|Robert Luskin and Karl Rove|
One of the federal prosecutors who was under investigation for the botched Ted Stevens case in Alaska apparently committed suicide over the weekend.
Multiple press outlets reported yesterday that Nicholas A. Marsh killed himself. How do we know that Marsh, 37, took his own life? Karl Rove's lawyer said so.
News of Marsh's suicide has spread around the country based solely on the word of Robert Luskin, a high-powered, Washington, D.C., lawyer. Luskin, of the firm Patton Boggs, represented Marsh in the Stevens investigation. He also has represented Karl Rove and helped ensure that the former Bush White House strategist would not have to testify under oath about his role in possible political prosecutions of well-known Democrats, such as Don Siegelman in Alabama and Paul Minor in Mississippi.
The Marsh death appears to be a legal story, a political story, and a personal tragedy. But it's also a story of ghastly journalism.
NPR apparently broke the news of Marsh's death with a report yesterday morning. Several Web sites, including TPM Muckraker and mainjustice.com, quickly followed up. The Washington Post had a piece on one of its blogs, and Associated Press spread the news around the country.
As the story developed, almost no reporter seemed to ask this obvious question: How do we know that Nicholas Marsh committed suicide? Unless Robert Luskin moonlights as a coroner, he certainly is not qualified to make that determination. So why are we taking his word for it?
We have to give credit to the Wall Street Journal for at least pondering such questions before going with the story. The WSJ report included the following:
Robert Luskin, Mr. Marsh's lawyer, said the 37-year-old attorney's wife informed him Sunday of the death. Mr. Luskin said he didn't have details of how it occurred. The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington said it didn't have any information about the death. The District of Columbia medical examiner didn't respond to a call seeking comment.
A prominent individual died under apparently unnatural circumstances, but the D.C. Police Department was not called and has no information about the case? That is peculiar.
It's difficult at this point to determine exactly how the story evolved. But it appears Luskin's office issued a statement, and he responded briefly to an e-mail query from mainjustice.com. WSJ's Evan Perez appears to be the only reporter who questioned Luskin directly and at least tried to check with official sources about the circumstances surrounding Marsh's death.
I've been a professional journalist for 30-plus years, and my experience has been that on any death that appears to be from unnatural causes, law enforcement conducts an investigation and a medical examiner issues a finding. Only then is the cause and/or manner of death reported. After all, it's impossible to accurately report the story without information from sources who are qualified to make such determinations.
The press, with Robert Luskin's help, seemed more than willing to short-circuit that process in the death of Nicholas A. Marsh. Unless Luskin saw Marsh kill himself, he certainly is not qualified to comment on the manner of death.
Our point is not to question whether Marsh actually killed himself. But Luskin, for some reason, appeared to be trying to get ahead of the story yesterday. The press, on a day when it hardly distinguished itself, ignored some journalism basics in helping him do it.