Category Archives: Newspaper columns

Transgender suicide ignites media ethics firestorm

An ethical firestorm has flared up over an expose that ran last month in Grantland, a sports and popular culture site affiliated with ESPN, on the unlikely subject of a new golf club and the woman who invented it.

As much as any media ethics matter of recent years, the furor touched off by “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” raises compelling questions about whether conventional journalistic practices are nasty, brutish and indefensible—questions raised by an online community of newspeople who have a strikingly different ethic in mind.

The Grantland article was the product of an eight-month inquiry into Essay Anne Vanderbilt, aka Dr. V, who spent seven years developing an aerodynamically innovative putter that some respected golfers believed materially improved their games. The possibility loomed of a major technological advance—and a business triumph—in a sport that reveres its toys.

But the Grantland writer, Caleb Hannan, discovered serious fabrications in Dr. V’s academic and professional resume: She didn’t, as claimed, have degrees from MIT and Wharton; she wasn’t related to the Vanderbilt dynasty; she probably didn’t help develop the Stealth bomber. Apparently, she had been an auto mechanic, albeit a remarkably gifted one.

Then, Hannan’s background checks took an unexpected turn. While trying to figure out why he could find no trace of Dr. V before 2000, he learned she was transgender, and had lived until then—and had married twice—under the male name she was born with. “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself,” he wrote.

That story ended some weeks after Dr. V’s last, angry, email communication with Hannan, when in late October she killed herself.  In January the story was published.

It’s unclear what pushed her to suicide—fear that she’d be exposed as transgender, the lies in her resume, or the demons that many transgender people wrestle with, which is why they attempt suicide at rates far greater than the general population. (She tried before.)

But the transgender element is what provoked furious comment after the story was published—and it’s what challenges most frontally cherished practices of textbook journalism.

Traditionally, information bearing on the capacities, character, stability and credibility of an entrepreneur would be considered fair game for a reporter, who Continue reading

Why news organizations need to credit each other

In an unusual dust-up, the top editor of the Washington Post has complained to The New York Times that it failed to credit the Post for work that preceded, and nourished, important stories that the Times later ran. Why this should matter to you is worth exploring.

The Post stories, executive editor Martin Baron wrote to  Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, included significant works of enterprise journalism—among them disclosures about the National Security Agency seeding private computers with cyberattack capabilities, and unreported details from the scandal enveloping Virginia’s former governor. The Times did stories on both without indicating the debt it owed to work that the Post had already published.

The Post wasn’t the only news organization whose work The Times helped itself to, according to its public editor, whose job it is to investigate and respond to concerns about Times journalism.  McClatchy News’ Washington bureau found material it had unearthed about crude oil spillage in rail accidents was incorporated into Times stories, without a salute. (The Times later acknowledged its error.)

Now, it’s ironic to see The New York Times criticized for using the work of other outfits, since its own journalism is routinely and unapologetically ripped off by news organizations nationwide, indeed worldwide.

The Times remains, even in the digital age, far and away the mightiest influence on this country’s news agenda, and editors everywhere quietly take their bearings from the disclosures and priorities reflected in its stories and its lineup. A considerable slice of the U.S. news industry spends a considerable slice of its time trying to either match, exceed, localize, or explore the implications of The Times’ reporting—generally without any credit to The Times given or, I imagine, expected.

So when it comes to unacknowledged takings, The Times is much more often pillaged than pillager. But the issue Marty Baron raised is, I think, an important one, and one that’s only poorly addressed in contemporary journalism protocols and codes of practice.

True, if you’re not a journalist, you’ll be tempted to view this scrap as little more than dueling vanities. But what’s at issue here goes beyond pique, it’s the overall transparency of the news process—the way that significant information comes to light—and that’s not a trivial thing.

I suppose it matters less when the news organization whose enterprise was filched is The Washington Post, a great outfit whose reputation and reach remain unimpaired. Its editors may have been miffed, but The Post was hardly injured by what The Times failed to do.

The obligation to acknowledge previous work is more consequential if, say, the work is done by a tiny news site that ferrets out a hard-to-get scoop. If you, as a reader who sees that story only after it’s redone by a larger competitor, knew where it originated, you might want to pay attention to the upstart site. You Continue reading

Edward Snowden deserves a stronger defense than the media are offering

The news media’s silence while some of their boldest sources are prosecuted or jailed is something I’ve been protesting for some time, so naturally I was pleased when The New York Times, in an eloquent editorial on New Year’s Day, urged the White House to show leniency toward Edward Snowden, the former contract worker for the National Security Agency, whose leaks continue to expose the NSA’s monumental, intrusive and illegal monitoring of civilian communications here and abroad.

The Times recounted the broad impact of Snowden’s defiance, including widespread outrage, critical court rulings, internal investigations and even a grudging nod from the White House. President Obama nonetheless invited him to return from asylum in Russia to face whatever justice the administration is currently offering, the president apparently hoping that Snowden wasn’t paying attention when fellow whistleblower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, having shared similarly dirty laundry via Wikileaks, was manhandled and held in solitary for nearly a year and finally sentenced to 35 years by a military tribunal.

Who could turn that down?

The Times argued that Snowden deserves either clemency or some minimum-punishment plea bargain, and concluded: “When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.”

Now, The Times never said much on Manning’s behalf. Nor has it opined in favor of Manning’s helper, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who’s languishing in an ersatz house arrest in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

For his part Assange is ignored, when he’s not reviled, by the same news organizations he fed truthful and explosive information. The received wisdom among elite media, near as I can tell, is that he’s a weirdo and an egomaniac and therefore earned his current captivity, ensured by a months-long police siege outside the embassy in Knightsbridge that’s supposedly intended to get him to return to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual misconduct, murky stuff with which he has never been charged.

The police response is grossly disproportionate and reflects far more serious concerns than a busted condom, but the media prefer to look the other way.

So amid this practice of source abandonment, The Times’ plea is welcome.

But in several regards, the pro-Snowden case is troubling. It doesn’t go nearly far enough toward ensuring a fair shake for whistle-blowers with vital stories to tell.

First, the idea that Snowden should get a break because his “disclosures have Continue reading

Coverage of ‘moral injury’ among U.S. vets masks disregard of civilian war suffering

Just before Christmas I heard a report on public radio concerning “moral injury” among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. That’s the psychic trauma caused by acting or witnessing acts that conflict with core values—brutalizing prisoners, for instance, or killing children.

A push is on to recognize moral injury as a distinct condition within Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and treat it with customized interventions.  The pain that the soldier in the report suffered, after he and his buddies wiped out an Iraqi family of five whose car inexplicably failed to slow for a checkpoint, needs a different label and more calibrated care than other post-combat miseries that afflict soldiers.

My reaction to this account was layered. I was heartened by the sensitivity and ingenuity mental health professionals were bringing to healing the thousands of U.S. military scarred by their service in these wars.

I was also impressed, once again, by how serious the news media’s coverage has been of today’s veterans. As early as 2007 conditions in the Army’s flagship Walter Reed Hospital prompted Pulitzer-winning coverage by The Washington Post. The problems of brain injury, suicide rates, prosthetics, unemployment, psychological impairment, and the adequacy of the Veterans Administration’s response, continue to get sustained, compassionate news treatment unlike any that Vietnam-era veterans ever saw.

That’s all for the good.

But there was also something disturbing about how this report on moral injury among our soldiers exemplified this country’s boundless capacity for self-absorption. It comes amid a gaping absence of media attention to the horrendous damage suffered by others in the same wars. Continue reading

Where do the media get off exposing a spy?

At first blush, the Robert Levinson affair seems like the epitome of reckless reporting on national security: The news media flat out blew a missing spy’s cover.

Levinson, a former FBI agent who vanished in March 2007 on the Iranian island of Kish, hadn’t been working as a private investigator, as the U.S. government had consistently claimed. Actually, he was working for the CIA. That’s what the Associated Press reported this month in a rigorously detailed 5,200-word article.

The AP said it learned of Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010, and at the government’s request had delayed publishing what it knew three times. The New York Times followed the AP days later with a story of comparable heft, and, not to be outdone, said it had known about Levinson’s CIA connection since late 2007 and had kept quiet to avoid endangering him.

The White House called the AP story “highly irresponsible,” and spokesman Jay Carney said they had  “strongly urged” the wire service not to run the story. Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from Levinson’s home state of Florida, who’d been working with his family, said he too had admonished the AP not to publish.

The AP acknowledged that the story might put Levinson at risk, but argued it’s “almost certain” his captors know about his mission. “We have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication,” executive editor Kathleen Carroll wrote.

The Levinson affair is no fable of daring spycraft. It’s the sort of tale familiar to connoisseurs of John LeCarre’s world. There, hapless agents way past their prime who yearn for redemption are beguiled into pointless and misguided missions to serve the dreary vanities of bureaucratic schemers.

Levinson, now 65 if he’s still alive, appears to have fallen victim to a factional split within the agency between analysts and operatives, in which the desk-bound experts—like Monty Python’s CPA who longed to be a lion tamer—figured they’d run their own field agents. Levinson was a retired 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI, and reportedly was tasked with wooing a potential informant.

Nobody will say where he is and, if he was captured, by whom and why. Iran’s foreign minister said on TV two weeks ago that he had “no idea” where Levinson is. The family last received video evidence he was alive in early 2011. With U.S.-Iran relations a top administration concern, Secretary of State John Kerry says he’s continuing to try to find Levinson and get him back.

Meantime, three senior CIA analysts have been fired, seven others were disciplined, and the government paid $2.5 million to Levinson’s family. The story that has since emerged is of a rogue operation, and as the AP account made its way through the news system his mission came to be described as “unapproved.”

Still, exposing a covert agent in the field has long been held out as the electrified third-rail of national security reporting—to be avoided at all cost—and it’s worth looking closer at this case to see an instance where publication was, I think, clearly warranted.

First, let’s put the decision to expose Levinson in a journalistic context: The media’s other option was deceit. For years, each and every time the AP, The Times and other organizations that knew better described him as a private individual engaged in private inquiries—the cover story was that he was investigating cigarette smugglers—they were misleading their readers, deliberately.

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