A longstanding, exemplary priest will be defrocked, prosecuted, and imprisoned if on one occasion long ago he molested a 10-year-old altar boy. A highly esteemed lawyer will be suspended and/or disbarred, if on one occasion he borrowed from client's funds. A highly trusted bank teller will spend time in prison, if on one occasion he stole from the till on Friday afternoon, returned the money on Monday morning, and then confessed.
Journalism is happy to trumpet its successes, but reticent to address its failures. It roots out corruption in others, but does not apply those tough standards to itself.
Last week, the 2009 Goldsmith Prize for investigative journalism was awarded to a team of women from The Washington Post. Praise helps inspire and reward exemplary journalism--particularly investigative journalism. On the other hand, it is equally important to condemn violations that demean the profession and damage its credibility. Unfortunately, there are no formal organizations or committees assigned to this task. No Board of Bar Overseers, no enforcement divisions, no review boards that monitor, criticize, and condemn unethical reporting. Only on rare occasions do the Stephen Glasses and the Janet Cookes get caught.
When the mainstream media doesn't live up to its ideals, when they fail to protect the people they serve, when they produce twisted and false reports, no one is fired, fined, imprisoned, or even chastised--even though they have committed "private honest-services fraud," a federal felony. There is no General Accounting Office that calls the media--or any individual reporter--on the carpet.
The two stunning examples of journalism malfeasance--some would call them "lapses," others catastrophic, unforgiveable failures--were the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the recent financial meltdown. Journalists failed to scrutinize whether President Bush's justification for going to war was valid. And journalists failed to excavate and expose the excessive greed and fraud of the financial community, particularly how it falsely inflated the value and security of complex real-estate instruments, which dominoed the economy into what may prove to be a great depression.
But there have been other lapses--serious lapses--that no one seems to be concerned about.
For example, The Washington Post's 2009 Goldsmith Prize was recently featured on the Columbia School of Journalism website, which happened to mention that the Post had also been a 2006 Goldsmith finalist and a 2006 Pulitzer Prize recipient for its investigation of the Abramoff lobbying corruption scandal.
The Post's 2006 Pulitzer Prize was a grave error and should be revoked.
The key evidence in support of that revocation was a September 26, 2004 story the Post published that appears to be knowingly false. (Although the 2006 Pulitzer Prize was based on stories submitted in 2005, the Post's stories in 2004 were essential--like fruit of the poisonous tree--to the 2005 stories that were submitted for the 2006 prize.) That September 26, 2004 story--followed two days later by a scathing Washington Post editorial--was the final nail in the coffin of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The timing of the story and the subsequent editorial couldn't have been more nearly perfect or more damaging, because on the very next morning, Abramoff himself appeared under subpoena before Sen. John McCain's Senate Indian Affairs Committee as its first witness. (Under advice of counsel, Abramoff asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege. Because federal prosecutors later terrified him into pleading guilty, Abramoff never spoke out in his own defense.)
The Post story accused Abramoff of the most callous greed and underhandedness, claiming that he had secretly lobbied to shut down a tribe's casino in El Paso, simply so he could promise to get it reopened for a $4.2 million fee. However, the Post's reporter, Susan Schmidt, included in her story three troublesome words--"two Indian casinos." In other words, there was a second Indian casino Abramoff was also lobbying to shut down, but the name of that second tribe wasn't mentioned.
What Schmidt also failed to mention was that the second, unnamed Indian casino was located in eastern Texas near Houston, a short drive from the highly lucrative casino of Abramoff's biggest tribal client in Louisiana. Most of its clientele came from the Houston area. Unlike what the Post reported, Abramoff only wanted to shut down one casino--the one that threatened his client's business in Louisiana. Abramoff had absolutely no interest in shutting down the tribal casino in El Paso highlighted in the Post's story, because that casino was 1,000 miles away from the casino of his Louisiana client. Hell, if something that far away had been a threat, Abramoff would have lobbied to close down Las Vegas.
If the Post had mentioned the name of the second Indian casino, a grade-school reader would have quickly grasped that Abramoff was only interested in shutting down the tribal casino in eastern Texas, the one that threatened his client's business, not the one in western Texas, which did not. (To give you an idea of how big Texas is: Houston is closer to Chicago than El Paso.)
The fact that the Post's editors did not challenge this story made them complicit. Schmidt admitted there were "two Indian casinos," because she said so in her story. But did she know the name of the second tribal casino, and did she know that it threatened the livelihood of Abramoff's client in Louisiana? The answer appears to be yes. About three weeks earlier (on August 30, 2004), the Post ran a story specifically naming the tribe in eastern Texas and specifically stating that it threatened Abramoff's tribal client in Louisiana, and lo and behold, Schmidt's name appears on that very story in a tag line.
To recap, Schmidt knew that there were two Indian casinos in Texas, she knew the name of that second Indian casino, and she knew it was a threat to Abramoff's nearby client in Louisiana, and yet the name of that second Indian casino was omitted from her sensational story.
I interviewed Schmidt and asked her to explain herself. She declined. I contacted The Washington Post's editor in chief. His evasive response was that his newspaper's Abramoff stories had held up well. It is as if he were saying that one egregious lapse does not taint the entire body of work. Tell that to the defrocked priest, the disbarred lawyer, and the jailed bank teller. It is safe to conclude that when a prominent newspaper stains the profession by publishing a fraudulent story--perhaps to sell newspapers and win a Pulitzer Prize--it is exempt from punishment.
The facts surrounding this troubling story have already been brought to the attention of prominent members of the journalistic community, but presumably no action will ever be taken. The police are not the only ones with a "code of blue." In other words, it appears to be acceptable, though hypocritical, for journalists to rail against the sins and cause the destruction of others, but only if the sinner is not one of their own.
Gary S. Chafetz, author of the recently published book, The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff.