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Newsroom Lessons From The Wen Ho Lee Fiasco

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How fitting that the profoundly embarrassing newsroom saga of Wen Ho Lee came to close last week with the announcement that five major media companies had agreed to join forces with the federal government and write checks totaling $1,645,000 to the former Los Alamos atomic scientist falsely accused of being a Chinese spy. The checks were written in order to make Lee's problematic civil lawsuit go away. It's ironic, because the unprecedented, seven-figure settlement--feel free to call it hush money--sprang from Lee's accusation that the government and the press had joined forces in 1999 to portray Lee as a treasonous mastermind. In other words, despite what's taught in classrooms about the importance of the press in a democracy remaining independent from the government, the two teamed up to smear Lee in `99, and then had to buddy-up again in 2006 to pay for their sins. It's only fitting.

I wonder what Notra Trulock makes of last week's news? A discredited former Energy Department intelligence officer who often came across as a Clinton-hating dittohead, Trulock served as a key government source throughout the Lee witch hunt. (The charges against Lee crumbled in court after Lee had already spent 278 days in solitary confinement.) Trulock was the source some news organizations didn't want to reveal in court and the man who led key reporters around by their noses, spinning fantastic tales about Lee's diabolical deeds; half-baked tales that were often faithfully retold in the pages of the most important newspapers in America. Read: The New York Times. Last week's settlement might have included five news organizations--ABC News, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post--but the Wen Ho Lee saga has always been about the woeful conduct of the Times and its embarrassing reliance on someone like Trulock who wielded such an obvious partisan ax as he chased after Lee, and by extension the Clinton administration, which Trulock argued was somehow protecting Lee's espionage. (Don't ask.)

Of course, the Wen Ho Lee tale and the Times' wildly over-heated reporting (eagerly hyped by the paper's editorial page, run at the times by Howell Raines) did not spring from a vacuum. Instead, it occurred at the pinnacle of the press corps' Get-Clinton years and fit into a distinct and troubling pattern at the newspaper of record. Recall that the Times embarrassed itself in the 1990s with its now-discredited Whitewater coverage; a story often fed to the Times by anonymous partisan Republican sources. The Times embarrassed itself with an innuendo-heavy Loral investigation that suggested the Clinton White House gave away weapons secrets to the Chinese in exchange for campaign contributions; a story often fed by anonymous partisan Republican sources. The Times embarrassed itself with its one-sided Wen Ho Lee coverage; a story often fed by anonymous partisan Republican sources. And more recently, the Times embarrassed itself with its pre-war WMD coverage; a story often fed by anonymous partisan Republican sources.

As I note in my new book, "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush":

During the Clinton years the fantastic tales--Whitewater, [Loral] and Wen Ho Lee--were designed to embarrass a Democratic president. During the Bush years the fantastic tale about WMD's was designed to help start a war. In each case the Times, anxious to shed its 'liberal media' tag, fell for the ploy, promoted the false stories, and did severe damage to the newspaper's reputation in the process.

Specifically, Lee's suit claimed anonymous government sources violated the Privacy Act by leaking personal information about Lee and fingering him as the culprit in an FBI investigation. Lee's attorneys argued the only way to find out who violated the Privacy Act was to force the reporters to reveal their sources. Federal judge Thomas Penfield Jackson agreed, over and over gain. As media outlets lost at every juncture of the case (media companies have been taking a thumbing in courts recently) it became obvious their reporters were going to either go to prison or pay huge contempt-of-court fees. Hence, the unprecedented settlement, where mainstream media companies signed off the once-unthinkable proposition of paying a critic to go away. Some journalism pro's fret the settlement marks a dark day for confidential sources, and they may be right. But let's hope the settlement also reminds reporters that anonymous partisan sources who completely and repeatedly mislead lead them, while perhaps breaking the law in the process, the way Trulock appeared to have done aren't sources worth protecting.

NOTE: In March 1999, when the Times was poised to break its big Wen Ho Lee scoop on page 1, a story with major national security implications, Clinton's FBI, for various reasons, asked the Times to hold off running the story. The Times complied for just 48 hours and then published the story. But recall that in 2004, when the Times was set to break its big NSA wiretapping story on page 1, a story with major national security implications, the Bush's administration, for various reasons, asked the newspaper to hold off running the story. The Times complied for nearly a year before finally publishing the story.