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The Ponzi-Pulitzer Scheme

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Earlier in May, the New York Times ran an intriguing piece about William McMasters, the Boston publicist who had helped unmask the con artist Charles Ponzi, after whom the term "Ponzi scheme" is named.

One noteworthy passage, near the end of the article, notes McMasters's frustration at his dealings with the Boston Post, the paper that published an article based on his information.

When the Post won a Pulitzer Prize for the story the following year, Mr. McMasters should have been happy, but he wasn't. "No mention was made of my having given the paper its first shot at Ponzi," he grouses in his typescript. "Instead it was made to appear that The Post editors had gone after this first story, which was not so."

"The truth is that I almost had to beg the publisher to take the story," he wrote. But, he said, the newspaper "in its self-laudation could hardly give credit to anyone outside of its staff."

As most whistle-blowers and journalists know -- including presumably the Times reporter who wrote the recent piece -- what happened to McMasters was hardly unusual. It is a common practice among news organizations to make it look like scoops were the result of initiative on their own part when in fact the original tip and much of the detail may have come from an outsider or outsiders who had to struggle mightily for a hearing from the media. Once a reporter is persuaded, he or she, too, often has to wage a battle to persuade bosses to run a story. After which, when the prize comes in, everyone rushes to take credit -- and the source practically disappears from the picture. In fact, if more news organizations were transparent about the process that led to the story, prize committees might sometimes find themselves morally obligated not to hand out awards to news organizations -- but to members of the public.