Truthout’s big gamble

The Jason Leopold-Truthout report last week that Karl Rove had been indicted reignited the longstanding debate on the trustworthiness of blogs as news sources.

Anne Marie Squeo writes in today’s Wall Street Journal:

On Saturday night, attorney Robert Luskin was trying to barbecue at his Washington home when the phone started ringing nonstop. A story posted on an Internet site reported that his client, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, had been indicted.

Mr. Luskin says he issued an explicit denial to anyone who contacted him. But the story set off a fire storm, with reporters from newspapers, television and elsewhere seeking to check its veracity, and Web log writers seeking comment.

With more people turning to the Internet for news, bloggers have blurred the lines with traditional media and changed both the dynamics of the reporting process and how political rumors swirl.

With William Rivers Pitt circling the wagons at Truthout and insisting that Leopold’s piece had been vetted by "a dozen eyes," himself included, the still-unconfirmed report has placed the debate of "truth-vs.-rumor" directly in the center of a firestorm.

Squeo continues:

On Friday, Truthout posted another story by the same correspondent, Jason Leopold, reporting that Mr. Rove had told President Bush and White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten that he would be indicted imminently.

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Mr. Rove, said the Bush official had no such conversation with the president or Mr. Bolten. Mr. Luskin disputed Mr. Leopold’s Saturday story, which cited "high level sources with direct knowledge" that he had a 15-hour meeting with Mr. Fitzgerald at Mr. Luskin’s office at the Washington law firm Patton Boggs. The Rove attorney says he spent part of that day at the vet with his cat and that Mr. Fitzgerald was in Chicago. A spokesman for Mr. Fitzgerald declined to comment.

The denials set off a round of blogging. One site said Mr. Leopold was the victim of White House disinformation. Another cast doubt on whether Mr. Rove’s attorney took his cat to the vet.

"The system for keeping unverifiable reports out of the news is totally broken down when you look at the online world," says Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and a blogger himself at Instead, he says, there is a "let’s see if this holds up" philosophy that he thinks has merit in today’s fast-paced news world, though he admits it isn’t a practice that major news organizations could or should adopt.

Central to the issue is a admittedly biased web site (Truthout) and Leopold, a writer with a checkered past. In 2002, Salon removed a story written by Leopold from its website because it said it could not confirm existence of an email that was central to the story about Enron. Salon’s editors cited many "inconsistencies and problems" in what they said were changing explanations from Leopold.

"At the end of this process we felt that the essential trust between editor and writer that underlies all reliable journalism had broken down, and that in the wake of that breakdown, we had no choice but to take the story down," Salon posted on its web site.

Leopold called the Salon explanation "nothing but lies" and claimed the web site had craved to "political pressure."

Replied Salon:

It was not an action we sought. After all, our interest all along was to try to support the story. Contrary to Leopold, Salon has been under no pressure of any kind about this story. There has been no "political pressure." If there had been, we would have been delighted to report on it and expose it. There have been no legal threats (except veiled ones from Leopold himself). We operated on our own schedule, not one related to other media coverage. We tried to balance the time necessary for a careful review with the responsibility to report to the public quickly as problems with the story emerged.

Interestingly, the regulars on left-wing web sites Democratic Underground support Leopold, despite his questionable record, even though they would never forgive such transgressions from a reporter who wrote from the other side of the political fence.

But support for Leopold is not universal, even among the liberal blogs. A number of threads on DailyKos continue to question his credibility, which the blog has done in the past.

Even Wonkette has doubts:

“Truthout” is not quite the most trusted news source in our bloglines list. So, while they did announce on Saturday that Karl Rove has been indicted, we’re not particularly inclined to believe it, especially as it is now Monday, and not even Raw Story has picked it up. Sorry, better luck with your next bout of wishful (if slightly likely) speculation.

Wonkette followed that bit of skepticism up today with:

Remember yesterday, when we evinced skepticism about the Truthout “report” claiming Karl Rove had been indicted (the “report” which some of you continue to send us)?

We were proved right, dammit! Ahead of the curve! MUST CREDIT WONKETTE FOR SKEPTICISM.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece today about how certain blogs like to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. Truthout seems to be waging a campaign of competing reality in which Rove had a 15-hour meeting on Friday and was indicted this weekend, in the hopes of stirring up real reporters to confirm it, which reporters then try very hard to do — sort of wagging the dog, but the metaphor collapses when you remember that bloggers have never met the dog, just seen it on tv.

Kevin Aylward on Whizbang is even more blunt:

The author of the story, freelance writer Jason Leopold, seems to be working his way down the media chain; going from respectable outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, to online magazine Salon, and now a kooky site like Truthout. There’s a reason his work isn’t featured anywhere else – he’s already been busted down by as a plagiarist and fabricator of material, and as Howard Kurtz reports: he’s engaged in "lying, cheating and backstabbing," is a former cocaine addict, served time for grand larceny, repeatedly tried to kill himself and has battled mental illness his whole life.

Leaving aside Leopold’s complete lack of credibility, his sudden believability probably hints more at hopefulness on the left than a new mastery of facts. Leopold has been hawking this same every few months since 2005. The story last appeared in April, when indictment was just "days away."

Sure it’s possible Rove could be indicted; but Leopold inventing indictments doesn’t make it any more likely…

Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz offers more insight into Leopold’s problems:

Jason Leopold got a journalistic black eye three years ago when Salon retracted a story the freelancer had written about a Bush administration official, saying it could not authenticate the piece.

Now the former Los Angeles Times and Dow Jones reporter has written a book, "Off the Record," that criticizes journalists as lazy. Oh, and by the way, Leopold says he engaged in "lying, cheating and backstabbing," is a former cocaine addict, served time for grand larceny, repeatedly tried to kill himself and has battled mental illness his whole life.

But the book’s publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, has canceled "Off the Record" days before it was to go to press, despite having sent out news releases and listed the book on The publisher acted after receiving a warning letter from one subject’s lawyer.

"I’m devastated," Leopold said yesterday. "I worked really hard these past two years to restore my credibility after the Salon fiasco. . . . I have a checkered past, and I was hoping that by coming clean about my own past, it would allow me to move forward."

According to a lengthy press release on the book’s publication from Rowman & Littlefield, a small publisher based in Lanham, Leopold says Steven Maviglio, a former spokesman for then-California Gov. Gray Davis, "confided in me that he might have broken the law by investing in energy companies using inside information."

Maviglio, who now works for the California legislature, says that Leopold "just got it completely wrong" and that he never "confided" in Leopold. He says his lawyer sent the publisher a letter demanding that the material Maviglio deems defamatory be removed.

Jon Sisk, publisher of Rowman & Littlefield, says only that the book has been dropped for "business reasons."

Kurtz’s piece ran on March 9, 2005. The next day the Post ran a correction saying:

A March 9 Style article said that freelance journalist Jason Leopold served time for grand larceny. Leopold spent three days in jail after being charged but did not serve time after his conviction.

So much for credibility.

William Rivers Pitt, the honcho at Truthout, continues to defend the actions of his problem writer and has a lot riding on the outcome of the story. If Leopold turns out to be right, it will give him a scoop he can ride on for a long time (like Matt Drudge’s Monica Lewinsky story) and a lot of skeptics will have to eat crow. If it turns out to be false (or even premature), Pitt will not be the first editor burned by a sloppy reporter.