“Several reporters who have covered national security in Washington for decades have told me that the environment has never been tougher nor information harder to dislodge,” she said, adding that an NYT reporter “told me the environment in Washington has never been more hostile to reporters.”
As an indication of the administration’s tough approach she noted that it has six prosecutions underway involving leaks as barred by the 1917 Espionage Act which she said is double such actions in all other previous administrations.
People “fear legal retribution for even talking to reporters” and “reporters fear being hit with subpoenas or even prosecuted themselves,” she said.
Abramson cited the prosecution of Thomas Drake as an example of the type of legal attack that has a “chilling effect” on news sources.
Drake, an Air Force veteran charged with illegally keeping classified documents, lying and obstructing justice, faced 35 years in prison. He and others had criticized the “Trailblazer” National Security Agency project that was to have analyzed worldwide data. The critics thought a much cheaper program was better.
Abramson described NYT’s battles to obtain information and said reports published in the paper had never endangered national security.
Self-censorship by the paper of what it knew about the 1961planned invasion of Cuba (“Bay of Pigs”) was harmful to the U.S., she noted. President Kennedy later told NYT columnist “Scotty” Reston that he would have called off the invasion if the paper had printed what it knew, she said.
Abramson, describing numerous NYT investigative stories, said “all desks” at the paper are charged with doing investigations—from sports to science. She described “serious investigative reporting” as the defining attribute of good reporting and said it has never been more important.
Lawyers: Sources Can’t Be Protected
Adding to reporters’ fears of legal attacks were statements by two lawyers at an IRE legal panel to the effect that courts will not support claims of “confidentiality” for news sources. Attendance at the conference was more than 1,000.
Andy Siegel, VP and assistant general counsel, CBS, said, “Think twice about promising absolute confidentiality. You can silhouette someone or mask their face, which helps. However, if it gets into court and you protect the source, the court can rule you don’t have a source. The best bet is to get two sources.”
Steve Chung, lawyer for NBCUniversal, said, “There is really no way to protect sources. Reporters should state right up front what they are willing to do for a source.”
Ross Tells of Lawyers in Newsroom
Brian Ross, chief investigative reporter for ABC News and a 40-year news veteran, described the growing power of lawyers in the newsroom at the panel called “Sue me: dealing with the threat of legal action.”
Ross noted he has won 13 Emmys for outstanding work but also has had “13 lawsuits against me.” He added that when he started out as a reporter “lawyers weren’t even allowed in the newsroom but that has changed.”
Ross’s combative style was in evidence last year when he got roughed up by aides to Republican candidate Michelle Bachmann. He pursued her into a parking lot repeatedly asking whether she had ever missed a House vote due to a migraine headache.
Time’s Swampland blog said that two men “pounced on him, grabbing and pushing him multiple times.” Ross broke away and repeated his question to Bachmann but was again ignored. Ross, asked if had ever been treated so roughly, told Time, “A few times, mostly by Mafia people.”
One of the suits he was no doubt referring to was the action against ABC News in the 1990s when two ABC reporters posed as Food Lion reporters and videotaped alleged unsanitary practices with cameras hidden in wigs.
Food Lion was awarded $5.5 million by a jury in 1997 but this was later reduced to $316,000. The verdict was then overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals which said ABC was wrong but Food Lion had been unable to show it had been directly injured by the ABC reports. The Court reasoned that the actions of the company caused the damages, not the news reports.
IRE Panel Focused on Big Media
The legal panel, from our point of few, was a bust because it focused on the problems of major media in dealing with legal threats.
Panelists John Zucker of ABC, Andy Siegel of CBS and Steve Chung of NBC have deep corporate pockets when it comes to engaging in legal combat. Ross seemed to be bragging about the number of times his stories involved ABC in lawsuits. The Food Lion case alone no doubt cost ABC millions.
Confronted with legal threats, smaller publishers and individual reporters often have no recourse but to cave. The freefall of ad and subscription revenues have cost tens of thousands of reporters their jobs. The New York Financial Writers Assn. currently lists 97 members as “freelancers,” a category that did not exist a few years ago. They don’t have corporate sugar daddies to fight their legal battles.
The IRE panel should have been half major media and half small publishers and freelancers.
What does a small publisher do when confronted with legal threats is a question that was not addressed based on reports we have received thus far on the panel. A tape was not available as of press time. Smaller publishers may find the cost of dealing with a lawsuit prohibitive.
Questions for Abramson
Abramson spent most of a 16-minute talk extolling NYT coverage and saying all departments were now in an investigative mode. She allowed no questions. “Host” of the conference was the Boston Globe, a subsidiary of NYT.
I have a few for her since she is so concerned about legal prosecution of whistleblowers, legal abuses in dealing with reporters, stonewalling by government sources and is so insistent on the need for investigations by all NYT news desks.
Isn’t it about time NYT investigated the PR Society, whose 21,000 regular and 10,000 student members are getting the lesson that the way to deal with critical press is to boycott it, a ploy that has been rapped by the National Press Club?
PRS members include many government and military PR people. There is a new “APR-M” designation to recognize military who are “accredited.”
Tight-lipped federal government PA officers were criticized this year by John Ensslin, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, who said a survey of 146 D.C. reporters found that seven of ten were dissatisfied with government disclosure practices.
Legal costs in the five years ended Dec. 31, 2010 totaled $400,465 while spending on ethics was less than $12,000 in the same period.
Ethics costs fell to an all time low of $1,406 in 2011, down from $2,649 in 2010. No staff time at all was spent on “ethics” in 2011.
Biggest legal bill came in 2009 -- $124,016 -- for the abortive “re-write” of the bylaws. The use of 56 proxy votes leaves the entire day open to perpetual challenge under Robert’s Rules, which PRS says it follows. Only a few of the new bylaws were discussed when all of them should have been.
Although NYT reporters pepper sources with questions, Abramson took none herself. I would have asked her to investigate the paper’s failure to write about the TJFR/O’Dwyer lawsuit of 1994 including its failure to report the landmark victory of the O’Dwyer Co.; the failure of the paper to mention the existence of "The Tylenol Mafia," a 619-page piece of the highest quality investigative reporting by ex-employee Scott Bartz, and why NYT never wrote a single word of its own about the rape charges against three Florida International University students in 2010 when it wrote tens of thousands of words about such charges against Duke students in 2006?