Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The New York Times displays flagrant hypocrisy when it comes to reporting with anonymous sources

Campbell Robertson
Just more than a year ago, The New York Times reported on my incarceration for blogging in Shelby County, Alabama. It proved to be one of those good news/bad news situations.

For the good news, perhaps the best-known brand in American journalism was shining light on an issue of constitutional importance in the Deep South. For the bad news, reporter Campbell Robertson produced perhaps the most poorly written and researched article I've seen on my case--and I've seen probably more than 100 stories in both mainstream and Web publications, national and international. We recently passed the one-year anniversary of my release from jail, and I'm still finding coverage that I didn't know was out there.

Perhaps most troubling about the Times is its flagrant double standard when it comes to the use of anonymous sources. More on that in a moment.

As for shoddy reporting in the Times' article, "Blogger's Incarceration Raises First Amendment Questions," I could write a treatise on all that's wrong with it. For starters, the headline is not accurate. Every expert quoted in the story says I was wrongfully jailed contrary to long-settled First Amendment law. In fact, the situation did not raise any questions about the First Amendment. The only question was: How could Alabama have such a corrupt judicial system that it screws up straightforward, fundamental issues? The Times' solution to that issue was to acknowledge that the judge had made numerous rulings that were "unconstitutional" and "way out of bounds," but it did not publish his name (Claud Neilson).

I see no reason for me to provide a detailed critique of Robertson's work because Andrew Kreig, of the Justice-Integrity Project, already has done an excellent one. Kreig's report is titled "Alabama Court Hammers Blogger Again As NY Times Flubs Libel Story," and here is perhaps his key finding:

In view of the apathy of much of the media regarding Shuler's dire circumstances, New York Times coverage in the Sunday edition of the nation's most influential newspaper was a slight net positive for Shuler and other advocates of the First Amendment.

But neither the reporter Robertson, a native of a nearby Alabama community just south of the courthouse, nor his selected experts featured in the article conveyed to the public the appalling danger of a court system operating so lawlessly.

What about the Times' hypocrisy on the use of anonymous sources?  Robertson refers to Legal Schnauzer as a "hothouse" of "fuzzily sourced allegations," an apparent reference to my use of unnamed sources in reporting on Alabama GOP politico Rob Riley and lobbyist Liberty Duke. It also might be a reference to my use of unnamed sources in reporting about Attorney General Luther Strange and his former campaign aide, Jessica Medeiros Garrison.

Both of those stories led to defamation lawsuits, the first two in my almost 37 years as a professional journalist. They came within roughly a month of each other, from pretty much the same source--Alabama's cadre of right-wing elites, who tend to talk one way about "family values" and act another. So far, my reporting never has been found to be false or defamatory at trial.

I've written more than 2,800 posts here, and I can recall using anonymous sources in only three storylines--the two GOP-related stories noted above, plus one about Bush-appointed federal judge Bill Pryor and his ties to 1990s online gay pornography. It's common practice in journalism to use anonymous sources when the provided information is sensitive and could lead to blowback, even harm, for the source. Given that I was unlawfully thrown in jail not long after writing the Riley/Duke, Strange/Garrison, and Pryor/porn stories, it seems clear that my sources, indeed, would have faced serious repercussions if they had been named.

Vicki Iseman
Does The New York Times use "fuzzy sourcing" in its own reporting. The answer is yes, and it also has found itself facing litigation. One of the best examples comes from coverage of the 2008 presidential election and a story titled "The Long Run: For McCain, Self Confidence on Ethics, Poses Its Own Risk."

The story centered around an alleged "inappropriate relationship" involving GOP candidate John McCain and a lobbyist named Vicki Iseman. Here is the heart of the story:

Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers.

A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

When news organizations reported that Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist’s client, the former campaign associates said, some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement.

Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.

The Times' reporting was wishy-washy, at best, never directly stating that McCain and Iseman had an affair. Iseman sued anyway, claiming the paper and several of its reporters and editors had "falsely created an impression that she had engaged in an improper romantic relationship with Senator John McCain." The Smoking Gun published a document that claimed the newspaper had "brazenly published" a piece about a "nonexistent tryst."

Who won the courtroom battle? That's hard to say, since the two sides reached a settlement. It seems clear John McCain was a big loser.

In the wider picture, The New York Times probably is the biggest loser of all. Based on personal experience, I would say a newspaper that once was considered great probably doesn't even rate as good anymore.


Anonymous said...

The NY Times is about protecting the establishment these days. That was just a hit piece they did on you--and it wasn't even thinly disguised.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the new Vanity Fair article about the Brian Williams debacle at NBC News? It's filled from beginning to end with anonymous sources:

Anonymous said...

How does a non-talent like Campbell Robertson get hired at the NYT? Is that the best they can do?

Anonymous said...

How much time did Mr. Robertson spend interviewing you and Mr. Shuler? I ask because he hardly quotes either one of you in his story.

legalschnauzer said...

Mr. Robertson spent roughly three hours at our house, with a photographer, interviewing my wife and taking pictures. I think I talked to him for four 15-minute periods from jail, a total of 1 hour.

We could not have been more accommodating or forthcoming. And yet, he saw fit to quote a lawyer from California who does not know us, has never spoken to us, and apparently has no clue about the legal issues we've faced.

Robertson allowed the California lawyer, Ken White of the Popehat blog, to make all sorts of snide remarks about me--and the guy doesn't know a thing about me. As Andrew Kreig notes, White is pretty much a conservative idealogue, who has supported Breitbart-based bloggers in their online campaigns against one or more liberal bloggers.

In other words, White is on the opposite political and philosophical fence from me, but Robertson does not inform his readers of that. White probably had an agenda in trashing me, and Robertson let him do it.

Terrible journalism.

Andrew Kreig said...

I concur fully with Roger Shuler's analysis in this column. Sorry for the belated comment.

Andrew Kreig
Washington, DC