All it takes is a picture and a story that can enrage a large portion of our society and you have the ability to create a national controversy.
Who cares whether the story is true or the image represents reality. In today’s age, the ability to draw Internet hits and the opportunity to further your political agenda trumps any responsibility to the truth.
Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, decided to sit out the National Anthem during the NFL’s preseason. He believed by taking a knee during the Anthem he might start a conversation about police brutality toward unarmed black men. Instead, the conversation became about whether or not Kaepernick should take a knee.
Athletes across the country from the NFL to women’s soccer to NCAA football followed Kaepernick’s example. On Sept. 24, eight athletes from Millikin University, a Division III school in Decatur, Ill., took a knee during a road game. Some controversy followed; enough so that Millikin football coach Dan Gritti talked with his team to decide how to handle any future problems. The team, hoping to avoid controversy, decided to do what it had done earlier in the season at home games and what many other college football teams do – stay in the locker room during the National Anthem and come out as a team afterward.
The University released a statement that alerted the media that Millikin’s football team was staying in the locker room. The statement was picked up and reported on.
On Oct. 15, sophomore Connor Brewer snuck out of the locker room and stood during the National Anthem. Why he left the locker room we don’t know. It could have been because his parents told him he should. It could have been pressure from an old high school coach. He could have had personal reasons for taking the field on his own. For whatever reason, he left his teammates and took the field. A friend snapped a picture and posted it online, saying the rest of the team cowered inside.
The photo became a national story and was picked up by conservative news sites and in published headlines such as “One Player Stands to Honor His Country.” A Fox News part-timer, (story) made assumptions that weren’t true.
Todd Starnes wrote that:
“Connor Brewer is fiercely loyal to his college football team. But he is also fiercely loyal to the United States of America. So when the Millikin University football team decided to protest the national anthem by remaining inside the locker room – instead of on the sidelines – Connor was faced with a decision.
The Millikin football team never voted to protest the Anthem, the team voted to stay in the locker room. Starnes called the members of the football teams cowards and used dog whistle language throughout his piece, calling the players’ decision to stay in their locker room a “safe space,” accusing the entire team of being unpatriotic.
The photo appeared to validate what Starnes wrote and reaction was swift. Athletes from Millikin were swamped with attacks, from both friends and people they’d never met. They received death threats, they were called cowards, they were attacked on social media. The coaches received racist letters, threats and the usual array of nastiness that can be found on the Internet when certain factions have been upset.
Millikin’s football team was caught in a “media narrative.” The story grew. The Connor Brewer story spread to Sports Illustrated, CNN, Time, the Washington Times and other outlets. Brewer received praise throughout the country. People called the University asking to give Brewer scholarships, a Go Fund Me page was started in his name, and he was honored as a great American hero.
But by midweek, students from Millikin started reporting what really happened. Two stories (This and this) were written by Millikin students, trying to put the record straight. But that’s not how a media controversy works. The narrative was set. It was one kid standing for the Anthem while the others cowered in their locker room.
In reality, it was poor journalism and worse journalism ethics. The writers knew there had to be more to the story than what they were given. Starnes and his ilk read the statement by the president of the university and chose to misinterpret it. They took the powerful story, one that would ignite controversy, upset the conservative base and draw readers to the story. The story that was agreed to as what happened was a great story. A widespread protest of the National Anthem by a group of privileged Division III players is a great story. One young man standing alone to show his patriotism is a great story.
But it wasn’t true. It’s harmful. It doesn’t do anything but ignite the anger of those who choose to believe that kind of story.
Years ago, that story wouldn’t have been run. Someone would have contacted the coach and got the real story. Someone would have taken the time to find the real story behind the picture.
Those days are gone. We now live in the days where death threats over an imaginary story are routine. We accept that as the reality of the Twitter world.
The credibility of journalists has plummeted the last couple of years.
It’s easy to put the blame on the Todd Starnes’ of the world, but the reality is that Sports Illustrated, CNN and other outlets picked up the story. They didn’t verify the facts. They didn’t check to see what was true and what wasn’t. They just looked at the photo and heard the narrative and ran with it.
Want to fix media credibility? Remember how to actually report on a story.
We thought we knew Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
We’d all seen the television commercials, we all know that Nationwide is on your side, that Peyton might be making our Papa John’s pizza and that, despite his football excellence and his March retirement after winning his second Super Bowl, Manning was everything we have come to expect from our football heroes.
Then the story changed.
It started with a long-form journalism piece by New York Post Sportswriter Shaun King, detailing a Peyton Manning no one knew. This Manning exposed himself to a female trainer, an event that eventually led to a civil suit, a settlement and Dr. Jamie Naughright’s departure from the University of Tennessee. The story continued when Naughright was working at Florida Southern University when Manning’s memoir titled The Manning’s was published, portraying Manning’s side of the argument.
Naughright sued. A settlement was reached but Naughright ended up losing her job. King’s story earned more than its share of blowback. It was a decidedly one-sided story that told Naughright’s version of the story with no mention of Manning’s version, which basically boils down to a he-said she-said story typical of this kind of incident.
The most powerful reaction to the Manning story came from sports columnist Jason Whitlock, who attacked King for writing a smear piece on Manning to protect black NFL quarterback Cam Newton, who struggled in the Super Bowl after discussing issues about being a black quarterback.
The argument between King and Whitlock gained traction when the two began discussing their level of blackness (birth-certificate records indicate King is white) and the focus of the story eventually centered on the two people arguing on Twitter.
That’s where the narrative of the story took a wrong turn since the actual focus should be on Peyton Manning. Not because of what he might have done to Naughright and not because his inability to let the incident go caused the story to be raised again years later after The Manning’s came out. No, the focus of this story should be about how sports media collaborate to construct an image of specific athletes that is not an accurate representation of who they truly are.
Sports media too often find themselves in the business of making heroes. They take an athlete’s on-field exploits and hope the athlete is just as wonderful off it. Sometimes, they even look the other way when signs of pampering, arrogance or just pure jerkiness show up. Instead, they build a brand, a human being so good, so perfect that fans start to believe this is who the person really are. Sports media did it to Lance Armstrong, protecting him from years of speculation of illegal doping. Tiger Woods was portrayed as being squeaky clean until his wife took a nine-iron to his car, opening up a can of worms that still haunts Woods to this day.
Too, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire “saved” baseball in 1998 with a home run chase that will never be forgotten. Also not forgotten is the sports media’s failure to question how much steroids abuse really drove the race. And now we have Manning. At the end of his career, allegations of performance enhancing drugs and sexual abuse are brought up and force the media to reconsider his legacy.
But should they? Peyton Manning was a great football player, definitely one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. But is that enough?
After all, sports media made him something more. They made him a television star, a shill for multiple brands on television and portrayed him as an all around great guy.
We’re now finding he wasn’t the guy we saw on television, and what he did to Jamie Naughright was wrong, even if his account is the truth. Fans shouldn’t expect more of their athletes than what they see on the field. That expectation encourages sports media to turn a blind eye to the truth – that these guys aren’t all the press portrays them to be.
Fans should stop expecting more. But more to the point, the media should stop constructing more.
The threat of a football strike by the University of Missouri’s football team created a ripple of fear that swept across the National Collegiate Athletic Association and ended with the resignation of a University president.
While the NCAA powers that be digested the loss of Missouri President Tim Wolfe, the media stoked fears of the newfound power of collegiate athletes. They worried that a blueprint had been created – one that could lead to the eventual payment of players, or to shorter practice times or to any of a number of possible outcomes. The thought of collegiate athletes striking led to a fear that change was coming. That fear has been growing for years.
The press fanned those flames with multiple stories with writers marveling at the power college athletes might have. Stories by Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press or items from the Minneapolis Star Tribune discussed the power of athletes. Rochelle Riley, another columnist from Detroit, summed up the mood of the press when she wrote:
“That those young men stood up is worth marking in time. If other athletes realize their power, take stands, demand change, we can look at the University of Missouri football team’s action as a catalyst. We might see that the match they lit caught fire, unlike other player protests over the past 70 years that were ignored or cost players their scholarships.”
The athletes even drew the attention of Gov. Jay Nixon, who released a statement saying that the university must address concerns over “racism and intolerance.”
“Racism and intolerance have no place at the University of Missouri or anywhere in our state,” Nixon said in the release.
“That the governor didn’t get involved until the players did speaks to that power. Now we watch and see whether the match these players lit yields a fire on any other campus or about any other issue.”
“Like getting paid,” the Detroit Free Press reported.
The actions of Missouri’s football players shook an already crumbling power structure concerning college athletics. For years, the structure supposedly consisted of the NCAA at the top, followed by collegiate conferences, individual athletic institutions, the coach and finally, the players. The missing link in this power structure was television networks and the corporations that owned them.
The networks supplied the NCAA and the conferences with unheard of money, enough that colleges allowed changes unheard of a few years ago. Instead of college football being saved for Saturdays, games were played on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Game times were switched to early morning in some instances and late at night in others to allow a better lineup of games. Television even changed the rules of volleyball to make the sport more television friendly.
Networks paid for these changes, especially the power five conferences. In May, USA Today reported all members of the Southeastern Conference had received $31.3 million in television revenues from the conference. That amount equaled more revenue than 152 NCAA Division I universities’ total sports revenues for 2014. The University of Missouri earned a total of $83.7 million in sports revenues in 2014.
All of this money comes from the efforts of athletes on the field, and a group of players, threatening not to play, was able to completely reverse the power structure.
The media responded — some with fear of the athletes’ new power, others hoping the changes would come quickly. The changes to the power structure of the NCAA have been slow, earned through victories in the courtroom, a slow process at best.
But the courtroom victories changed the way the NCAA treats its athletes. One was a court settlement this year compensating players such a former Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller for the use of his likeness in video games. Keller and other NCAA athletes won a $60 million settlement from the NCAA and video game makers.
In another case, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon won a federal court decision that NCAA amateurism rules violate federal anti-trust law. Judge Claudia Wilken even ordered the NCAA to pay college basketball and football players up to $5,000 per year in image and likeness rights. An appeals court agreed that the NCAA rules violated anti-trust, but did not agree to the $5,000 payments.
Currently, the NCAA is waiting on another case to come through the dockets. Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer who defended Tom Brady in Deflategate, is suing the NCAA, challenging its use of only scholarships as an antitrust violation.
“The main objective is to strike down permanently the restrictions that prevent athletes in Division I basketball and the top tier of college football from being fairly compensated for the billions of dollars in revenues that they help generate,” Kessler told ESPN. “In no other business — and college sports is big business — would it ever be suggested that the people who are providing the essential services work for free. Only in big-time college sports is that line drawn.”
While lawsuits may erode the foundation of the NCAA’s amateurism rules the thought of a strike is an outright attack on Fortress NCAA. Television money, the driving factor in the popularity and profitability of the NCAA, may also be the organization’s downfall. The influx of money has led to the rise in coaches’ salaries, better facilities, etc., but it also has led to a greater spotlight on the players creating the product the NCAA sells.
The idea of college students standing up for a cause and threatening to not play, created ripples throughout the NCAA. The power is shifting.
The question becomes whether a group of NCAA athletes in a crucial situation (say the NCAA men’s basketball tournament or the NCAA football playoffs) would be able to get enough players to walk away from the competitive challenge of their lives, to stand up for an ideal.
The example of the Missouri football team worked well in this instance because the stand had to do over racism, viewed as an “acceptable” cause.
But how might the press react to college athletes refusing over lack of money to play a key game? The probability is that the press, currently friendly to the cause of the college athlete, would not be so kind. Reaction from fans likely would be downright hostile. For proof, simply search “Ed O’Bannon” on Twitter and read the tweets from fans blaming him for their being unable to play NCAA football on EA Sports.
What is unmistakable is that the issues and stakes in college sports have changed.
For years, media attention concentrated on the players’ successes and failures in the classroom or in recruiting scandals. But when the spotlight turned to the reality of the players’ situations, the NCAA couldn’t obscure the reality that billions of dollars are made off college athletes, many of whom aren’t ready for college, aren’t prepared for the real world after college and aren’t paid for their efforts.
Suppose you are an investigative journalist and you have a confidential source who divulges state secrets that you print. The government hunts down the leaker, arrests this person and charges him with a crime. You, the journalist, are the only person who can verify if the leak was actually this person or not. You are subpoenaed, but you won’t give up the name of your confidential source.
Eventually, the government gives up trying to make you speak and tries the leaker without your testimony. The government convicts the person on circumstantial evidence. Prosecutors claim this a victory for the government. Since you never surrendered your source, journalists claim it as a victory as well.
Except for one thing: The person convicted wasn’t your source.
As a journalist, do you have a responsibility to exonerate an innocent man, even if by doing so you expose the true source you are protecting? Or do you remain silent, knowing that you did your job.
Now consider this: The hypothetical may be true.
Former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, a Missourian who graduated from Millikin University and Washington University Law School, recently was sentenced to 42 months for violating multiple counts of the Espionage Act (story).
The conviction was obtained without the testimony of James Risen, a New York Times reporter. Sterling was convicted as Risen’s source in a chapter of the book State Of War, which described a botched CIA attempt to hinder Iran’s nuclear program. The plot involved a Russian scientist, code named Merlin, giving fake nuclear plans to the Iranians.
The government pinned its investigation on Sterling, who had previously brought a race discrimination claim against the CIA. Sterling is black and the CIA overwhelmingly white. Sterling also talked to a Senate intelligence hearing about his concerns about the Iranian project.
Sterling fits a mold – disgruntled employee out to get revenge on the organization he thinks mistreated him. One of his lawyers even suggested he’d go public with his concerns. And Sterling had multiple opportunities to talk with Risen. Risen wrote a story about Sterling’s EEOC case in the New York Times.
Sterling has steadfastly denied he was the source for Risen’s chapter. He did not take the stand to defend himself in the trial because his lawyer thought the government had not made its case. But Sterling’s case was tried in Alexandria, Virginia, where many of the people have connections to government or government contracts.
Also, on a case that started as a racial discrimination case, no African Americans served on the jury. In fact, throughout the trial, the only blacks in the courtroom were Sterling and two employees. The venue was perfect for the government, which secured a sentence of guilty on circumstantial evidence.
Sterling has always denied being the source. In 2012 he went on record speaking to students at Millikin University. He said he was not a fan of Risen’s silence – even though that silence was viewed in most of the media as intended to protect Sterling.
“I am innocent,” he said. Not only that, but Sterling was quick to point out that his wife was not a fan of Risen’s either.
“I wouldn’t want to put those two in a room together,” Sterling said. “She’s not happy with him.”
Sterling didn’t realize how desperately the CIA would pursue this case and how much the deck would be stacked against him. And the only person who could clear him – Risen – couldn’t.
“One thing that the trial showed me that I really didn’t realize, was that the moment I started complaining about discrimination, a sort of machine came together at the CIA and kept me in its sights from beginning to end,” Sterling wrote after the trial. “Funny how only through the trial I learned that every step of the way I took to legally stand up for myself, there was an Agency person there (the House Committee, the Senate Committee, etc.). “I could go on, but I shouldn’t…just makes my frustration grow. Particularly with regard to a certain gentleman (Risen) who I assume either is mutedly troubled or doesn’t give a damn.”
Sterling was convicted on metadata. There was no hard evidence that convicted him, only circumstantial evidence, made stronger by the theatrics of CIA officials testifying behind screens and an appearance by Condoleeza Rice. Many doubted the government’s ability to prosecute Sterling without Risen. Not only did the government manage to prosecute the case, it got a guilty verdict without Risen.
Sterling was sentenced to Federal prison, claiming to be an innocent man. He felt persecuted by the CIA and abandoned by those who could help but didn’t, especially many in the black community who failed to step up and help in the early days of the case.
“I talked with a lot of people,” he said in 2014. “I talked to the NAACP, the Rainbow Push Coalition, congressmen, senators, you name it. No one wanted to get involved in this.”
In fact, one person, with considerable political influence, a staffer for Missouri’s Lacy Clay actually advised Sterling to move to Canada. Sterling refused.
“I couldn’t do that,” Sterling said. “I couldn’t run.”
Sterling is justifiably angry with is the press, especially mainstream Washington press. For the press, the story was strictly about Risen’s battle with the government and First Amendment issues. The media never questioned Sterling’s guilt or innocence.
“At the trial, you could count the number of media outlets there on two hands and have fingers left over,” said Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute of Public Accuracy. “Once the Risen case was over, the media lost interest.”
Press members assumed Sterling was Risen’s source. They didn’t look at staff members of the Senate Intelligence committee (where the FBI was looking until the CIA changed its focus to Sterling) to see what they had to say. They didn’t follow up on Risen’s original story about Operation Merlin. And even though Risen said multiple times on the record that he had multiple sources for the story, some of whom couldn’t have been Sterling, the press never followed these leads. Rather, their actions were more in line with Randal Eliason, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and an American University faculty member.
“I have no idea where the truth lies concerning Operation Merlin and I’m certainly no apologist for the excesses of the CIA during the “war on terror.” But given the choice between believing Sterling’s account (as reflected in Risen’s book) and that of the career CIA people who testified at his trial, I see no particular reason to believe Sterling.” (Eliason story)
Eliason is an attorney who could easily think a reporter such as Risen would rely on one source for a story as big as Operation Merlin. The press should know that Risen wouldn’t take a story like that to press without multiple sources. The press should not have assumed Sterling was Risen’s main source for the story.
Instead, the press concentrated on Risen’s struggle against the government and his First Amendment stand. The press turned Risen into a hero. The press concentrated on the so called war between Obama and Whistleblowers (without paying any attention to the whistleblower in Sterling’s case) and the press concentrated on David Petraeus’s sentence compared to those of other leakers, including Sterling. But the press never did its job.
“Sterling could be innocent,” said Marcy Wheeler, who blogs at emptywheel.net, had a seminal story about Sterling in the Nation before the trial (story here) and was present through most of the trial. “He could very easily have steered clear of any confidential sources and pointed Risen in the direction of the story without giving away any details at all.”
During its closing arguments, the defense made just that claim, pointing the finger at defense intelligence staffers Vicki Divoll and Bill Duhnke. Divoll was used by Risen in another chapter of Risen’s book but testified she wasn’t the source. Duhnke never testified.
The defense painted a picture of a journalist doing his job, getting a piece of information and using multiple sources to nail down the (story). It makes more sense than Jeffrey Sterling as the sole source of Risen’s chapter. But the national press never picked up on this story. As a group, the press stayed on the Risen as hero narrative, leaving Sterling alone.
“I’m just a pawn,” Sterling said multiple times. “To the press, I’m nothing. This is all about James Risen to them.
“I’m still in shock that I may go to prison for something that I didn’t do.”
Sterling goes to jail and looks to Risen for the words that would at least make him feel better. Risen is hailed as a First Amendment hero, standing up for reporter’s privilege. Ethically, Risen can’t say anything about Sterling without jeopardizing his true source, if it isn’t Sterling. But the press, the people who could have truly covered the Sterling case, avoided it. They took the easy way out while lauding a reporter who told an important story and made a stand against the government. Sterling, who actually did the right things as a government employee by going through proper channels to tell of a mistake, heads to prison.
Risen didn’t fail Sterling – the rest of the press did.
Sterling goes to prison for 42 months, the longest term of any person charged under the Espionage Act during Barack Obama’s presidency. If he was guilty, it’s a fair term. If he was innocent…
Scott Lambert is a journalism/English professor at Millikin University.
A recent Google news search shows no new information about Jeffrey Sterling, the Missouri resident and former CIA agent accused of leaking classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen.
That doesn’t mean nothing has happened with Sterling. An upcoming meeting may mean a date for trial will be set soon. Once that happens, Sterling may get his chance in court.
Until then, members of the press get to sit back and watch the sniping between James Risen toward President Barack Obama and Obama toward the press in general.
Risen recently accepted the Elijah Parish Lovejoy award for journalism at Colby College in Maine. During his acceptance speech, Risen took a moment to lambaste Obama. According to the Washington Post, Risen said:
“I think [President] Obama hates the press. I think he doesn’t like the press and he hates leaks. I don’t think any of this would be happening under the Obama administration if Obama didn’t want to do it.” (read the story here)
Risen, who has been blasted by pundits on the right as a liberal activist because of his efforts during the Bush administration to uncover stories on national security. Those stories led to his book “State of War” which eventually led to the arrest and indictment of Sterling. (story here).
How those same pundits classify Risen’s consistent attacks on the current regime, definitely not a conservative administration, remains unanswered. Possibly because any answer would have to conclude that Risen is not as much a liberal advocate, or a conservative advocate, as just a reporter who must take an adversarial position against ANY presidential administration, regardless of political affiliation.
That would really be a blow to any narrative that preaches about the liberal press.
As for Obama, he has started firing back at the press, taking a jab during a press conference Oct. 7. President Obama called the press cynical, accused the press of focusing on the negative and not reporting the good news. (read story here)
At the same time, members of the admittedly conservative Wisconsin Reporter, a part of the media outlet of www.watchdog.org, were turned away from a Democratic rally in Madison, Wi. that featured First Lady Michelle Obama as the featured speaker. (story here.)
Keeping an eye on the Jeffrey Sterling story gives the reader plenty of interesting information. With the possibility of a trial date being set soon, the story should heat up.
Dr. Scott Lambert is an English/Journalism professor at Millikin University. Lambert’s interests are in sports media, media ethics and media history.
New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter didn’t spend a lot of time retired before he started a new career.
After a hall of fame baseball career that saw Jeter act cautiously around the press, Jeter announced he’s going to become a member of the Fourth Estate – at least the sports end of it. Jeter launched the Player’s Tribune, a web site dedicated to allowing athletes the chance to speak out in their own words, therefore bypassing the gatekeepers that are sports media. The masthead of the web site describes the aim of the site as:
“The Players’ Tribune aims to provide unique insight into the daily sports conversation and to publish first-person stories directly from athletes.” (site here)
Jeter followed by penning a letter that described his vision for the site. Soon after, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson wrote the first piece on the site, bringing up domestic violence, calling it an issue, plugging his new Why Not You Foundation and admitting that he was a childhood bully.
It was actually a pretty nice piece. That doesn’t mean Jeter’s idea is a good one. Too many questions arise from this venture:
Who is actually writing the pieces? Will this be the actual athletes writing their emotions and thoughts onto the site or will it be their public relations writers, making sure that the thoughts are sanitized and stay on message, whatever that message may be. Given the current state of media, count on this being a public relations site.
Will readers be getting an unvarnished look into the athletes’ thoughts, an intriguing idea, or will they be getting a highly sanitized version of the athlete that will give them a chance to control the narrative about a specific event? The thought of certain athletes giving their unvarnished view of the truth would certainly draw readers. After all, if athletes truly wanted to talk about certain issues (Michael Sam, the Richie Incognito incident last year, sexual assault) this sort of site would offer a wonderful platform for the athletes.
Considering that those online posts would be open game for other media to disseminate and critique, the odds of an honest, open site are pretty low. Which means that this will most likely turn into a site that tries to control the media with heavy doses of mediated spin. Most members of the press wake up dizzy from all the spin they deal with daily and go to bed nauseated by that spin. The thought of more, guised under the platform of the athlete’s unvarnished attempt to reach out to the audience, is depressing at best.
Looking at the first piece, by Wilson, it’s easy to see the site taking this route. The piece starts out with Wilson admitting he was a schoolyard bully. Then Wilson talks about domestic violence, mentions the issues in the NFL without naming anyone in particular, shills his new foundation and asks everyone to work together to help change the world.
It was nice. A cynic might say it was fluffier than a roll of Charmin toilet paper but journalists are already cynics and these kinds of words might be used to connect with an adoring fan base – right?
The biggest problem with the site is there is no pushback. How can an audience find out about an athlete if all the audience gets is the athlete’s point of view. Barry Bonds surely thought he was a pretty good guy. Not many others did, but that shouldn’t stop Bonds from the opportunity to go out and explain what a wonderful guy he really is. If the press isn’t there to ask tough questions, who will ask them? Will any journalistic standards be followed?
Of course, giving an athlete to platform to tell his or her side of the story would be a wonderful idea. The thought of giving athletes an unvarnished pipeline to an audience has potential. Until the public relations hacks get control and the narrative is scrubbed to avoid any possible controversy.
Jeter became one of the most popular players to ever play for the Yankees because he was a great player and because he avoided media controversy at every opportunity. His site purports to give athletes a voice. The only question is whose voice?
Dr. Scott Lambert is an English/Journalism professor at Millikin University. Lambert’s interests are in sports media, media ethics and media history.
Weeks ago, lawyers for Jeffrey Sterling asked appeals courts to send his case back to the district court so his espionage trial could begin. As this happened, the press heated up its coverage of the coming trial and the future of both Sterling and reporter James Risen.
For the last couple of years reporters have concentrated on Risen’s refusal to disclose the source of his book chapter about a failed CIA plot directed at Iran. Stories are now starting to question the actual case against Sterling, who is accused by the government of providing the information to Risen.
What is surprising is that conservative pundits are defending President Obama for the espionage prosecution, while liberal pundits are criticizing him.
As an example, a story written by Gabriel Schoenfeld, published in the Weekly Standard describes the case differently from one previously reported (Story here). Schoenfeld wrote about Risen, who has been hailed by some media as a hero for taking up the fight against an Obama administration that has prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act than have all other presidents combined, as a left- wing advocate. Schoenfeld wrote:
“Risen has built his reportorial career out of revealing the U.S. government’s most sensitive intelligence secrets. But he has a separate yet related career as a left-wing polemicist. His editors may tone him down in the pages of the New York Times, but in the pages of his own publications, like State of War, he does not hew to the newspaper’s demand for “strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government.” Much of that book is a diatribe against the Bush administration for embarking on what he calls a “radical departure from the centrist traditions of U.S. foreign policy.”
This politicizes Risen in the Sterling case and makes him an advocate instead of a journalist, thus allowing Schoenfeld to say Risen deserves to go to jail for refusing to testify about his source. Schoenfeld also takes the government assessment of the Sterling case at face value, saying this about Sterling and the case:
“The trouble all began in August 2000, when Sterling, who is African-American, filed a racial-discrimination complaint against the CIA that the spy agency’s equal-employment office found had no foundation. A year later, Sterling filed a suit against the CIA based on the same complaint. In the weeks after 9/11, Sterling demanded a cash settlement, which the CIA declined to provide. Over the course of the next two years, Sterling put forward additional settlement demands, with the final one totaling $200,000 to be accompanied by a favorable employment recommendation. When that too was refused, Sterling filed a second lawsuit regarding CIA restrictions on his unpublished memoir. He also allegedly began funneling top-secret information to James Risen. Both of Sterling’s lawsuits were eventually dismissed by the courts.
The leaked information in question concerns Operation Merlin, a plan to pass along faulty blueprints of the trigger of a nuclear bomb to Iranian nuclear scientists. If Risen’s reporting is to be credited—and there is reason not to credit some of its most important details, as I noted in “Not Every Leak Is Fit to Print” (in the February 18, 2008, issue of this magazine)—subtle errors in the drawings were intended to derail the progress of Iran’s bomb-making effort. CIA director George Tenet and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice warned Times higher-ups that information in Risen’s proposed story would not only compromise the U.S. ability to collect intelligence about Iran, but might also lead to violent reprisal against and even the death of an individual that the CIA has identified only as “human asset No. 1.”
While arguments can be made about the veracity of Schoenfeld’s description, it is one way of looking at the actual Sterling case. This line of reporting puts the conservative media squarely on the side of President Obama, who has aggressively tracked down potential whistleblowers throughout his presidency.
The left, on the other hand, takes a different approach. In a story written by Marcy Wheeler in the online publication, exposefacts.org, she wrote that even if Sterling gave away documents, the result was a public discussion about the CIA’s role in Iran’s nuclear program. She also provides readers with another example, that of General James Cartwright, who also may have provided information to media about CIA activities in Iran. Cartwright, who is a friend of Obama’s, has not been charged (see story here). Wheeler wrote:
“Sterling is accused of providing Risen classified information regarding Operation Merlin, a bungled CIA effort to deal Iran bad nuclear weapons information. The information appeared in Chapter 9 of Risen’s 2006 book, State of War, which exposed a number of the Bush Administration’s ill-considered intelligence programs.
“Risen’s account revealed not just that CIA tried to thwart nuclear proliferation by dealing doctored nuclear blueprints to American adversaries, but that in this case, the Russian defector the US charged with dealing the blueprints to Iran told them the blueprints were flawed. In other words, Risen’s story — for which Sterling is one alleged source — demonstrated questionable judgment and dangerously incompetent execution by the CIA, all in an effort to thwart Iran’s purported nuclear weapons program.”
Compare the two accounts of Sterling’s story. While both provide a summary of the facts, how those facts are interpreted differs. Schoenfeld describes Sterling as an embittered, unscrupulous man attempting to shake down and then spite the government. Wheeler describes Sterling as fulfilling an important national need, leaking information that might help start a public, national debate about how we treat Iran’s nuclear program.
Schoenfield describes Risen as a leftist advocate hiding in the guise of an objective reporter. Wheeler hardly mentions Risen but is quick to attack Obama for showing favoritism toward General Cartwright, who is suspected of doing much the same as Sterling, but, because he is Obama’s friend, getting a pass for it.
“Both are issues the American public deserves to debate. Should the US risk further proliferation in its effort to counter proliferation? Should NSA launch offensive attacks against an adversary we’re not at war with? What kind of blowback do such operations invite?Both stories have been critical to bringing necessary public attention to the bungling behind our Iran policy. Yet the alleged leakers in the two stories have thus far been treated differently. Sterling has been fighting prosecution for 3.5 years. Cartwright has lost his security clearance but, two years after the Sanger story, DOJ has not charged him or anyone else.”
“There’s the possibility that if you’re ‘Obama’s favorite General’ as Cartwright reportedly was, you don’t get prosecuted. Unlike Cartwright, Jeffrey Sterling didn’t sit in on White House briefings. On the contrary, the government claimed Sterling only leaked this information after losing an Equal Employment Opportunity suit against the CIA, in which he claimed he had not been given certain assignments because he is African-American. In fact, as Risen reported in a 2002 story on Sterling, CIA Director John Brennan — then the Agency’s deputy executive director — played a role in denying Sterling’s claim, after which the CIA subjected Sterling to an early security investigation.”
The story that comes from the left takes Obama to task, accusing him of both favoritism for his treatment of Cartwright and also accusing Obama of overstepping his bounds in his prosecution of Sterling.
The Sterling case has already been responsible for a lot of ink spilled on Risen’s attempt to persuade the Supreme Court to clarify Branzburg v. Hayes, the decision in which it refused to recognize a constitutional reporter’s privilege to protect a source. Now it is providing enough drama and twists to do the impossible — turn conservative pundits into Obama apologists and force liberal pundits to attack a sitting president.
And the trial hasn’t even started yet.
Dr. Lambert is an English/journalism professor at Millikin University. He teaches writing and journalism courses and studies sports media, media ethics and media history.