When journalists go bad

Yesterday, the Center for Public Integrity, run by a former MPR news director, made a big splash in journalism circles, when it announced it would start an investigative journalism Web site. Today, it dropped this bombshell: the FBI used a “mole” in ABC News who fed tips from a source (or sources) in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.

But it didn’t name the reporter:

ABC News told the Center for Public Integrity that it is not certain about the identity of the journalist involved in the 1995-96 episode, but does not believe he or she still works for the network. Spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said the FBI description of its interactions with the reporter raises serious concerns about intrusions on the First Amendment.

“If true, it would certainly be of grave concern to us that the FBI would have created an informant file based on information gleaned from a reporter,” Schneider said. “It certainly would be very troubling for the FBI to recruit a news employee as a confidential source.”

Former Star Tribune editor Tim McGuire, now a professor in Arizona, is not happy

“I mean, he’s not only a rat, he’s a really huge rat” says McGuire. “He’s obviously decided that helping the government on an ongoing basis is more important than being a journalist… We’re all endangered by him playing these silly games. I think when you’re an agent for the government, you’re putting your fellow journalists in harm’s way.”

Who was the “rat?”

Gawker reports that it’s Christopher Isham, who is now the Washington bureau chief for CBS News.

He ran the investigative unit at ABC News, putting him in regular contact with counterterrorism officials. In 1998, according to his CBS News bio, he organized the first network interview with Osama bin Laden. And his relationship with the FBI went beyond the professional: He was “close friends” with former FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill, according to this interview Isham gave to Frontline. (O’Neill was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.)

This should embarrass ABC, of course, but it should also be an embarrassment to CBS, right? Isham declined to comment on the story (If you’re not the snitch, wouldn’t you just deny it?), but referred questions to a CBS spokeswoman in New York.

“This is a matter for ABC News.” the CBS spokeswoman said.

For the record, the information that Isham had — that Iraq was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing — was obviously bogus.

This hasn’t been a really great day for the image CBS News. Writing for MPR News’ commentary section today, Woodbury teacher Karen Morrill pulled he curtain back on the news division’s flagship, 60 Minutes, which broadcast a segment on removing “the N word” from Huck Finn recently.

“Pitts and ’60 Minutes’ were not interested in my teaching philosophy,” she wrote. “They were interested in why I would not speak a virulent racial epithet. In my two-hour interview with Pitts, I tried to discuss the complex ways Huck Finn deals with race. But he was interested in only that one simple word.”

Not a good day, indeed.

  • Jim Shapiro

    As I.F. Stone said, “All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.”

    One of the important roles of the press is to determine whether or not the government is telling the truth. Working for the government raises an obvious conflict of interest, and any journalist who does so should be boiled in ink.

    Regarding Ms. Morrill, the arrogance of frightened white liberals – particularly academics – who refuse to acknowledge the reality and importance of language in historical context is appalling.

    While I’m sure she’s very nice in a politically correct sort of way, Pitts has more credibility on this one.

    If Morrill is upset that she was ambushed, boo hoo. The story isn’t about her and her teaching philosophy.

  • Bob Collins

    //If Morrill is upset that she was ambushed, boo hoo. The story isn’t about her and her teaching philosophy.

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. That’s exactly what the story was supposed to be out…. being able to teach Huck Finn without the “n” word. You’ll recall that people who thought it should be taught with the word, said that it was necessary because of Twain’s use of it to point out the racism. So if her teaching method was able to show the racism without needing to use the “N” word, that’s quite relevant.

    In the end, Pitts decided to actually say the “N” word in a piece in his intro — you may recall I noted that in this space — and in the end the story wasn’t about Huck Finn, it was about the “N” word.

    That should’ve been stated up front and, obviously, 60 Minutes could’ve done that story anytime.

    Frankly, I’ve seen this modus operandi for 35 years in this business. A reporter decides what the story is, and then goes out to find people to say just the right things to fit it and ignores — or doesn’t recognize — the importance of anything else that’s said.

    From that springs my favorite quote in journalism, “never check the facts, you’ll ruin a lot of good stories that way.”

    It was hack journalism.

  • c

    //That’s exactly what the story was supposed to be out…. being able to teach Huck Finn without the “n” word.

    what the story was supposed to be out? Journalism gone bad Bob?

  • Chris N.

    Jim Shapiro: Regarding Ms. Morrill, the arrogance of frightened white liberals – particularly academics – who refuse to acknowledge the reality and importance of language in historical context is appalling.

    There is no indication in her rebuttal to the 60 Minutes piece that her decision was driven by fear. Rather, her decision seems to be based on a) wanting to examine racial issues in the book through many lenses, not specifically through one word and b) to prevent any of her students from feeling threatened by the language.

    I also hardly think that this teaching philosophy is limited to liberals, whites, or frightened people (and we only have evidence that, of those, she is white). Teachers of all stripes have to make hard compromises just like this in pursuit of what they think is the best way to educate. Whether or not you agree with her decision, you’ve provided no justification for trivializing how difficult this is for her or other teachers.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Bob –

    Yes, ambush journalism is ugly. And the final message of any piece of media is determined by the editing.

    And Morrill indubitably had interesting and important things to say regarding her teaching methods.

    But my guess is, if she had simply sucked it up and said the word “Nigger” rather than acting like a petulant 3 year old, Pitts would have been more accommodating.

    Perhaps some day someone will do a piece on the psychological makeup of whites who can’t or won’t fully annunciate the N-word, even in an analytical context, even when given permission by a black person. How can it be more traumatic for them than for the people who were actually victimized by the term?

    @ Chris N – I had no intention of trivializing any difficulty for teachers.

    What I fully INTENDED to trivialize was the political correctness of white liberal academics who are afraid of words.

    Oh, those poor little african american children would be frightened if their loving teacher explained to them that the word “nigger” was once used derogatorily to refer to black people.

    What a bunch of condescending crap.

    I’m a frighted white former revolutionary myself. but two of the things that I’m NOT afraid of are language and honest discourse.

  • Karen Morrill

    Interesting to read what others think I say or do in the classroom based on such limited information. My classes studied the etymology of nigger, the tradition of black face, Kemble’s original illustrations in Huck Finn, along with a myriad other things as we read, discussed, and wrote about the book in my AP writing classes. My students did not skim through any of the seven dialects Twain uses. Jim’s voice was of particular interest, though Huck’s voice tells the story.

    Who tells the story is who holds the power. That a twelve year old boy rudders the raft is no accident. Twain conveyed a lot on many levels, and never does he tell you how to understand any of it. So if you think you know how central to the story the word nigger is, Twain might be snickering at you. He might be thinking– look at that mob barking around six letters, while the other three hundred pages of words whoosh right on by.