Call off the firing squad

It’s time, I think, to call off the dogs and wait to see how things play out in the Truthout-Jason Leopold-Karl Rove indictment debate.

Over the past week, some 1800 emails have come in over the electronic transom urging me to take advantage of Truthout’s possible jumping of the gun on a story that Karl Rove has been indicted. Because one of Truthout’s founders, William Rivers Pitt, and I have had differences in the past they felt this was a time to gloat that chickens had come home to roost at his web site.

I’m sorry but I take no pleasure or joy at Truthout’s problems nor do I wish to join in the feeding frenzy at their expense. We still don’t know, for sure, if Karl Rove was indicted nine or ten days ago. All we know for sure is that Truthout ran a story by Jason Leopold that said he was indicted, had 24 hours to get his affairs in order, and that Rove would resign from his position at the White House. Nobody in the traditional media picked up on the story. Neither did the liberal media sources. Raw Story, where Leopold once worked, stayed away from it. So did Salon, although War Room blogger Tim Grieve devoted several skeptical posts to it.

The credibility that any journalistic endeavor – print, broadcast or ‘Net – enjoys with its readers is fragile at best. We are all just one mistake away from oblivion. None of us are perfect and we will make mistakes. The key is how we handle those mistakes.

A couple of years ago I blew a story big time, single-sourcing a story that claimed Bush had been told point blank that before the invasion of Irag that intel on weapons of mass destructions was false and that told a meeting in the Oval Office that he didn’t care. However, visitor logs showed the source named in the story had never been in the White House and had, in fact, used a fictitious name in conversations with me that led to earlier stories over a number of years.

As soon as I learned this, I pulled the story and apologized publicly to our readers. But the damage had been done and people still bring that debacle up – as they have every right to do – because we violated a basic tenet of journalism by single-sourcing a story and not checking out even that single source. Truthout and Pitt took me to task for the error. They should have since they had also linked to our incorrect story. Pitt has since questioned the validity of other stories we have run. That’s his right. I’ve also gone after him in the past. That’s my right.

When you make a mistake, you have to come clean. You have to tell your readers, in detail, what happened. Then you have to sit back and take your lumps. You can’t hide from readers or refuse to answer questions.

We don’t know, to this point, just what happened with the Rove indictment story. Yes, Jason Leopold has a checkered past. Salon fired him as a free-lancer amid charges that he plagiarized and falsified source material. He had admitted theft and deception in other jobs. Truthout gave him another chance to redeem himself as a journalist. I can understand their desire to do so. I’ve given writers second and third chances at Capitol Hill Blue. Sometimes the gamble pays off. Sometimes it does not. As a recovering alcoholic (sober 11 years, 11 months, 15 days), I also was guilty of stupid, immoral and illegal acts while under the influence.

So I’m waiting to see how this plays out before passing any judgment on Truthout, Pitt or Leopold. Pitt melted down on Democratic Underground last week and called people names while bragging about his book and his awards. He was wrong but he is also young. When I was his age, I had some success as a newspaper reporter and a wall full of awards and wore my arrogance on my sleeve as a badge of honor. Hell, I’m still an arrogant SOB and I’ve had my share of meltdowns on the Capitol Hill Blue bulletin board. We all need, and get, lessons in humility and the key is how we learn from those lessons.

Let’s see how this plays out. I hope like hell they’re right. Rove clearly deserves to be indicted for his role in the Plame debacle. He has played fast and loose with the law for most of his political career and the bill for his many transgressions is way past due. Truthout, Pitt and others involved in this story have some fence-mending to do but they can rise above this if they handle it openly and honestly with their readers. Any news operation should be based on its volume of work not a single story or even a group of stories. When we screw up, and all of us will, the measure of our integrity is how we handle such mistakes.

–Doug Thompson
Founder and Publisher
Capitol Hill Blue