Category Archives: Opinion

Reality journalism: Keeping up with the candidates

Seven weeks after former President Nixon’s funeral on April 27, 1994, Hunter Thompson published his own obituary for Nixon, “He Was a Crook,” on June 16 in Rolling Stone magazine. In it he blamed the practice of Objective Journalism for enabling Nixon to climb to the Oval Office: “It was the blind spot of Objective Journalism’s rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so All-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly.”

Thompson gave readers a taste of what Subjective Journalism might have shown them about the man they voted twice into the highest office in America: “We could always be sure of finding (him) on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and omit a smell of death. Which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.

That was Nixon’s style – and if you forgot it, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don’t fight fair, bubba. That’s why God made dachshunds.”

We shall never know if doses of subjective journalism like Thompson’s would have helped Hubert Humphrey (in 1968) or George McGovern (in 1972) in their efforts to defeat Nixon. Reporters covering those presidential campaigns, for newspapers and network news, stuck mostly to the precepts of objective journalism.

Objective journalism, with its goal of fair, accurate and thorough coverage of politics, remains available. However, two factors have done much to wipe out the distinction between such coverage and subjective journalism as practiced today and explored here. One is the reliance, particularly among younger readers and watchers of news, to get their news from digital sources. These audiences want and expect news that is quickly digested and includes a guide or hint to its “meaning.” Also, the battle between the so-called “liberal-left wing” media and “conservative right-wing” ones often requires journalists to aim for skewered coverage. In that kind of coverage fact and opinion are often smoothly merged so that readers and watchers do not have the time, information and ability to separate them in their minds.

The growth of subjective, opinion journalism online sometimes seems to drown out the fair and independent journalism that traditional news organizations still provide.  In fact, the political blogs produced by those traditional news organizations sometimes obscure some of the objective reporting from the campaign trail.

The coverage of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy illustrates the primacy of subjective, opinion journalism.  Do samples culled from publications and websites during the past three months reveal whether or not they propel readers to see the crop of candidates from both parties clearly, or at least more clearly than the veil of objective neutrality permits?

Commenting on Hillary’s first major news conference with CNN, Jonah Goldberg wrote for National Review Online (“Estrangement from the Truth is a Problem for Hillary”): “It was a classical Clintonian way of lying: Make a sweeping, definitive-sounding statement (“I’ve never had a subpoena,” for her emails on Benghazi) and then when called on it, release a fog of technicalities.” Goldberg called these “technicalities “a farrago of misleading statements, blame-shifting and deception,” and concluded that Hillary has “forgotten how to fake convincingly.”

Goldberg has been writing opinion columns for decades and National Review has always been a reliable source of conservative commentary.  But it is worth asking: Is Goldberg’s depiction of Hillary’s style of deception equal to Thompson’s of Nixon’s conduct of political battle? Did readers grasp the “real” Nixon through Thompson’s images? Does Hillary come alive in Goldberg’s prose or does she appear as just another lying politician?

Writing for Canada’s National Post John Robson took a similar approach to “seeing” Hillary (“Clinton’s presidential battle”): “Even if Americans are ‘ready’ for a woman, she’s obnoxious, pushy, out of touch with normal people and so sourly, deviously dishonest, we long for her husband’s charmingly open deceit.” Feminists and others may find “pushy” obnoxious and reject portraying her husband as a used car salesman from whom you don’t much mind buying a lemon because he did it with folksy charm while she tries to sell it with a sour disposition.

Journalists looking at Hillary more favorably take a subjective stance by offering helpful hints for personality improvement. Writing for the New Republic Elspeth Reeve (“What Hillary Can Learn from Michelle Kwan’s Figure Skating Career”) recounts how Kwan responded after she had to settle for a bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics because of a tumble in the free skate competition: “After the competition, Kwan skated the exhibition she’d planned long before – in a gold dress, to the song ‘Fields of Gold.’ That, sports fans, is hubris. As she finished, tears ran down her cheeks. Take note, Hillary.” Readers may choose to wait for the movie.

Jamelle Bouie on Slate (“Why Hillary Clinton Should Go Full Nerd”) proposes that Hillary should “offer voters her authentic geeky self” because “Clinton is strongest when she sticks with the concrete – the nuts and bolts of government…Americans want solutions more than inspiration.” Bouie cites Carl Bernstein’s analysis of Hillary as “a woman who led a camouflaged life and continues to” and suggests that revealing her nerdiness to voters would be “the most authentic move she could make.” Forget the gold dress and tears.

Clinton is not the only candidate receiving this kind of “up close and personal” treatment from the media. Her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders got it in the New Republic from Chelsea Summers (“Bernie Sanders Was Just another Hippie Rummaging through My Mothers Fridge”): “One hot night in July 1972 I walked into my family’s kitchen to see my mother brandishing a broom at a skinny man who had his head stuck deep inside our refrigerator.

‘You get out!’ my mother yelled, hitting the man on his skinny ass…Years later, I’d find out that man was Bernie Sanders.” Readers do not find out if that encounter with the writer’s broom-wielding mom drove the young Sanders into the arms of socialism or shaped his character in any way. They can see, however, that age and years as a U.S. Senator have put some flesh on that skinny frame.

On the Daily Beast Donald Trump is derided for his “garish taste” and “awful hair.” In the New Republic readers can learn “how to piss off Donald Trump.”  All male Republican candidates are rated by their manliness on Slate (“The Macho Primary: Which Republican presidential candidate is the manliest?”).

Readers are likely to be bombarded with similar journalism during the fifteen months up to the November 2016 election. Letters and posts on websites may reveal whether such pieces accomplish what Thompson expected subjective journalism to do: provide readers with a clear view of candidates’ character.

Journalists may ask if such articles constitute “subjective journalism” as Thompson practiced it, or if they are journalism’s political news version of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

The ‘best’ and ‘worst’ of KTVI Tim Horton’s coverage

St. Louis television viewers watching KTVI Channel 2 were recently given two sharply different versions of the opening of the area’s first full-sized Tim Horton’s in the St. Louis suburb of Maplewood.

Covering the opening of the first location of the chain is appropriate, but in terms of good journalism, Channel 2 provided “the best of times” and the “worst of times” with its coverage.

Horton’s is a Canadian chain that sells coffee and pastries and other food items. Staking a St. Louis area foothold with its first store at 7468 Manchester Road in Maplewood was a legitimate news story.

On the night of June 22, during the 9 p.m. newscast, Channel 2 anchor Mandy Murphey did a solid story on the event. She asked questions about Horton’s business strategy and how the company planned to compete against organizations like the St. Louis Bread Company. Murphey offered a thorough report.

But a day later, Channel 2’s Lisa Hart offered what seemed to be a commercial for Horton’s during the 11 a.m. newscast. Her first question to the Tim Horton’s representative Tina Bryan was “What makes Tim Horton’s so great?” Journalism?  No. There are many people who don’t think it is such a great brand at all. But the softball question let Bryan do a full-blown commercial.

Bryan took advantage of Hart’s questions with lines like: “There are a lot of things that make Tim Horton’s special,” and “We have such a wide breadth of menu items.”

At one point, Hart said that she loved the donut she was eating. Hart acted more like a Tim Horton’s cheerleader than a reporter. She said at another point, “You’ve got everything. It’s so great.”

While she did ask about Horton’s future plans (opening 40 stores in the St. Louis area), she failed to follow up with any questions of depth or corporate strategy such as “Why St. Louis?” or “Why 40 locations?” There were no questions posed about other competition in the marketplace from outlets like Dunkin Donuts or Starbuck’s.

Hart could have asked questions about obesity and the calorie-heavy ingredients contained in Horton’s products, but she didn’t.

While covering the Horton’s opening was newsworthy, what Hart did was not “news.” Her report appeared during what’s supposed to be a news show. But it was more appropriate for a program filled with feature content like “Show Me St. Louis,” the weekday, 10 a.m. offering on Channel 5. People often pay for their stories on “Show Me St. Louis,” and that fact is disclosed in a general way at the end of each show. “Show Me St. Louis” is a feature program not a newscast.

Channel 2 news managers have an opportunity for improvement among their reporters by comparing the two stories. Murphey showed how to do it right as a journalist. Hart showed how to do it wrong, making a commercial pitch during what’s supposed to be a newscast.

Dudman looks back at Pol Pot

Richard Dudman, the chief Washington Correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the 1970s, almost died in Cambodia – twice. Now, at age 97, he looks back at his reporting and says he may have been too easy on Pol Pot – the murderous dictator of Cambodia.

Dudman was captured in Cambodia while covering the war in 1970 and spent 40 days as a captive of Viet Cong. Five years later, after Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took power, Pol Pot invited Dudman and two other Westerners to Cambodia to see for themselves what life was like. One was Elizabeth Becker, who had covered Cambodia for several years for The Washington Post. The other was Malcolm Caldwell, a radical Scottish lawyer. They were the first outsiders to get visas to Cambodia to interview Pol Pot.

Pol Pot wouldn’t answer questions during their session with him. But that night Dudman was awakened by gunshots outside their guest house. A Vietnamese terrorist threatened Becker, shot at Dudman, who hid under the bed, and then killed Caldwell.

Recently, a special Cambodian court organized to prosecute Khmer Rouge war crimes asked Dudman about his reporting from that era. A lawyer who was questioning Dudman said he seemed to have been easy on Pol Pot. Dudman said he just reported what he saw. But the lawyer’s question haunts him, he wrote in an op-ed in the Post-Dispatch.

Reporting in Cambodia required courage. But the hardest thing for a reporter to admit is he may have gotten a story wrong.

http://www.stltoday.com/news/opinion/pol-pot-and-i/article_94be6488-99f6-5670-8cd1-944a764e8447.html

St. Louis media notes

St. Louis TV stations need to be more honest with their viewers. Frequently, they present stories as new that are actually a day or more old. The latest example occurred on KSDK (Channel 5) at noon on June 18. The story was about an incident the day before when two planes began taking off at the same time at Midway Airport in Chicago. Fortunately, a collision was averted. One report said the planes were within 2000 feet (nearly four-tenths of a mile) when they stopped after aborting their takeoffs. But anchor Kay Quinn read, “We have new information at this noon hour about just how serious a near disaster this was.” However, she provided no information that hadn’t aired on the news the night before. Nor did she give any indication as to “how serious it was.” She did not even tell viewers how close of a call it was (or wasn’t). Repeating the story is not the problem. Every station repeats many stories because of all the time they have to fill. The problem comes when viewers are deceived by “sensationalistic” and inaccurate writing.

Channel 5 also needs to show better judgment when severe weather strikes. The station tends to preempt programming any time there is a tornado warning. Sometimes, even severe thunderstorm warnings preempt programming. Earlier in June, meteorologist Mike Roberts said on the air that only about 450 people were potentially impacted by a tornado warning far south of the metro St. Louis area. Yet the station stayed on the air live for more than a half hour. There is no reason for this. It was not even a confirmed tornado, just indicated as a “possible” tornado by Doppler radar. Putting the information at the bottom of the screen will suffice. If many people might be impacted by a tornado, it is appropriate to stay on the air. It has to be a case by case basis. Channel 5 has gone too far. Here’s an idea. Stream weather live to the Internet so that anyone potentially impacted can watch at KSDK.com or on their mobile app. Everyone else can watch the regularly scheduled programs while staying updated with the information at the bottom of the screen.

Good Clinton v. bad Clinton

Hillary's Southern AccentWriting about Marie Antoinette, Judith Thurman commented in a 2006 article in the New Yorker that the woman famous for a remark she never uttered (“Let them eat cake”) is “periodically reviled or celebrated.” The same could be said about the media’s treatment of Hillary Clinton since she stepped into the national limelight as Bill Clinton’s wife during his 1992 bid for the presidency.

Now that she is campaigning for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, many publications and websites devote much of their coverage to one or the other of these familiar approaches. Recent opinion pieces in the online publications of the liberal New Republic and the conservative Washington Free Beacon provide a sort of “comfort food,” the first for Clinton admirers and the second for Clinton detractors.

But neither provides much food for thought based on solid information, history and context.

“The Real Democratic Primary: Hillary Versus the Media” by Suzy Khimm was posted on the New Republic’s website on May 22. This headline suggests something new — that Hillary is running against the media more than the pack of potential Republican candidates. But in fact, Hillary’s relationship with the press is old news. Ken Auletta described her difficulties with the media in the New Yorker on June 2, 2014, observing that “the media can’t stop discussing her” and are “desperately casting about for something new.”

The “new” element in Khimm’s story includes interviews with 30-or-something-year-olds in Arlington Virginia, a Washington, D.C., suburb she labels “Hillaryland.” Her first interviewee is 29-year-old Beth Lilly, a policy lawyer who remembers the hullabaloo created by Clinton’s Marie Antoinette moment in 1992, when she said: “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.”

Lilly, who would have been about six years old in 1992, recalled that the coverage of the cookie escapade “was just so absurd.” In examining the questionable finances of the Clinton Foundation, Khimm also quotes Lilly as saying, “So her foundation took money. It’s kind of what foundations do.” Khimm could have suggested to Lilly that media coverage has focussed not on what foundations do, but on where some of the millions taken in by the Clinton Foundation came from and how they were doled out. (As in “Clinton Award Included Cash to Foundation,” the New York Times, May 30, or earlier, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal,” in the same paper on April 23.)

When Khimm points out that Clinton’s young Arlington supporters view the media as “trying to drag her (Hillary) down,” she does not ask them for examples. Khimm does not tell her readers which dust-ups in Clintonian history qualify as “scandals” and which as “pseudo-scandals,” and none of the people she interviewed made the distinction for her.

According to Khimm, Clinton’s young supporters no longer blame Republicans or right-wing conservatives for the coverage she is receiving. It’s the media’s fault. One supporter says: “The media are bringing these allegations and these scandals up to see if anyone else in the Democratic party will emerge as a strong candidate and they can go head to head…That sells if you put that out, it sells. It’s them trying to tailor the election to their own needs, rather than what the election is.”

And that’s what the article is meant to reveal, that Clinton’s well-earned path to the White House is not impeded by those Republican bumps in the road, but by roadblocks put up by the media.

Khimm’s article is of, by and for Washington insiders, deeply divided, seeing the world with us v. them blinders. Khimm accepts Clinton’s climb as “the ultimate Washington success story,” never asking citizens in West Virginia or Kansas if that translates into a national success story for them.

A Clinton as Marie Antoinette piece was found in the Washington Free Beacon on May 22: “Miss Uncongenality,” by Matthew Continetti.

The headline tells you that mud is about to be tossed. “Congeniality” is the award the loser in the beauty contests receives, and Continetti is unwilling to tell his readers that Republican winners and losers in presidential campaigns often lacked the quality: Coolidge was taciturn, Ike was aloof, Nixon was resentful, and Dole was dour. Good candidates or presidents? Yes and no, but what has congeniality to do with it?

After the headline, most charges against Clinton are unsupported by facts. At a recent press conference, Continetti suggests, Clinton wanted to ward off questions by “raising her hand empress-like.” And how does an empress raise her hand in a manner different from commoners? Readers don’t know, but it sure sounds bad.

As does every comment about Clinton, without explaining the badness:

“Voting for the Iraq war was a ‘mistake,’ like the one you make on a test.” How does he know her ‘mistake’ (supporting the war in Iraq) was made the same way you make a mistake on a grammar quiz or misidentify a figure in European history? Was her mistake possibly made based on false or incomplete information or on misreading the political and cultural forces in the Middle East?

She released a “blizzard of Clintonian misdirection, omission, dodging, bogus sentimentality, false confidence, and aw-shucks populism.” It’s hard to swallow Continetti’s mind-reading verbiage. Perhaps she was confident (say about her role in the Benghazi attack). What’s “aw-shucks” about her or anyone else’s populism in our current age of greed?

Readers will not be surprised to find the article riddled with “may” and “might” phrases, suggesting the author wants them to assume: “may not work,” or “may begin to change” or “may be the wrong choice.”

Tealeaves reading is no substitute for information and insight-filled journalism.

In the next 17 months before the 2016 election, readers can expect a blizzard of articles such as the ones in the New Republic and the Washington Free Beacon. Long and fact-filled pieces in the New York Times and in other media could provide an antidote.

Should this photo be published?

How should the media portray violent acts?

When South Africa’s largest Sunday paper, the Sunday Times, on its April 19 front page published a photograph of a man in the act of being stabbed and killed, readers took to the social media and aired their views.

Some commentators supported the move; others furiously condemned the decision claiming that the paper was only interested in sales.

It is common for photojournalists to be condemned for the job they do. Some in the industry are accused of taking photographs and walking away with Pulitzer prizes unconcerned about what became of the people in the images that earned them recognition. But that’s not the case in this instance.

Although the reporter and the photographer followed Emmanuel Sithole, the man under attack taking one bloody picture after another, they also rushed him to hospital where he later died from his wounds. Also, the newspaper established a fund to help Sithole’s family with funeral arrangements in Mozambique, the victim’s home country.

The front-page photograph helped police to identify and to capture the killers. It also humanized the horror of xenophobia. Sithole had been killed in a series of violent acts instigated against a non-South African. Also, the image, together with the story’s headline, “Kill thy Neighbor: Alex attack brings home SAs shame,” placed a mirror in the faces of South Africans to examine themselves and to recognize the brute force of their hatred for African nationals.

(The online version of the story together with the images can be found at http://www.timeslive.co.za/local/2015/04/19/kill-thy-neighbour-alex-attack-brings-home-sa-s-shame1. Readers can click on the main photograph below the headline to see all the other images. Alex, where the stabbing occurred, is a poor residential area on the north side of Johannesburg.)

For most of this century, xenophobia has been a common feature dotting the South African landscape, with regular incidents of viscous violence. For instance, in 2008, a man, also from Mozambique, was burned alive at an informal settlement on the east side of Johannesburg. The graphic photographs as the members of the South Africa police force struggled to extinguish the flames can be found at http://www.timeslive.co.za/local/2015/02/19/sa-s-xenophobia-shame-burning-man-case-shut

The hatred of Africans by South Africans has continued, in part because of a lack of strong leadership by the government. The government and other leaders in society have sent mixed messages about xenophobia and the accompanying violent attacks.

In a recorded interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation in February following a spate of xenophobic attacks, President Jacob Zuma defended South Africans. He said, “South Africans are not as xenophobic as people say. It’s an exaggeration…it’s not xenophobia.”

Also, in March, during a public address, King Goodwill Zwelithini, the leader of the Zulu’s a South African ethnic group, also said “We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and go back to their countries.” On social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, the King’s words were greeted with a mixture of excitement and shame.

Consistent with general anti-immigration sentiment and views, some South Africans think African nationals steal jobs and are a burden on the country. Also, African nationals are stereotyped in the media as dirty and as criminals who over populate residential homes.

But, when the media cover violence by publishing a foreign national in the act of being killed, people can reflect on their ideologies, help the police with arrests and organize for social change.

In Kansas forever more

Kansas is known for more than just wheat. It’s known for tornadoes, and that started long before the Wizard of Oz. As Kansas is in the middle of Tornado Alley, an area of the central United States that sees the highest number of tornadoes annually over that of anywhere else in the world, it is also the storm-chasing center.

Earlier this year after an early season severe weather event in southern Kansas, one of the Wichita-area news stations published two stories regarding storm chasers and how they were getting in the way of emergency vehicles and over-crowding roads. Another story published online by a second Wichita station interviewed a sheriff in Barber County, Kansas who is concerned with the crowding of roads.

Both stations employ or contract storm chasers for weather coverage in Kansas during severe weather events, and both stations used in-house storm chasers to give their views. While it is unanimous among chasers and law enforcement that there are more chasers than needed on any given event, the stories seemed skewed against storm chasers.

Law enforcement members claimed traffic laws are being violated, one official interviewed going threatening arrest for those not obeying traffic laws. During a storm early last month, the Barber County sheriff drove down the freeway with his loud speaker, telling chasers to “move their cars.” This was heavily covered on social media.

But storm chasers feel cops are being too aggressive, reporting that they witnessed most chasers obeying traffic laws and not blocking parts of the roads as law enforcement indicated. Many chasers said rural law enforcement agencies overstated any hazards the chasers posed.

One storm chaser used the power of video to provide a counter-argument to law enforcement’s claims that chasers were behaving dangerously. He posted two timelapse videos of significant tornado event days from 2014 and in his video, the number of incidents he captured showed no chasers blocking roads. Several other chasers posted videos from the early April day and showed the sheriff driving down the highway with his loud speaker while passing vehicles that were fully off the highway, or in pullouts and driveways near the road.

Storm chasers are sometimes judged as reckless thrill-seekers who will do anything for the shot. And while it is true that there are incidents involving careless behavior of some, these recent video releases show there is at the very least some exaggeration in the stories depicting careless chasers.

These Kansas stations that posted the stories focused heavily on the side of the law enforcement even as they contract out their own storm chasers to go and cover the same events. It wasn’t until storm chasers brought to light the lack of incidents on video that the news stations gave the chasers a chance to voice their side of the story.

While some storm chasers have stated they will stay out of Kansas due to issues with law enforcement targeting storm chasers, most chasers say Kansas is one of the best places to follow and report on storms, and no matter what how the media depicts them or how targeted they are by law enforcement officials, storm chasers are determined to be in Kansas forever more.

Tony Laubach is a meteorologist with more than 17 years of storm- chasing experience.  He has been featured on TV programs for the National Geographic and Discovery channels and his severe- weather videos have been featured on news networks around the world. 

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.