an unprecedented risk to national security."
Then, in the summer of 2001, the case began to fall apart and the government concluded it was mistaken. Lee was not a spy. He appeared in court and pled guilty to one case of downloading classified documents. He had done it, Lee explained, not to steal documents but to safeguard them because he thought them vulnerable to access by others who might misuse them.
When the government acknowledged it had been wrong about Lee, the judge fined him $100 on the one remaining charge, commuted his sentence to the 278 days he already had served and issued a public apology to him from the bench. The Justice Department and the FBI by their actions against him, had embarrassed the nation, the judge said. Both Janet Reno, the then-Attorney General, and Louis Freeh, then head of the FBI, were called before a congressional hearing. President Clinton publicly expressed his regret.
Lee then brought a civil suit against various government agencies, alleging that government officials, by leaking information to the media, had invaded his privacy. He did not sue the media organizations for libel. This resulted in subpoenas for six journalists--Jeff Gerth and James Risen of The New York Times, Robert Drogin from the Los Angeles Times, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, H. Josef Herbert of the Associated Press and Pierre Thomas of CNN.
The subpoenas came from Lee's lawyers, who were seeking money damages from the government, not a criminal indictment. Lee's counsel argued that the reporters' testimony was needed to prove that the government had leaked the misleading negative information about Lee. That he was not suing the media for defamation apparently did not change the magnetic force of the subpoena. All six reporters were held in contempt and were likely to be jailed.
Somehow, the information fed them by their sources, however well-intended, was in fact, misinformation. The government sources had misled the media and the media had misled the public. An article in The Times acknowledged that it's reporting on Lee "fell short of our standards."
The Lee case, of course, presents a somewhat different sort of self-inflicted wound. The media coverage of Lee's case sorely pained him. But the publication of stories unsupported by facts also damaged news media credibility. The wounds bled until five news organizations-The Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, ABC News and the Associated Press all agreed to pay Lee a total of $750,000, and the government agreed to pay him $900,000 more. Indeed, this was a different self-inflicted wound-and painful in ways the other wounds were not.
The question of whether those sources had knowingly misled the news media and caused the media to unwittingly misinform the public, will remain a secret. Should it?
That is a question that the pains from these wounds cannot answer. And it raises other questions: Is the understanding between the source and the journalist a contract? If so, the contract is surely broken if the journalist discloses the name of the source. But if the information the source provides is intentionally false (as sometimes it is) does that free-indeed obligate-the reporter to tell his or her readers and viewers that they were misled and by whom? No professional journalist would knowingly accept and report false information to the public. But should the journalist expose a source who intentionally misleads? Here again, the policy lines are blurred. There is no consensus among news organizations. There is only bleeding from untended wounds.
For practicing, professional journalists, for those who expect to make their future careers in the news media, for those who rely on the news media for information and knowledge and for those reliable sources who help reporters tell their stories, the changing culture inside newsrooms must be a matter of concern. All of the above have been hurt by journalism's recent penchant for thoughtlessly and needlessly wounding itself.
John Seigenthaler originally presented this paper as the main portion of his keynote address to a three-day conference designed to explore questions striking close to the heart of the media behavior and credibility. The conference was held in April, 2006, at Middle Tennessee State Univ. It has been edited and updated in light of subsequent developments. John Seigenthaler currently is chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt Univ., and is a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, founding editorial director of USA Today and, for more than four decades, was an award-winning reporter, editor, publisher and corporate officer of the (Nashville) Tennessean.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.3,21-23.