The Salt Lake Tribune buys some of its national news reporting and much of its commentary from The Washington Post. I spend an hour or two each day going through the various opinion offerings. We all work on a new content management system — words, photos and stuff for online — invented and marketed by The Post.
I took a tour of what was then The Post’s 15th Street newsroom and production facilities in 1976. I’m pretty sure I saw Publisher Katherine Graham and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee laughing at something in one of the glassed-in offices around the perimeter of the newsroom. I briefly met Bradlee before a speech he gave several years ago.
And I saw “All the President’s Men,” in a theater in Wichita, Kansas, joining the rest of the packed house in roaring with laughter when a character disparaged a question Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) had asked by saying, “That’s a question right out of Wichita, Kansas.”
So I hope you will forgive me when, like so many other things I really deserve absolutely no credit for, I take great personal pleasure in the major score for truth scored by The Washington Post Monday.
In case you missed it, the story involves a reporter for The Post who had worked on the team that broke the story about Roy Moore. The former chief justice and current U.S. Senate candidate from Alabama who, by all reports except his own, has a history of approaching, propositioning, grossing out and, in at least one case, molesting teenager girls.
Soon after those stories started running, the reporter was approached by a woman who claimed that Moore had not only molested her when she was 15, but that she got pregnant and Moore helped her to get an abortion.
Juicy stuff. But the reporters and editors were suspicious, as they should be of any such claim. They looked into it, were troubled by inconsistencies in the woman’s story and found online evidence that she might have been trying to fool them. When Post journalists followed the would-be tipster into an office building that houses the most misnamed operation on Earth — Project Veritas — the jig was up.
The resulting story was not that The Post had found another Roy Moore victim. Because they hadn’t. The reporters had found a scam that was clearly intended to not only fool the newspaper but also undermine all the other reporting it and, since The Post broke the story, other journalists have done about Moore.
Monday, The Post broke that story, too.
All appearances are that Veritas (Latin for “truth”) and its front man, James O’Keefe, were trying to pull another one of their phony exposes of the mainstream media and/or left-leaning organizations. If they had succeeded in suckering The Post into publishing phony story of the phone Moore victim, then revealed to the world that the story was false, it would do a lot, at least in certain circles, to discredit all the other work the newspaper had done, not only on that story but on anything else the far right didn’t want to believe. Or didn’t want you to believe.
Instead of making the previous Post stories less valid, this stupid stunt make them even more believable by showing everyone how diligent the paper’s vetting process is.
O’Keefe’s scheme was right out of “Witness for the Prosecution.” Except nobody in this plot was as smart as Agatha Christie.
It works like this: Provide a witness or create a bit of evidence that seems to be irrefutable proof that someone has done something bad. Then show that that witness is lying or that the evidence is false. Even if there is tons of other evidence supporting the guilt of the suspect, the part that was proven to be fake will be all the jury — or the court of public opinion — remembers. Verdict: Not guilty. (Even though he was guilty as sin.)
And, with utterly no proof, I’ve always suspected it is what happened to CBS reporter Dan Rather back in 2004. You know, when he had a stack of documents that apparently proved that President George W. Bush, then seeking re-election, had dodged his Air National Guard commitment during the Vietnam War.
Soon afterward, there was enough evidence that the critical documents were forged to cause CBS to back off the story and to part company with Rather and the story’s producer. Which may have been the right thing for the network to do if those papers were all there was to back the allegations.
Except that the overall point of the story — that Bush got permission to transfer from a unit in Texas to one in Alabama to work for — wait for it — a candidate for the U.S. Senate but showed up for few or none of the required drills — had already been nailed by the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe. According to the rules at the time, Bush’s absence without leave would have been grounds to have him dispatched to active duty in Vietnam. But nobody enforced those rules.
How to discredit that overall story? Cook up some evidence that appears to support the charges, then discredit that evidence. Presto. It all goes away. Even the reporting that nobody ever refuted.
Yes, the work about Bush was done by the same team, and some of the same reporters and editors, we all saw in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” about how The Globe in 2002 unearthed the scandal of years of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests and how the church had spent years covering it up.
And somebody on the Netflix social media team wins a prize.
One key character in that movie was the then-new editor of The Globe, Marty Baron.
Now, Baron runs The Post, and his current team is uncovering a big story that involves both sexual abuse of children by wrongly trusted authority figures and a Senate race in Alabama. That’s a movie script nobody would believe.
The truly inspiring thing about all of this, even for an opinion writer who doesn’t live to do the long and difficult digging that is the trade of the investigative reporter, is that even if you are as entrenched as the Catholic Church in Boston or the far right on the internet, you do not mess with Marty Baron.
Oh, and speaking of opinion writers. O’Keefe has another video out there. One in which he is apparently shocked to discover that The Washington Post — like most American newspapers — has a news department that reports, as best it can, the facts, and a separate opinion page staff where people are not only free, but actually paid, to express their own opinions or the official view of the newspaper.
If this guy had any brains he’d be dangerous. Other enemies of the free press, though, are probably much brighter. Look out.
George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, doesn’t have the patience to do real investigative reporting. It’s hard work. But he loves to read it. firstname.lastname@example.org