When the Smoking Gun Misfires

When journalists get a big story wrong it’s always embarrassing, sometimes catastrophic. But Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass notwithstanding, journalists go wrong much less often because they play fast and loose with the truth than because they’re way too certain what the truth must be. The Tribune didn’t plaster “Dewey Defeats Truman” across its front page in 1948 because it had told itself “whatever.” It was done in by its certitude–it was so sure Dewey would win that night it didn’t wait for the returns.

The Tribune just spent $2 million defending itself against the defamation suit of former Du Page County prosecutor Thomas Knight. It deserves the victory a jury just gave it; it was right on the law and, for the most part, right on the facts. But it did screw up. Why?

Not out of malice, certainly, though that’s what Knight alleged. He based his suit on a 29-word passage of a 5,000-word article the Tribune published six years ago, on the eve of the DuPage 7 trial (which acquitted Knight and the other defendants of perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice in prosecuting three suspects in the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico). The article said John Gorajczyk, a footprint expert who’d concluded a boot print on the Nicaricos’ door didn’t match the boots of one suspect, “told the grand jury that Knight told him to keep his mouth shut about his conclusion.”

That was wrong. Gorajczyk said no such thing to the grand jury investigating the DuPage 7–he didn’t even appear before it. The grand jury did get a secondhand account of Gorajczyk’s story from an investigator working for the special prosecutor, but earlier drafts of the Tribune’s story awkwardly blurred the story’s provenance: “Knight, Gorajczyk recalled later, told him…” Later editing that made the passage more specific also made it inaccurate.

An innocent mistake, argued the Tribune. But not a mistake that would ever have been made, I suspect, if the Tribune’s case against the prosecutors had hung on Gorajczyk’s supposed testimony. All Gorajczyk provided was a telling detail supporting a conclusion the paper had already come to. Before the grand jury heard from anyone–before it even convened–the Nicarico prosecutors were being denounced by Tribune columnist Eric Zorn and the Tribune editorial page.

According to an item in Newsweek a couple of weeks ago, military investigators confirmed that Guantanamo guards had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. But Newsweek’s source, described by the magazine as a “historically reliable government source,” backed off, and the White House jumped in. “There is lasting damage to our image because of this report,” asserted press secretary Scott McClellan. Newsweek admitted that its only attempt to double-check the item before printing it had been to show it to a “senior Defense Department official,” who didn’t object to the Koran charge. His silence might have implied assent, but it was no guarantee of it.

If this had been the first time anyone accused American guards of desecrating the Koran to torment Muslim prisoners, Newsweek would probably have demanded stronger proof before printing a word. But the charge was old; what interested Newsweek was the seemingly unimpeachable new source–the American military. In the wake of the Newsweek embarrassment, other media reminded the public what a familiar accusation the charge was. “Red Cross Says It Told U.S. in 2002 About Alleged Mishandling of Koran,” reported a Washington Post headline on May 20. “Dozens Have Alleged Koran’s Mishandling,” reported the Los Angeles Times two days later. “An examination of hearing transcripts, court records and government documents, as well as interviews with former detainees, their lawyers, civil liberties groups and U.S. military personnel, reveals dozens of accusations involving the Koran, not only at Guantanamo, but also at American-run detention facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Then there were the memos that 60 Minutes disclosed last September but eventually repudiated. They were supposed to be the smoking gun proving that back in the early 70s George W. Bush had received favored treatment in the Texas Air National Guard. Because CBS couldn’t make those memos stick, Dan Rather wound up in the eye of the storm instead of Bush. “Lost in the commotion over the authenticity of the documents,” James Goodale wrote last month in the New York Review of Books, where he tore apart the report CBS had commissioned on the episode, “is that the underlying facts of Rather’s 60 Minutes report are substantially true. Bush did not take the physical exam required of all pilots; his superiors gave him the benefit of any doubt; he did receive special treatment and Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush’s commanding officer [and the purported author of an allegedly forged memo], was unhappy with the loss of ANG’s investment in him when Bush informed Killian he was leaving for Alabama.”

In 1972 Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post falsely reported that Hugh Sloan, the former treasurer of Richard Nixon’s reelection committee, had told a grand jury that H.R. Haldeman oversaw a secret slush fund that financed the Watergate break-in. This looked like a smoking gun pointing at the Oval Office. No one was closer to Nixon than Haldeman, the White House chief of staff. But while Woodward and Bernstein double- and triple-checked what Sloan knew, they weren’t as careful about what he’d said. They read too much into silence–sources who didn’t confirm but didn’t deny, a Justice Department attorney who said nothing at all but didn’t hang up. The morning the story broke, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler called it “a blatant effort at character assassination that I do not think has been witnessed in the political process in some time.” It turned out that Sloan hadn’t told the grand jury about Haldeman because he hadn’t been asked.

But Haldeman did control the slush fund. In time the truth came out.

What War’s Really Like

The story line from Iraq we now follow in the States pits Iraqis trying to establish a coherent, legitimate government against nihilist terrorists trying to plunge the country into total chaos or civil war. In the subplot American GIs continue to die by ones and twos and threes, usually when their vehicles are blown up. Combat plays a small part in the reporting.

When it does it’s often filtered antiseptically through Baghdad. For example, a May 10 New York Times story datelined Baghdad began like this: “A Marine task force swept through a wide area of western Iraq near the Syrian border, killing 100 insurgents and raiding desert outposts and city safe houses belonging to insurgents…American military officials said Monday. The attack, involving more than 1,000 troops including a Marine regimental combat team that includes soldiers and sailors, appears to be the largest combat offensive in Iraq since the Marines invaded Falluja six months ago.”

That’s no way to cover a war. This is: “As the American vehicles screeched to a halt and hurriedly began U-turning in the road, the insurgents began firing rocket-propelled grenades–‘big red streams that just shoot down and scream,’ Archila said. And then out of nowhere, a suicide bomber in a white pickup truck sped into the column, exploding his vehicle next to a Humvee in front of Archila.”

The account of the attack in western Iraq by embedded Tribune reporter James Janega ran on page one of the Tribune May 11. The next day the Tribune carried another page-one story of the fighting, this time by Ellen Knickmeyer of the Washington Post: “The explosion enveloped the armored vehicle in flames, sending orange balls of fire bubbling above the trees along the Euphrates River near the Syrian border. Marines in surrounding vehicles threw open their hatches and took off running across the plowed fields, toward the already blackening metal of the destroyed vehicle. Shouting, they pulled to safety those they could, as the flames ignited the bullets, mortar rounds, flares and grenades inside.”

Knickmeyer’s story went on to tell about a marine company that had lost an entire squad in the battle. Last Monday another embedded Tribune reporter, Michael Martinez, returned to that company. “In the barracks,” he observed, “the furniture was rearranged so that it wouldn’t evoke memories of those who were killed or wounded.”

Some days Iraq is just a war. The Tribune is doing a pretty decent job of being there for it.

At Least the Lawyers Appreciate Us

Having doled out a couple million dollars in legal fees to save itself from humiliation at the hands of Thomas Knight, the Tribune was simply getting what it paid for when its hired gun out of Texas, Chip Babcock, brought his closing argument to a rousing climax. Even so, his finale was a tonic to the journalists who stuffed the courtroom. How often does someone say that what they do is worth doing?

“There’s a young man by the name of Stephen Buckley, who was never found guilty of anything,” said Babcock, naming the Nicarico defendant who owned the boots John Gorajczyk failed to match to the print on the door, “and he spent three years in prison before the FBI lab, which Mr. Knight had bypassed in order to get an anthropologist who apparently was studying the jaguar caves with the Indians who didn’t have boots but apparently had moccasins [a reference to a self-described print expert who made the match Gorajczyk hadn’t]… finally exonerated Steve Buckley. But he lost three years of his life–three years of his life.”

Before Babcock began speaking, he’d placed on the jurors’ chairs bound copies of the five-part Tribune series “Trial & Error–How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win,” which contained the article in question. Now he called the series to the jurors’ attention.

“I encourage you at some point during your deliberations or at some other time–these are yours to keep–that you spend the time to read this series. It is important award-winning journalism and is shedding light on our societal problems so that people like Steve Buckley don’t have to spend three years in prison when they are innocent.”

Knight broke in. “Object, your Honor. That is retrying the case.”

“Objection sustained,” ruled Judge Robert Gordon.

But Babcock had made his point. He went on, “What a defamation case is about is, as Mr. Knight said, deterring people from doing things. I wrote down what he said. I wrote it in red. ‘I want you to award punitive damages,’ he said, ‘so that the Chicago Tribune doesn’t do this again.’ And God help us if the Chicago Tribune doesn’t do this again. Because our society needs newspapers studying our problems. Prosecutors are immune. The government is powerful. It’s the media and the newspapers that keep a check on government excesses, and that’s exactly what they were doing here.

“And there is an innocent mistake that was made that has given this man a hook to sue us and keep us all here for three weeks. And that is his right. We respect this process, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for engaging in it. But we can respect this process, but not his lawsuit. And we have no respect for his lawsuit.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan.