Why we need to get it right the first time


Wen Ho Lee, an atomic scientist wrongly accused of espionage and vilified by press reports that depended on bad sources, won court judgments against the federal government and five media organizations recently but all the money in the world cannot ease the nightmare he suffered for the past nine years.

Lee, a highly-respected scientist at Los Alamos in New Mexico, lost his job, his reputation and – for awhile – his freedom because the government accused him without evidence and journalists joined in the feeding frenzy by depending on sources short on facts but long on political agendas.

In dismissing the case against Lee, Federal District Judge James Parker in Los Angeles also apologized to the Taiwan-born scientist, saying “the top decision-makers in the executive branch, especially the Department of Justice and the Department of Energy have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.”

The blame for Lee’s ordeal cannot be laid at the feet of the Bush Administration or the Constitution-ignoring USA Patriot Act. The government’s actions against Lee originated when Bill Clinton called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home and Janet Reno ran things at the Department of Justice.

It wasn’t the first time the government screwed up on such an investigation and, unfortunately, it won’t be the last. But the Wen Ho Lee case should send a warning to journalists that too much dependency on vague and shadowy sources can lead to trouble.

The media declared Lee guilty before the first charges were filed. This was not rumors published by bloggers or gossip passed on my Matt Drudge but stories published by the Associated Press, The New York Times, ABC News, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

And it wasn’t the first time the media tried someone based on incorrect information passed on by questionable sources. In 1996, the press convicted security guard Richard Jewell for bombing the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta based on leaks from FBI agents who wrongly accused a man whose only crime was wanting to be a cop and help people. The feds later cleared Jewell but he lost his job, his reputation and what should have been his moment in the spotlight for saving lives because he spotted the bomb and warned people away from it.

Reporters are human and they make mistakes. Many, like the Chicago Tribune declaring Dewey the Presidential winner over Truman, live on in history. Others fade in the memories of all but those whose lives were ruined by journalistic irresponsibility.

With the growth of the Internet, blogs and partisan “news” sites, the chances for error increase dramatically and possibility of damage multiplies. During the 2004 Presidential election, Drudge rushed into print with a rumor that Democratic contender John Kerry has sent an intern off to Europe to hide a Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky style affair. Turned out the “intern” actually worked for The Associated Press, had little contact with Kerry, and went to Africa to get married.

Currently, the left-leaning web site, Truthout, finds itself embroiled in a controversy over a story by tarnished journalist Jason Leopold that reported, a month ago, the grand jury investigating the leaking of a covert CIA operative’s name indicted Bush guru Karl Rove. Callie Houston, our blog editor, has covered the situation thoroughly and catches a lot of flak from people who doubt our reporting.

Fair enough. We make mistakes. Three years ago we reported on a White House meeting, saying Bush was told the weapons of mass destruction report out of Iraq was a lie and that he ignored the warnings. We retracted the story when the source for that story turned out to be bogus. We had a responsibility to our readers to say we were wrong and apologize. We did.

In the 2004 Presidential election we reported that Nancy Reagan did not support Bush’s re-election and had forbidden his campaign from using images of the late President. She later issued a public statement saying we were wrong. Again, we apologized to our readers, retracted and removed the story.

We constantly review articles published on this web site and update those when we learn additional information or, on rare occasions, remove those that prove to be incorrect. Since 1994, we have published more than 25,000 articles and, upon review, updated or removed 212 of them.

Far too often, we find ourselves quoted on other web sites and cited for stories we neither wrote nor published. When we learn about such inaccuracies we try to correct them but it is a big Internet and there is a lot of information, correct and incorrect, out there.

Google “Wen Ho Lee” and you will find many, many web sites that repeat the now-discredited charges against him. Same for Richard Jewell. Many of those charges will be passed around for years to come with no mention that both men were cleared. Had journalists taken more care in what they reported initially, such misinformation might not be out there to be misused in the future.

As journalists, we have to recognize that what we report has consequences. Those consequences can be good when we uncover misdeeds by our government and elected officials. But they can wreak incredible damage when wrong or misdirected.

I learned a valuable lesson many years ago about the damage that can be inflicted with the best of intentions.

From 1969 through 1981, I wrote for The Alton Telegraph, a daily newspaper in Illinois just across the Mississippi River from St. Lous. I wrote about crooked politicians, cops on the take and what I saw as the injustice of racism. As politicians went to jail, and awards adorned the wall over my desk, my reputation as a muckraker increased and I began to understand, and too often abuse, the power of the press to sway public opinion.

My ego, never small, grew to monumental proportions.

People with stories to tell sought me out at local bars and restaurants or called me at work and home.

One night, a kid from the Madison County jail called to say he had been a prisoner for more than a year without being convicted of a crime.  He said county prosecutor Robert Trone wouldn’t offer a deal because he was poor and black.

It sounded like my kind of story so I started checking it out and found the kid, Larry Brown, had in fact been in jail for 15 months on an armed robbery charge after a mistrial and a hung jury. At the same time, two white kids about the same age, both from prominent families in Alton, pulled an arm robbery but didn’t spend a single night in jail because a judge released them on their own recognizance and their family brought forward a parade of “character witnesses” that included the town mayor, two local priests and several prominent businessmen. The same judge gave both kids suspended sentences.

So I wrote the story and turned it into a classic case of white vs. black, rich vs. poor and the double standard of justice in the local court system. An embarrassed Trone offered Brown the same deal as the two rich white kids and a judge quickly released him.

For the next few days, I reveled in my power to jump start the wheels of justice along with free drinks in most town bars and congratulations from people on the streets.

Two weeks later, Brown walked into a local pharmacy with a gun and demanded drugs and money from the pharmacist, an elderly man in his 60s. When the man didn’t move fast enough, Brown pumped several slugs into his chest and fled. The pharmacist died before paramedics arrived but police ID’d Brown from a video surveillance camera and arrested him that night.

When I heard the news I went to a bar and crawled into a bottle. I resigned from the paper and walked away from journalism.  It would be more than a decade before I climbed out of that bottle and returned to the profession I loved.

When you get it wrong, you have to live with the consequences. Everyone – journalists, bloggers and those who pen an occasional letter to the editor – should consider that fact.

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