Interesting news broke yesterday afternoon. The Wall Street Journal posted a story on its web site reporting that Rep. Don Young was the subject of a criminal investigation involving possible political favors from Veco, the corrupt oil field services company.
The story was based on anonymous sources described only as “people close to the case.”
Although other recent stories have hinted at the likelihood that Young was the subject of at least one criminal inquiry, this was the first story to state as fact that Young was under investigation for one or more crimes.
Various news organizations have reported that Young received substantial financial contributions from the criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and that a former top aide to Young pleaded guilty to corruption on behalf of Abramoff. It has also been reported that Young was connected to a corruption investigation involving trucking regulations and a Wisconsin businessman and campaign contributor. And questions were raised by a Florida newspaper about Young’s earmarking of federal funds for a road in Florida that benefitted another of his campaign contributors.
All of this information was reported in the Daily News based on named sources and/or documents.
Most recently, we and other news organizations have reported that Young reported spending more than $262,000 in campaign funds for legal services since the beginning of the year, according to public records.
As an editor, when I read the Journal story, I saw three pieces of information that were significant and new:
First, the definitive statement that Young was the target of a criminal investigation. Second, that the investigators were specifically trying to determine whether Young or Sen. Ted Stevens had received “bribes, illegal gratuities or unreported gifts” from Veco. And third, that Young had amended his campaign finance reports in January to report a $38,000 “refund” to Bill Allen, Veco’s former chief.
The rest of the story was background information and recaps of information from previous news reports.
The story also reported that Young “has hired a criminal defense team,” although it offered no details and no source for that information, but did say Young’s spokesman had declined to comment about legal spending.
The first two of those three new facts – criminal investigation of bribes, gratuities, gifts -- were based solely on information from the anonymous “people close to the case.” The third fact came from public records.
The question for me was how much credibility to attach to the Journal’s anonymous sources, and what story or information belonged in the next day’s Daily News. The Daily News has historically taken a very conservative approach to anonymous sources. We rarely base our own stories on them, and we are reflexively skeptical of them in stories by other publications.
In general, that approach has served us well, although it certainly puts us at a competitive disadvantage on stories involving secrecy, such as, for example, federal corruption investigations.
The Wall Street Journal is one of the best newspapers in the world, and I respect its news coverage. But I also know better than to trust it or any other news organization blindly. The New York Times is also one of the world’s great journalistic institutions, but its willingness to let Judith Miller and Jayson Blair publish stories based on anonymous sources did huge damage to itself and the business of journalism, not to mention readers.
So, back to our newroom last night . . .
I did not see sufficient reason to override our policy against running stories based on anonymous sources. On the other hand, I also knew that regardless of what we chose to do, the apparent revelations in the Journal’s story would become part of the public dialog about corruption in Alaska. If we carried no story, our readers would not necessarily know what the Journal had reported or, if they did, understand why there was no mention of it in the Daily News.
Still, I was not prepared to attach the credibility of the Daily News to the Journal’s unnamed and barely described sources by running their story straight. Our solution, which we’ve used before in similar circumstances, was to find a middle ground by running a story about the Journal story.
There is a distinction here that many readers may find hard to follow, but which I consider journalistically significant.
To run the Journal story straight is to run a story saying that Don Young is under investigation, according to anonymous sources. In that case, we have effectively attached our credibility to those sources.
By running a story reporting that the WSJ has published a story, based on anonymous sources, that says Don Young is under investigation, we provide readers with a story that we know is accurate and credible -- the fact of the Journal story -- but we avoid attaching our reputation to the accuracy of the Journal’s sources.
And we would only go this far because of the reputation of the WSJ. We wouldn’t do even this much if a publication or blog without a strong track record of good journalism had done the story.
Because I was not completely confident in the quality of the information on which the Journal story was based, and because there was not much new information in the story, I decided against putting it on the front page of the paper, opting instead to run it as the lead story on the Alaska cover.
Someone asked on one of our blogs this morning why the “criminal investigation” is being reported first in the Journal and not in the local paper. The answer is that no news organization, including the Wall Street Journal, has been able to get that information confirmed on the record. The difference between us and the Journal is that we aren’t willing to report it if we can’t get it on the record. We take a conservative approach because we think it’s essential to our credibility over the long term, and we’re willing to pay the price of not being the first to report something.
Lots of other newspaper editors would decide a question like this differently. And my position on anonymous sources in the Daily News is not absolute. If the information were important enough, and if the source had very good reasons for needing anonymity, if there were no possibility of finding other, named sources, and if the information were not going to see the light of day on any other terms, we would likely publish a story based on anonymous sources. But we wouldn’t do it merely to scoop the competition.
I expect this corruption investigation to go on for quite some time, and I expect we’ll see this issue come up, in one form or another, many more times.
Thanks for reading.