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Judge us now to see if we have learned from the past

By DOUG THOMPSON
January 1, 2011

To readers of Capitol Hill Blue and the Internet:

This web site has been on the Internet since 1994, which I believe makes us the oldest surviving political news web site on the World Wide Web.

We were launched during the Clinton presidency and had a heyday covering what we saw as his failures as both a President and a human being. This immediately got us tagged as a conservative, right-wing web site.

Felicity Barringer of The New York Times, writing on March 8, 1999, under the headline: What Hath Drudge Wrought,” wrote:

A year after the gossipy Web site run by Matt Drudge became a bookmark in Washington computers, other, more partisan Web sites are becoming early warning systems for the mainstream press. Like talk radio, they are filled with free-form invective. Like trailers from a new X-Files movie, they offer previews of coming attractions from places where conspiracy is king.

”What is happening with Capitol Hill Blue reminds me of the early days of Drudge,” said Stephen G. Smith, the editor of U.S. News & World Report, who confirmed that his reporters were among those who called Mr. Thompson last month. ”It has caught on as an early warning sign of stories coming up.”

That story, along with others, quickly went to my already big head and huge ego. Blue was happening.

Although our anti-Clinton stories had us tagged as a conservative web site, I considered us non-partisan. To me, all politicians were — and still are — suspect. When George W. Bush became President, I sat about making sure that Capitol Hill Blue pursued him with as much — if not more — aggressiveness than we showed with Clinton.

That was the beginning of our downfall. My desire to catch Bush at anything caused me to cut corners, look the other way when others questioned our stories and stand firmly in the belief that I — as the “early warning sign” — would always be proven right.

A recovering alcoholic, I quit drinking and joined Alcoholics Anonymous four months before starting Capitol Hill Blue. I had been a drunk for a long time, going back to my newspaper days in Virginia and Illinois. I left newspapers in 1981 to work for a while in politics for one reason: To make money. I wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat. I worked for Republicans because they paid better in those days and I wanted to fatten my bank account.  I was a political mercenary — nothing more, nothing less. By the time I joined the National Association of Realtors in 1987 as Vice President for Political programs, I was making six figures, living on a lavish expense account and putting away a lot of single-malt scotch and tequila daily.

When I left politics and quit drinking, I saw Capitol Hill Blue as a way to return to journalism — the only profession I’ve ever really loved. For a while, we did a good job and I did it right.

Then I started getting sloppy. I wasn’t drinking any more but I was still a “dry drunk” and any recovering alcoholic will tell you that dry drunks are in as much trouble as those who still get loaded.

If someone came to me with a story or a quote that sounded good I would jump on the story without always checking it out. I let a consultant who told many on Capitol Hill that he worked for the CIA feed me false information on the White House build up to the war in Iraq. I published it. It was wrong and he dropped out of sight. Others had warned me about him and said he was a phony but I thought I was smarter than them.

It happened again a few years later. A phony source who called himself George Harleigh began feeding email quotes to one of our volunteer writers. He claimed he had worked in both the Nixon and Reagan White Houses. I never checked him out. His quotes were too good and always put Bush in a bad light. They sounded informed. Friends who worked for Reagan told me they never heard of the guy but also admitted that Reagan had a lot of advisors who drifted in and out of the administration.

Then I got a call from the university where he claimed to have once been a political science professor and they said they had no record of him ever working there.  At the same time, a blogger had discovered the same thing. He says he tried to contact me but I never received an email from him. He may have used an old email. I don’t know.
But his story spread across the Internet like wildfire. Capitol Hill Blue as a web site, and me in particular, were accused of making stories up and fabricating sources. We were the new Stephan Glass and Jason Blairs of the Internet.

We published a report admitting we too had discovered that Harleigh was a phony but it was largely ignored. A year or so ago, I got a note from someone claiming to be the one who posed as Harleigh saying he had posted a public apology to me on a web site but it too was ignored by those who simply told others that Capitol Hill Blue was a web site that could not be trusted.   I don’t know if he is telling the truth now or not because the Congressman he claimed to work for is dead and I can’t check it out.

An anonymous web site journalisnt.com went on line claiming to document my many sins. It has since disappeared and replaced with one that apologized to me and Capitol Hill Blue. Like the first site, it was anonymous. Again, that site was ignored by those who attacked us earlier on

At the time, those who questioned our creditability, were right. Because I allowed the use of sources whose credentials (or even real names) had not been verified, any and all of our stories based on those sources could not be trusted. Because I had cut corners, I had damaged what we had taken years to build.

I violated a hard and fast rule of journalism: Never assume.  If a story came to me that made sense and fit with my assumptions of a politician, I assumed it was true and went with it. That’s a cardinal sin of journalism.

I also let my prejudices get in the way.  When some White House sources came to me with a story that claimed George W. Bush called the Constitution a “god damned piece of paper, I believed it without question because of my personal prejudices against Bush. I now believe I was wrong and that the incident never happened.  The story in our database was modified to reflect my belief that I was lied to about the statement and I was wrong to print it.

I also ran a story that said the President was taking powerful anti-depressants. I later discovered that he source of that story was himself seeing a psychiatrist because of depression.

Because of the nature of the Internet, both stories will live on long after I and this web site are gone. I will do my best to correct the record and ask others to do the same.  I was wrong. I screwed up.

But please understand one thing. I have never intentionally manufactured a source, made up a story and created a quote that was not provided to me by someone else. Some of you will choose not to believe me on this. That is your prerogative.

And please understand one other thing.  I love this country. I have served it more than once and would do so again if they would have a broken-down 63-year-old with a bum hips, bad knees, cobbled together ankles and a screwed up back. I will take down anyone who gets in my face and tries to claim that I do not love America but that love is based on my status as an American, not as a member of any political party. Each of my motorcycle helmets carry one sticker. It says: “I am not a Republican. I am not a Democrat. I am an American. There is a difference.”

After the Harleigh debacle, I went on a campaign to clean up the Capitol Hill Blue stories database and asked others that I trusted to help me go back and look at each and every story. If we couldn’t verify the information or the source, the story was either removed or modified with an explanation to readers.

That process continues. We’ve published more than 100,000 articles over the years and those stories span five different database and content management programs and it takes a while to review each and every one.

In the meantime, I worked with AA to come to terms to my dry drunkenness, my anger management and the other problems that confront an alcoholic each and every day.  I do not, for one moment, blame my alcoholism for what happened at Capitol Hill Blue. I blame my vanity, my stupidity and my other personal failings.

For a while I thought of leaving the publication I built. I did for a while but I missed it here. I almost accepted an offer to sell the site but finally declined.  I also thought of just closing it down and letting it fade into history as a failed experiment in how vanity and stupidity can kill a good idea.

But, in the end, I said no.  I will not let this web site fade into history with the reputation from the past few years. I’ve spent most of the last four years rebuilding this site and working my ass off to restore its reputation. There has not, to my knowledge, been a single controversy in that time that has questioned a story that has appeared here.

We use news from established sources. We pay fees for much of that content. When we use excerpts from other web sites, we cite the source and link to the full story on that site. If we discover that a reader has published erroneous or libelous information in a comment, we remove that comment.

We’re not perfect. Far from it. And anything that happens on Capitol Hill Blue is my responsibility. I own it, I publish it, I edit it and I write some of the articles that appear on it.  When any reader finds something they feel is wrong or violates established standards of journalism,  please bring it to my attention at doug.thompson@capitolhillblue.com and I will look at the problem and get right back to you.  Or simply ask the question here and I will answer it.

That is my promise to you as the readers as we head in 2011.  Capitol Hill Blue has been around for 16 and a half years. I hope to be here for another 16 or so.  We’ve done some things badly but I think we’ve also done some things very well. I want it to be remembered as a site that served the Internet and served it well.

I like to think we’ve learned from the past. All that I ask is that you look at our product  now and judge us on what we do now. If you find a past mistake that I have not fixed, let me know about it and it will be corrected.

Happy New Year.

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13 Responses to Judge us now to see if we have learned from the past

  1. Carl Nemo

    January 1, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Good thoughts supported by a commitment to excel at what you do.

    Long live CHB… : )

    Happy New Year!

    Carl Nemo **==

  2. Almandine

    January 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Fair enough. Happy New Year !

  3. John Ulffers

    January 1, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    CHB is the only source of news that I feel I can trust.

    This concept of trust and standing up for the truth in journalism started long before you left Alton, IL. Thank God that it still survives at CHB

  4. woody188

    January 1, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    It’s not like you said there are WMD in Iraq Doug.

    Thank you for continuing to keep Blue alive and on the right path. Just wish I had more to contribute to your efforts.

  5. Helen

    January 2, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Doug, don’t worry, you are taking every good-faith step you can to fix what “broke,” and doing a ‘dam-sight’ better job at self-policing than many broadcasting companies do… as some people say ;-)

    You are not alone in being an American first, and in seeing what has happened to our political parties as a horrifying mixture of travesty and tragedy. Discourse has taken a far backseat to insane allegations (let’s see, “Islamic mole,” followed by “labor camps for Republicans,” or “labor camps for all our nation’s youth,” or “a complete ban on guns”) that are replaced by new ones (giving it back to the Indians? “American Indian mole”??!) as fast as they are exposed as bat-guano-crazy lies. Sometimes one has to wonder whether something got into the water supply.

    Anyway, please keep going with the site, and don’t worry so hard about the “just a piece of paper” quote, there was a time George W Bush was touring the country saying that the Social Security Trust Fund didn’t exist, it was just pieces of paper in a filing cabinet. He delivered some variation on that line many times during the taxpayer-funded Social Security Tour, so it was a believable thing for him to have said if the piece of paper in question was inconveniencing him mightily at the time. Yes, you should have verified with at least one other source (given the number of people supposedly present at the time, any more than that would have been pretty tough). you didn’t, you got slammed for years because of it. We still want to read your take on things, and we’re glad you are checking it twice.

    Happy New Year, Doug. Stick with us.

    — Navy Wife

  6. Sandune

    January 3, 2011 at 11:48 am

    We all share your love of America and the frustration of seeing the corruption that the the Internet exposed. I had dealt with local politics in my small world in California and began to read more of what makes up of our laws. In ever felt out of place until the government took on religion. Coming from California where all citizens are equal, I saw the panic of many who claim that America is and always was a Christian Nation. I never watched television until 1983 when the kids were away at college. I was frightened by the anger from the televangelicals and their talk of Armageddon and hell.

    I went on line in 1993 and my first forum was Conservative News where I met what was to be a good friend. I questioned the influence of the religious right and was thrown out. The next year I worked and wrote for Etherzone and helped form their forum. It attracted hundreds of Christians. My joining CHB came at a time when you Doug were gone and again I hit a group of such angry Americans that I disconnected my computer for several years.

    After reading “Takeover” which described the White House under Bush/Cheney, it was apparent that the Constitution was a piece of paper and the White House never got past the Declaration of Independence.

    The members of CHB are not constant and grow, agree and fight with each other and either walk out or get thrown out. If we don’t come back as ranters, we manage to read for our entertainment. There is a bond that most of us feel for you and CHB. This site has no namby pamby attitude for politics.

    In one way, you are my hero! My mother and father were hardcore alcoholics. My Dad took his car off Sunset Blvd and was killed instantly (he was drunk). My mother tried to tight a cigarette while intoxicated and burn herself to death. Both tried AA and refused to accept the healing. You did and I was jealous.

    You must keep this site active.

  7. Jon

    January 3, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I got thrown out, roughly four or five years ago, for questioning an unverifiable source. I should try creating a new account at Reader Rant someday.

    In the meantime, Mr. Thompson, I should mention that I have come back fairly regularly just as a reader. It has always been interesting, despite disagreements.

    Carry on!

    If in the future you feel like taking a break again, do so, and let us know that you’ll be back when (or if) you feel like it. We’ll wait (or not).

    J.

  8. freecitizen

    January 3, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Your honest Doug! That counts alot for personal Integrity in my book. I like your site doug and hope your here for many more years. I’m pretty much fed up with politics so I don’t comment alot here or anywhere else. Don’t even bother watching the cable news much anymore. I read your site and a few others to keep basic info on what is happening out there in fantasy land, I.E. washington D.C.

    I would like to point out that regardless of whether Bush actually said, ” the constitution is just a god-damned peice of paper” or not he still treated it as such by his actions, which speak much better than words he said/didn’t say.
    you can never trust and shouldn’t any words a politician says, but their actions speak volumes on what they actually are.

  9. Stratocaster

    January 4, 2011 at 3:11 am

    We all learn from our mistakes. And, if we are not learning; we are not growing. I sincerely hope that CHB keeps on growing. I’m not about to try and tell everyone what type of year to have. I’ll let everyone figure that out for themselves.

  10. Dave

    January 7, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Find me a journalist or editor who hasn’t jumped to wrong conclusions or started believing in their own infallibility – it can’t be done. In my estimation, recognizing it in yourself and working to rectify it is the only true mark of professionalism in the biz.

  11. DejaVuAllOver

    January 7, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    Whatever F-ups you’ve done are pale in comparison to those of other media organizations, the so-called MSM. Lies are not done only by what is said, but what is NOT said, what is understated, omitted and/or logically implied. If I say, I ate Cheerios today for breakfast, I feel great and my wife came back to me, all in the same story, all perhaps true statements all kinds of assumptions can be made which may or may not have any connection to reality. Assumptions are made by readers, too, who are often encouraged to do so by shoddy and misleading journalism, sometimes intentionally, by connected statements which may technically be true.

    For these reasons and also because you’re big enough to admit when you were misled, I think you’re a first-rate news outfit. Happy New Year, Mr. Thompson and Thank You. Dave Ellis

  12. neondog

    January 7, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    Mark Twain’s New Year’s Day Quote seems to cover it pretty well:
    ” Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”

  13. Warren

    January 8, 2011 at 12:12 am

    Hey, Doug,

    Stop apologizing for your mistakes. You would have more to apologize for if you never used your best instinct and gut to decide what to publish. Everything double-checked is just checking against the sources that the powers-that-be want to be definitive. Sometimes one has to go with one’s gut, and I’m glad you have had the combination of intuition and intestinal fortitude to do it.

    Stop apologizing and keep going.

    —W—