Author Archives: Scott Lambert

Sterling’s trial press coverage turns right into left and left into right

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 creditedand 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 Irans 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,, 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.”

Wheeler continues:

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.

How the sports world turns, and the media turn

It’s amazing to see how a single video of a man punching a woman in the face can change everyone’s perspective.

Months ago, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended for two games for punching his now wife, Janay Palmer, after a video showed up of Rice dragging her out of an elevator.

Some media members complained then about the NFL’s leniency toward physically abusing your future wife. But, the NFL rode out the storm, claiming that the police did little about the case, so why should they?

Then the other fist landed. TMZ released the video of Rice actually punching Palmer and the approach changed. The NFL went into full defense mode, suspending Rice indefinitely and announcing an independent committee to investigate domestic abuse in the NFL, something that raises questions of its own.

Media now are in full frenzy mode. Calls for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s head are being issued. Hands are being wrung in anguish. Righteous indignation rules.

And so much more has happened since Rice’s punch was seen nationally.

Adrian Peterson, star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, was suspended for a game for whipping his child with a switch. Then, after he missed that game, the Vikings reinstated him. Then, after media outcry, the Vikings deinstated him, suspending him until the matter played out in court.

Other NFL players who had been playing despite current legal charges of physical abuse were suspended. The NFL is trying to get its house in order.

The panic has even spread to the collegiate level. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was suspended for a half for screaming an inappropriate word into a live camera. Of course, Winston played all of last year with a sexual assault charge hanging over his head and was suspended for three baseball games because of an incident with shoplifting. So what’s a little more controversy?

Media have jumped on this too, making sure fans know just how little Winston “gets it” (Stories here and here with a cutting tweet here). As media have pointed out, no one gets it.

The actions of Rice and Peterson have started national conversations on topics of spousal abuse and corporal punishment.  Panels of four to six people on CNN give opinions on whether a whipping is OK. But few members of the media talk about their own role in this national fiasco.

Media are national enablers.

Media have traditionally praised talented athletes and, because football is such a violent sport, adopted a type of boys-will-be-boys mentality when covering the sport. Reporters praise the athletes. Florida State’s Winston was hailed as a hero and a wonderful athlete deserving the Heisman Trophy after leading his team to an undefeated season and a national championship. He was hailed despite a sexual- abuse charge hanging over his head.

Sports media easily become enamored with the hype that comes with the job and overlook the work. It’s work to find out if that sexual abuse story is true or if that athlete really beat his girlfriend that night. And, that might take away from the game and could draw viewers away from the channel those reporters might be working for. So many factors work against coming down on the star athlete that when it does happen, the story must be exceptional.

And then, those same media appear shocked when athletes they have privileged, become impervious to societal norms. And when the media turn on an organization, such as the NFL, those in power don’t know how to stop it.

The NFL has floundered under the media’s glare. Calls for commissioner Roger Goodell’s head are becoming louder and possible replacements (former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is one) have been mentioned. The NFL even hired women to fix the league’s domestic policy. (Perhaps they were picked from Mitt Romney’s file of women?)  All of this seems exactly what it is — poor public relations. And the media can pick up on that just as easily as they can build up a young man with extraordinary talent in a sport to the point where that individual thinks he can get away with anything.

That is, until the story becomes too good to ignore, so then they turn on him too.

Anti-Israel Tweets lead to U. of Illinois changing hiring decision

The University of Illinois’ last-minute decision not to hire a controversial scholar because of his provocative, anti-Israeli tweets has led to a debate about the limits of academic freedom.
The American Indian Studies Department of the university had approved the tenured appointment of Steven G. Salaita.  But that appointment was contingent on approval by the Board of Trustees and Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise decided over the summer not to submit the appointment to the board.

In explaining her action, Wise said that the decision had nothing to do with academic freedom.  “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois,” she wrote, “are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

Salaita’s supporters, however, think a fundamental issue of academic freedom is at stake, arguing that Salaita’s angry tweets should be answered by more speech, not by attempts to cut off his speech.

The university’s Association of American University Professors Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure wrote in support of honoring the tenure offer to Salaita  It said: “Reports that the university has voided a job offer, if accurate, due to tweets on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country.”

The former president of AAUP disagreed.  Cary Nelson, an English professor who has defended professors with unpopular beliefs, said it is legitimate to consider civility and collegiality at the point of hiring.

“I think the chancellor made the right decision,” Nelson told Inside Higher Education. “I know of no other senior faculty member tweeting such venomous statements — and certainly not in such an obsessively driven way. There are scores of over-the-top Salaita tweets…If Salaita had limited himself to expressing his hostility to Israel in academic publications subjected to peer review, I believe the appointment would have gone through without difficulty.” Nelson noted that strong criticism of Israel is widespread among faculty members. “Salaita’s extremist and uncivil views stand alone. There is nothing ‘unpopular’ on this campus about hostility to Israel.”

Thousands of university professors have signed a petition threatening to boycott the campus unless the university reconsiders its rejection of Salaita.  The New York Times reported that several professors have canceled talks on the campus as a result.

A group of free speech and constitutional scholars also sent Wise a letter arguing that the university’s actions violated Salaita’s free speech rights.

The Daily Illini, the student paper at the campus, used the state Freedom of Information law to obtain emails to Wise from donors threatening to withdraw financial support from the university if Salaita were hired.  A university spokesperson told the paper that the emails were forwarded to the Board of Trustees but did not affect the decision not to hire the professor.

The Daily Illini also reported this week that Wise said that in retrospect she should have reached out for more advice on how to handle the situation before making the decision.  She said she will ask the Faculty Senate for its view on how to handle similar situations.

Examples of Salaita’s over-the-top tweets are:

“You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”

“Zionists: Transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible to something honorable since 1948.”

“At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised?

Link to other tweets:

Homeward bound and over the top

Lebron's return on cover of Plain Dealer

The Plain Dealer’s front page for Saturday, July 12, 2014. (The Plain Dealer)

Media coverage of Lebron James’ decision to return to Cleveland was over the top, but that’s what sports media do.

Sports reporters have a difficult job. They are often dismissed by “real” reporters as the people over in the toy room, not really doing real journalism, just reporting about games people play. They work in a world where many of the fans, especially in today’s world where press conferences are often available to fans via online stream, often have the same expertise as the reporters.  Thus, sports journaists must always work hard to stay one step ahead of their audience.

Sports reporters this summer have found themselves in some interesting places: courtrooms where they covered issues about the NCAA and pay-for-play and police blotters where they chased down news about Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. And they often find themselves on the front lines of social issues and change in their coverage of Michael Sam (the NFL’s first openly gay player) and Donald Sterling (the NBA owner who made racist comments about players).

That’s not what people think about sports though. Many people follow sports for the hype, the excitement of big news and the go team rah-rah that allows fans to keep in touch with their favorite teams.

So, when sports media went wild over the announcement by James, coming in the form of a self-authored story in Sports Illustrated magazine, sports media performed the way they always do – with over-the-top coverage.

The coverage was so intense on ESPN that it could have been compared to CNN’s non-stop coverage of damaged cruise liners, even prompting one person to tweet something along the lines of “With Lebron going back to Cleveland, why not just dedicate an entire ESPN channel to 24-hour coverage of him?”

It’s what sports media do. It’s a tradition that goes all the way back to the beginning of sports coverage. Sports media builds and loves heroes (until they tear them down). Grantland Rice, in the 1920s, was one of the inventors of this tradition:

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Strk uhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.

A cyclone can’t be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed.

Yesterday the cyclone struck again as Notre Dame beat the Army, 13 to 7, with a set of backfield stars that ripped and crashed through a strong Army defense with more speed and power than the warring cadets could meet.”

New York Herald Tribune, 18 October 1924

That’s hype.

Or take a look at coverage of the Super Bowl, which dedicates an entire week to allowing media to promote everything about the game, the matchup and even preview the commercials.

It’s what sports media do.

So when Sports Illustrated allowed James to write his own story (the Chicago Tribune used to let Chicago Cubs slugger Dave Kingman write his own column in order for them to get better coverage of him) about his choice to go home, then wrote a puff piece about his decision, people didn’t criticize the organization, they praised it. The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a full page cover the day after his decision, announcing his return.

It was no different than what the Chicago Sun Times did when Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls after quitting baseball (Jordan). It’s what sports media do. And before we start condemning sports media for overhyping Lebron’s decision, let’s take a look at what our political media do. It’s 2014, more than two years before the next presidential election. How often is Hillary being hyped – each day?





Former CIA agent Sterling ‘an afterthought’ as Supreme Court ponders Risen case

Editor’s note: Scott Lambert’s weblog can be found at

Jeffrey Sterling is the afterthought.

The 1989 Millikin University graduate with a law degree from Washington University is now little more than a footnote as media rush to defend Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen in his battle against the U.S. government.

As a New York Times reporter, Risen reported on a failed CIA operation in Iran in his 2006 book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.” The government tapped his phones and took extraordinary measures to determine Risen’s source. Those searches pointed to Sterling, who was arrested and indicted under the Espionage Act. Risen has refused to name his source and promises to go to jail before giving him up. The government is trying to force Risen to testify – and after a 2-1 appellate court decision went against him in 2013, Risen asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

As of the beginning of May, the Supreme Court had not decided on whether to take the case. Count Sterling as one who hopes the Supreme Court decides not to take his case. In November 2013, Edward MacMahon, Sterling’s attorney filed a brief with the Supreme Court asking the court not to stay his trial any longer. Sterling has maintained his innocence from the start and wants the chance to go to trial. He’s been waiting long enough.

“It is apparent that I am an afterthought in this entire case, there really has been no focus on me, other than being the de facto defendant,” Sterling said. “The longer this case goes, the more I as a person become irrelevant.”

The media see the case as a battle between the press and government overreach in hunting down whistleblowers. The government wants to shut down whistleblowers within its ranks and considers the press as part of the problem. Sterling wants a trial.

“This case has turned into more of a battle between the government and the press with me as a pariah for both sides,” he said. “I just happen to be the conduit, or a means to an end, particularly for the government. So the impact on me continues to be that my life is forfeit while the government and press have their battle.”

The press have paid little or no attention to Sterling the man, often getting the facts of the case wrong as stories rush to the Risen angle. They pay little attention to Sterling’s decade-long fight against the government that started with the first racial discrimination case filed against the Central Intelligence Agency, the loss of his job and the eventual ruination of his career.

A 2013 story by students from Millikin documented Sterling’s tribulations from 2001 to now. Little has changed for the man who once asked his boss at the CIA, “When did you realize I was black?”

In the last year, Sterling queried Washington University about returning to school to earn an advanced law degree in the field of right of publicity. The school, after talking with him for a day, declined.

Earlier this year, Sterling thought he’d finally found a job.

“I had applied for a job with a government contractor by the name of Serco who was slated to administer applications for the Affordable Care Act,” Sterling said. “During a group interview session, I was offered, and accepted, the job. I attended the first day of orientation, received my employee number, had a picture taken for my ID and even signed up for benefits.”

Sterling thought he’d caught a break. It didn’t last long.

“I was escorted out the next day,” he said. “I was told that I did not pass the background check.  I made no arguments other than stating that I had been convicted of nothing.”

It didn’t matter. Sterling’s name pops up on a background check and jobs go away. He can’t find work, and he can’t sell his name on the lecture circuit because he doesn’t know how the story ends. So he waits. And every day he checks to see if the Supreme Court has decided to hear Risen’s case. If it does, media and government will finally have a chance to clear up the Branzburg v. Hayes ruling of 1972. And Sterling will continue to wait, the afterthought. Once the trial finally starts, will media finally pay attention to Sterling?

“Given the focus to this point, once Risen’s involvement is over, the media will have no real interest in me or the case,” Sterling said.

Media get on right side of history with gay NFL player coverage

Fewer than 24 hours after University of Missouri football player Michael Sam officially announced he was gay, Sports Illustrated placed a story online using unidentified sources saying this would hurt his chances to be drafted in the National Football League.

And fewer than 24 hours after that report came a barrage of media reports and opinions unequivocally supporting Sam.

While the Sam furor slowed down, the question of homosexuality spends more than its fair share of time in the media spotlight. The Sam story was just weeks old when the state of Arizona tried to pass a law that allowed people to refuse service to gays because it interfered with their religion. Again, media were quick to take a stand against this law.

Most numbers tracking support of gay marriage put the percentages somewhere between 53 percent and 59 percent in favor of gay marriage, with a March 2014 Washington Post poll putting the number at 59 percent favoring gay-marriage rights. That’s still more than 40 percent of people opposing gay marriage, yet a quick and statistically unreliable Google search shows media support at a much higher rate (even Bill O’Reilly came out in favor of gay marriage).

Is this an example of a liberal media? Is this an example of a godless media? Or is this an example of media coming down in favor of civil rights?

Some of the coverage – and the consistent stance of media – comes from a natural fear of being vilified in the Twitterverse for making an uneducated or homophobic statement in print. In May 2013, NBA player Jason Collins came out. Most reactions were positive, though one writer, from a small Illinois daily, wrote a homophobic, ill-conceived article about Collins. Jim Romenesko picked up the article on his website within a day, and soon people were piling on the writer from across the United States.

It was an example of how anything a person can do something stupid enough in print to make people pay attention. So, maybe some writers were afraid to let their homophobic sentiments make a public appearance in Sam’s case, knowing the ramifications of such statements. Call it a spiral of silence or a bandwagon effect, but some reporters might shy away from making negative statements about Sam or gay marriage. Most appear to be ready to make the statement that a gay man on an NFL squad, or a gay married couple living next door, isn’t going to harm anybody.

One man, Dallas sports anchor Dale Hansen of WFAA (an ABC affiliate) gave the best response to the Sam story. Hansen mentioned the Sports Illustrated story that said some men would be “uncomfortable” playing on the same team with an openly gay player, and then said, “You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs and that’s perfectly OK, you kill people while driving drunk, that guy’s welcome.” Hansen followed with a list of current NFL player transgressions, including rape, attempted murder, prostitution, and more, and followed that with: “But if you love another man –, well, now you’ve gone too far.”

Hansen framed the story perfectly. Why worry about a person’s sexual preferences when we have so many other things that are wrong with the NFL and college sports? And he framed the story in a powerful way, placing love, gay or straight, on one level, and comparing that to a completely different level, the true issues that face a league such as the NFL. In addition, he looked at the issue and wondered why the NFL wasn’t concerned with real problems, because Sam certainly doesn’t qualify as a problem.

In fact, the same University of Missouri football players who were praised for being so accepting of Sam were mentioned in a story by ESPN about the possible rape of Sasha Menu Courey, a Missouri swimmer who claimed to have been raped in 2011. Her story was ignored by Missouri officials. She later left the school and committed suicide. Media should have paid more attention to this story than Sam but rape stories are too common.

The first openly gay NFL football player, now that’s news. Maybe it should be. Media chronicle changes in society. Accepting that an openly gay man may be playing in the NFL marks a change in our cultural attitude. That change is the Hansen captured so well in his editorial. Sam’s story is important because of how people reacted. Sure, there was the Sports Illustrated side, saying that the league wasn’t ready for change. But there also was the other side that said that it didn’t matter if the NFL was ready for change; society has already changed, and the league should catch up.

Sam is a story. Gay marriage is a story. Our culture is changing. Maybe the media noticed and are trying to be more accepting.

Jack Burkman, a lobbyist in Washington, promised to talk of Congress into passing a bill that would make it illegal to have a gay man in an NFL locker room. He promptly lost a number of clients, including conservative lawmakers.

Politicians have been inundated with a phrase from those who support legalizing gay marriage. They’re told to “get on the right side of history.” The media have done that with the Sam story, and with the Arizona religious freedom bill. This isn’t about a liberal media, or even a fear of saying the wrong thing. Media, on the whole, have decided to get on the right side of history on this one.

LGBT issues in news cycles show media doing their job

Issues from the LGBT community permeated news cycles during the month of February.

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out and is set to become the first openly gay player to play in the NFL. Media overwhelmingly supported Sam. The Texas Supreme Court struck down Texas’ gay marriage law – and, on the same day, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a law that would have allowed business owners and others protection should they be sued over refusing service because of religious reasons.

Media have overwhelmingly supported these stories, providing enough criticism in the Arizona case that many of the senators who voted for the bill asked Brewer to veto it.

All this support for LGBT issues begs the question: Is this the liberal media at work? After all, a recent Pew Poll says that the United States is split at about 53 percent to 47 percent in favor of gay marriage. But the press overwhelmingly supported vetoing the Arizona bill and described it as unfair and discriminatory.  Even Fox News came out in favor of Brewer’s veto.

In fact, one has to resort to conservative blogs to find consistent stories that support the bill in Arizona, bemoan Sam’s announcement and show a belief that the Texas Supreme Court got it wrong (here and here).

So why are media reporting in favor of gay rights when so many in the country (47 percent is a lot of people) clearly disagree?

One answer could be found in deontological ethics. Deontological ethics relies on a sense of duty; one is expected to do what is right because of an obligation to a set of rules. Journalists have a duty to report news as it happens – and an obligation to report accurately what is happening.

The Arizona bill followed a failed attempt at basically the same thing in Kansas, but when the bill passed in Arizona, businesses such as Apple, Major League Baseball and the National Football League all weighed in with their opinions. Media reported that. The Texas Supreme Court followed the law, taking its example from last summer’s Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. Law and history seem to be working hand-in-hand with the LGBT community, and media members are much more likely to follow their example when writing about current issues.

Those opposed are often relying on religion as their primary reason for opposing gay marriage, and for not accepting athletes such as Michael Sam. Don’t forget that religion was used to defend slavery, to wage war on the Jews and to defend Jim Crow laws (here and here.) It took the work of many dedicated people – and a large number of journalists – to shine the light on the darkness of Jim Crow, and it’s a different brand of journalists making the same arguments for gay rights. This coverage of gay-rights events is not an example of the liberal media; it’s an example of media doing their duty – and their job.

Convoluted story’s tragic ending reminds journalists to be human

The problems with Caleb Hannan’s article, titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” started almost immediately: “Strange stories can find you at strange times. Like when you’re battling insomnia and looking for tips on your short game.”

That’s Hannan’s lead. The story he wrote about Essay Anne Vanderbilt proved to be strange, at the very least. It also was convoluted. Broken down to its pieces, the story was about a putter and the woman who invented it. It also was about Hannan’s quest to find the backstory of the inventor who lied to Hannan about her credentials. Finally, the story became about his search to uncover Vanderbilt’s misrepresentations. As Hannan delved deeper into the story, he uncovered the fact that Vanderbilt used to be a man. He wrote that “a chill actually ran up my spine” at that moment.

This news became the focus of his piece, accompanied by some rough editing (either by mistake or on purpose) that kept switching genders on Vanderbilt. It also contributed, at the very least indirectly, to Vanderbilt’s suicide – a fact Hannan placed at the end of his story.

Reaction to the story was slow, with many initially praising Hannan’s reporting, but it didn’t take long for the reaction to change. Readers were appalled that Hannan was so insensitive toward the issue of transsexuality. Gawker wrote about it; the Guardian wrote about it, too. Eventually, ESPN’s Bill Simmons, editor-in-chief of Grantland, apologized for the thoughtlessness of the story.

Most piled on and reported about the inherent problems of the article. Hannan became too intent on the sexuality issue and lost track of his original story. He also outed Vanderbilt, an act that was wrong on many levels. Hannan lost all form of compassion in his search for the truth of the story. Finding the truth is important for journalists; it’s the root of all of our jobs. But sometimes the truth is nuanced – and Hannan never looked for that. He treated Vanderbilt’s sex change as the biggest lie in a story of lies. He didn’t understand the situation – and, therefore, hurt this woman irreparably. The early reviews concentrated on the reporting and Hannan’s unending search into the truth.

But didn’t he have a responsibility to Vanderbilt?

After all, from the beginning she agreed to do a story that was focused on the science and not the scientist. He also wrote that, even though Vanderbilt’s credentials didn’t check out, physicists said the science was sound. Yes, he had a responsibility to fact-check his work; if he didn’t nail down the discrepancies in her story, he would have been accused of shoddy reporting. But when he found the truth, Hannan’s responsibilities changed. He didn’t live up to those responsibilities.

Instead, he outed Vanderbilt.

Reporters have a responsibility to the truth. That responsibility leads to uncomfortable moments. Journalists also have a responsibility to their story. Hannan’s story was about a putter. It also was about the false credentials used by the inventor of the putter. Vanderbilt’s sexuality didn’t need to be part of the story. At the very least, it didn’t deserve to be Hannan’s “Eureka!” moment.

Truthfully, the story still doesn’t have an ending. Although Hannan states that he stopped using the putter, was the science sound? Was the putter worth using?

He never told us that. Instead, we learned a lesson on insensitivity – and we were served a reminder that journalists need to be more than just dogged reporters. We have to be human, too.