Author Archives: Scott Lambert

Sinclair’s right-wing agenda troubling

 

By Don Corrigan

Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s plan to buy Chicago-based Tribune Media Co. for $3.9 billion has come under fire and there’s no shortage of local and national critics.

Criticism is also being directed at the FCC, which will violate its own rules for reining in monopoly media growth if commissioners seal the deal for Sinclair. In the St. Louis market, KDNL (Channel 30) is now owned by Sinclair and the purchase of Tribune would add KTVI (Channel 2) and KPLR (Channel 11) to its media stable.

On the national level, Sinclair’s plan would provide it with 233 television stations reaching 72 percent of American households. While the FCC has rules allowing a single company to reach no more than 39 percent of the nation’s households, the FCC is cutting corners with a “UHF discount.” This permits stations broadcasting on higher UHF frequencies to count only one-half their audience against the previous cap of 39 percent.

Opponents of the FCC action argue that the Trump FCC is disposed to bend the rules as a payback for Sinclair’s unflinching support of candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 election. They note that Sinclair provided its affiliates with admiring coverage of Republican Trump and critical coverage of Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Among the national critics of the Sinclair takeover of Tribune are industry rivals such as cable companies, T-Mobile USA, American Cable Association and Dish Network LLC.

The American Television Alliance issued a statement noting that the FCC “giving Sinclair a pass on local ownership limits in cities like Seattle, St. Louis and Oklahoma City would all but guarantee more blackouts and higher prices for consumers in those markets.”

Dish Network followed suit with its own statement noting that “Sinclair’s pattern and practice have become a matter of record: buy a station, cut the local staff, move resources and decision-making to corporate headquarters, and let localism suffer… Sinclair’s recent earnings remove any lingering doubt over whether that pattern and practice will somehow abate with this acquisition.”

Industry opponents of the buyout also note that in markets such as Seattle, St. Louis, Portland, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, the new arrangement would give Sinclair an unfair advantage in courting advertisers. It could offer local advertisers discounted “multi-station buys” while punishing advertisers who place their messages with a local TV rival.

Politicizing News

As media industry opponents focus on monopoly practices, other critics are upset by an expansion of Sinclair with its propensity to use biased and fake news. Among these national critics are Common Cause, United Church of Christ, Free Press and well-known pundits and comedians from Robert Reed at the Chicago Tribune to John Oliver at HBO.

According to Free Press, liberal media watchdog, “Sinclair’s practice of forcing stations to promote an extreme conservative perspective and distorts local news actively threatens the well-being of marginalized communities across the nation, specifically communities of color and immigrants.”

Free Press added that the appearance of a quid pro quo arrangement between the Trump administration and Sinclair also raises concerns Sinclair is trading positive coverage for regulatory favors.  While Sinclair is welcome to an editorial viewpoint, it is not entitled to distort news coverage to those ends, or to extract tailor-made changes to FCC rules, according to Free Press.

Comedian John Oliver demolished the Sinclair deal and its news practices in a recent 19-minute segment of “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver took aim at a little-known company coming up with $4 billion to buy television outlets to politicize them, like FOX News. Oliver showed several examples of typical Sinclair broadcasts, which lean “noticeably conservative” and which are often conspiratorial in nature.

“If the opinions were confined to just the commentary or the ad breaks, that would be one thing,” said Oliver. “But Sinclair can sometimes dictate the content of your local newscasts as well, and in contrast to FOX News, a conservative outlet where you basically know what you’re getting, with Sinclair, they’re injecting FOX-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors, the two people who you know, and who you trust… You may not realize it’s happening,” Oliver warned, “because Sinclair and its digital news subsidiary, Circa, not only produce and send packages to their stations; they even write scripts that local anchors use to introduce the pieces.”

Oliver then showed local anchor after local anchor, across the country, using the exact same words to introduce a story about Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Although Flynn is one of the Trump associates caught up in the so-called “Russian collusion probe,” the Sinclair piece made it look as if he were the victim of a “personal vendetta” by a misguided FBI.

Oliver asked: Why is this being carried on local news? Why is the content so biased? Why is there no context about Flynn’s activities with Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign?

Local Reaction

St. Louis County media activist Tom Flanagan said he fears no one is paying attention to what is about to happen in the Gateway City’s media market. He said clergy, unions and progressives need to raise their voices against a right-wing media machine that will come to dwarf the influence of FOX Cable News.

“I don’t think many in St. Louis are aware it’s happening,” said Flanagan. “There are so many attacks on rules and regulations which protect people and the environment now, it is just hard to keep up with it all.

“It is also happening so often that I see a feeling of apathy on issues like who controls the news media,” added Flanagan. “Issues of the day that seem to be more intensely felt are social ones like immigration, persecution of Muslims, race relations, LGBTQ discrimination and health-care coverage.”

Flanagan pointed out that fairness in reporting on any and all of these issues would be compromised by a Sinclair takeover with three of its 233 TV stations owned in St. Louis. This is why media ownership constitutes a sort of umbrella issue that all progressives should be concerned about, Flanagan said.

St. Louis area native Jeffrey Blevins, who now heads the journalism department at the University of Cincinnati, noted that Sinclair is known to be heavy-handed in its selection of news content, telling stations that certain segments (with a rightward bent) are “must runs” which takes the editorial decisions out of the hands of local station managers.

“Essentially, Sinclair promises to be a localized, and more insidious form of Fox Cable News after its acquisition of Tribune,” according to Blevins, and he added: “Consider the impact that Clear Channel had on radio broadcasting after it began gobbling up stations and replacing locally-produced public affairs programming with syndicated conservative talk shows, such as Rush Limbaugh.”

The issue of media monopoly in St. Louis and nationwide has long been a concern of Jessica Brown, founder of the Gateway Media Literacy Partners. She has taught media literacy at the university level for 14 years. She said the Sinclair takeover will result in fewer opportunities to bring new voices and diversity to television in the metro St. Louis market.

“Media literacy is a survival skill; a skill essential to the survival of democracy,” said Brown. “People need to study and to act. People underestimate the power of one, and the power of constant communication with station managers, producers, reporters. Speak up about missing voices in stories; or misinformation in news broadcasts.

“Get in touch with advertisers as well,” said Brown. “A good advertiser boycott campaign can work, especially via social media. I believe we need to talk to a variety of stakeholders: our neighbors; the groups we belong to; our local, state and national political representatives. Demand that our media environment remains open to the public and that a local community’s myriad voices be heard.  And, we also need to support alternative media.”

 

The view from Taiwan

by Wen-Hung Hsieh and Shu-Ling Wu

The end of WWII led to the split of many regions in Asia. Today, the division between North and South Korea and the complexity of the situation between China and Taiwan remain two of the most pressing issues perplexing countless Asia experts. And with North Korea’s nuclear detonation in early September, the largest such to date, the situation is more tense than ever before.

North Korea and Taiwan, despite their differing political ideologies nevertheless share common ground. They are both being isolated by the international community while also being intricately connected to the United States, China and Japan. The vastly different ideologies of North Korea and Taiwan have resulted in North Korea being grouped with China while Taiwan is constantly seeking U.S. and Japanese involvement. So how does Taiwan look at the escalating tension between the U.S. and North Korea?

U.S. options

On August 29, at roughly 6 a.m. local time, an abrupt missile warning from Japan’s government shocked and frightened the Japanese society. North Korea launched a missile over Japan that crashed into the Pacific Ocean. According to CNN, the launch may have been a strong message in response to the joint South Korean-American military exercises. In the wake of this incident, U.S. President Donald Trump warned North Korea that “all options are on the table.” Due to Taiwan’s unique political situation, the media in Taiwan show diverging opinions with regards to the U.S.’s responses and solutions to the military threats from North Korea.

New Taiwan Refueling, a popular talk show hosted by Liao Xiao-jun of the SET News Channel, reported the U.S. could easily stop any attack should North Korea strike at American territory.  SET has asserted the U.S. is ready to fend off North Korean missiles aimed at Guam, and any attack directed at U.S. soil would justify a full-fledged retaliation, potentially resulting in the end of the current North Korean regime.  Nonetheless, an expert of missile engineering Zhang Cheng, said the U.S. offers an alternative for Pyongyang, which is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for the stability of the regime.  The talk show emphasized that the U.S. — and the Trump administration —had the power in control of the hostile situation in the Pacific.

On the other hand, another talk show, Deep Throat News, hosted by Ping Xiu-lin of Chung T’ien Television, presented a different perspective on U.S. options in the face of North Korean threats. This talk show strongly questioned America’s role as the protector of its allies in the Pacific by basing its argument on how the U.S. had responded to the new missile-testing over Japan. An invited expert on domestic and international affairs, Lai Yue-qian, said the U.S. apparently had not kept its promise to shoot down North Korean missiles flying across Japan’s territory. He claimed the anti-missile system, Patriot PAC-3, deployed in Japan and the recently deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System in South Korea, might not have the capability to intercept North Korean missiles at altitudes above 500 kilometers, which is beyond the range of interception for both anti-missile systems deployed by America in Japan and South Korea.

The talk show also suggested that had the U.S. attempted to intercept the missile and failed, it would seriously have affected the U.S.’s selling of the anti-missile systems to other nations. Furthermore, Tainan City Councilor Xie Long-jie said that with the Trump administration’s focus on America’s own domestic economy, going head to head with North Korea would not be in the U.S.’s best interests. However, Gao Si-buo, an associate professor of the Department of Law at Shih Hsin University, argued that the only option left for the U.S. is to accept North Korea as a nuclear power in the same way countries as are America, India and Pakistan, and to seek a diplomatic means to keep peace with North Korea.

Taiwan’s stance

At the August Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue in Taipei, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan is committed to its partners on a coordinated response to the instability in the Korean Peninsula through efforts such as economic sanctions on North Korea. Under Tsai’s administration, siding with the U.S. and Japan on issues regarding North Korea is aligned with her attempts in seeking partnerships with other nations to gain global recognition.

Tsai’s response has to do with Taiwan’s politically ambiguous status where Taiwan is neither a country nor controlled by China and therefore has been marginalized from world events. However, Tsai’s inclination to work with the U.S. and Japan is controversial. Storm Media Group in Taiwan, for instance, published a recent article criticizing such an approach to gain global recognition.

According to the article, this is not Taiwan’s first time being actively involved in a global crises in order to be recognized as a nation. Taiwan, for example, volunteered to send troops to assist the U.S. with the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Such attempts were never formally acknowledged by the U.S. The article’s author, Chen Zong-yi, said endangering Taiwan’s own safety in exchange for global recognition is unwise as demonstrated by Taiwan’s being targeted by terrorist groups as a result of supporting the U.S. with logistics in the Iraq War.

While Taiwan enjoys a high degree of freedom in news reporting, both the media and government examine international issues with their own interests and unique international status in mind. And the way they approach the U.S.-North Korea tension is no exception.

 

Authors’ note:

Wen-Hung Hsieh is a PhD student of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He is currently researching topics regarding the relationship between materiality and issues of identity, with the primary focus on China, Taiwan and Japan.

Shu-Ling Wu is Assistant Professor of Chinese at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She enjoys teaching Chinese language and culture courses and aims to cultivate experts who can contribute to the exchanges and dialogues between the East and the West.  

Media narrative misleading

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.

 

 

Time for media to cease coronating sports stars

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.

 

Was Mizzou a harbinger of college athletes flexing their muscles?

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.

St. Louis’ forgotten espionage case

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 Im certainly no apologist for the excesses of the CIA during the war on terror. But given the choice between believing Sterlings account (as reflected in Risens 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. 

Risen stirs the White House, again

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.