The [Monday] Papers
I need to return to the Jesse Jackson Jr. story today to clarify an item I wrote on Friday, but first I want to direct readers to a fine story by the Tribune over the weekend about Michael Madigan's interests in the town of Justice that was so good I couldn't pick out just one part to highlight: "In Justice, All Roads Lead To Madigan."
I don't just like the story because of what it reveals about Madigan's modus operandi but because it seems to be so well-reported.
If only Madigan would deign to answer reporters' questions instead of hiding behind disingenuous mouthpiece Steve Brown. As I've suggested before, I'd like to see news organizations refuse to speak to Brown on stories of this kind of import and instead just note Madigan's refusal to answer questions about affairs the people of Illinois deserve to know more about.
Now on to Junior.
Bringing It On
If the U.S. Attorney's Office really did leak damaging information about Jesse Jackson Jr. after Junior challenged them to "bring it on," then that's a story, isn't it? "Feds Retaliate With Leak." And you know who would know if that's what happened? Reporters. (Call me naive, but I remain skeptical. But it would be interesting to ask Patrick Fitzgerald if he intended to locate the leak and discipline any of his prosecutors.)
If some of the reaction to this item is valid, and I think it is, I failed to articulate my point as well as I could have. First, a couple missives sent my way:
Fitzgerald's office didn't leak the Jesse story. The likely suspects are defense lawyers who represent witnesses, talk among themselves, and know what each other's clients are saying. In particular, there are two sets of defense lawyers who received extensive discovery of government interview reports in the Blago trial. Both of the clients had reason to hate Jackson. Either the lawyers or the clients could have called the press. One lawyer for a witness, Tom McQueen, was even quoted in at least one of the stories. Take off the tinfoil.
They'd been working that story for months - what you think they threw it together in three days?
I actually agree in general with those sentiments. Last Wednesday I wrote this item:
Does Walter Jacobson have any reporting on which to base last night's "Perspective" on Jesse Jackson Jr., or is he just guessing? Because an awful lot of it sure doesn't ring true.
"Fitz is snarling, and looking for a high-profile politician to prosecute."
Um, Patrick Fitzgerald isn't really the snarling type. And does Jacobson really think Fitzgerald is on the prowl to take down a high-profile politician because he didn't get much of Rod Blagojevich's scalp? I doubt that's how he operates.
I should have reiterated and made clear on Friday my exasperation at speculation that Fitzgerald's office responded to Junior's taunt that seemed to lack any confirmation via reporting. Just a few examples:
Mary Mitchell, Sun-Times: "Besides, it takes a lot of arrogance to taunt the feds with 'bring it on' when you have embarrassing secrets."
Tribune: "Somebody brought it on."
Rich Miller, Capitol Fax: "Methinks somebody just brought it on."
Eric Zorn, Trib: "JJJr. said 'bring it on' to the Feds last Friday, the Feds evidently brought it on by leaking damaging information to the Sun-Times and now we must stick a fork in the formerly doughy scion of the Family Jackson."
Charles Thomas, ABC7: "I've talked to literally dozens of pols during the last 24 hours and virtually every one of them is convinced that Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr's widely reported challenge to federal prosecutors to 'bring it on' had something to do with the timing of Tuesday's blockbuster Chicago Sun Times story . . . Jesse Jackson, Jr. supporters I talked to at his wife's birthday party Tuesday night are convinced the feds leaked the information, or at the very least 'looked the other way' when the Nayak and Huidobro revelations were made to let the Congressman know they have the at-ready means to 'bring it on.'"
Um, just because people think something doesn't make it true.
Now, to be excruciatingly fair to some of the folks I just mentioned, using the "bring it on" meme combined with "somebody" bringing it on, or in jest, doesn't necessarily endorse the Fitzgerald theory. Yet, it reinforces it - or at least reinforces the idea that the story appeared as a direct result of the taunt.
The first Sun-Times story cited "sources with knowledge of the probe" but also noted that "The Sun-Times has been investigating the new allegations since the beginning of the year."
That doesn't mean the taunt didn't result in the last domino of reporting falling, but it doesn't mean it did either.
The point here isn't to try to out the Sun-Times's sources; to the contrary my target was those assuming that the leak came out of Fitzgerald's office without any seeming confirmation. And then a bunch of others running with it.
There is another point, though. Sometimes the fact that someone is leaking is news too. Again, I'm not suggesting we all try to out the sources (note the plural), but that motive to leak is an element. This is one reason why some papers, such as the New York Times, sometimes (but not enough) try to indicate to readers where a source is coming from: " . . . said a source with a financial interest in the deal going through."
Or consider this case: "It now appears that the final chapter has been written in the nearly decade-long legal saga that began in 1982 when editors at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press overrode promises of confidentiality made by their reporters, and published the identity of a source.
"Minneapolis political campaign operative Dan Cohen sued the newspapers for revealing his name in stories about political dirty tricks on the eve of a state election. The editors determined that Cohen's identity as the source was newsworthy and, for that reason, more important than the pledges of secrecy given him by reporters he tipped off."
I don't endorse what the editors there did because they did so after-the-fact and burned not only the source but the reporters. But reporters going into stories ought to consider the newsworthiness of why someone is leaking before promising confidentiality and accepting the information.
That's not to say I'm suggesting the Sun-Times reporters did anything wrong; I am not. I have no reason to believe that. But this kind of reporting can get complicated and is fraught with peril. That's one reason why it is so difficult to pull off.
My problem is with the leak meme that has taken hold. Let's not repeat it unless or until we know it's true, as naive as that may sound in some quarters. Journalists, of all people, should know that things are rarely as they merely seem.
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Posted on September 27, 2010
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