The Washington Post Is Burning Through Its One Asset

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Updated at 10:00 a.m. on June 22, 2024

Hours after my Washington Post colleagues and I published the first of several articles in 2017 about the Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore’s history of pursuing teenage girls, the Republican nominee’s powerful allies launched an elaborate campaign seeking to discredit the story.

The best-known of these efforts was an attempt carried out by the far-right activist group Project Veritas to dupe us into publishing a false story, an operation we exposed. But there were others, perhaps none more insidious than the spreading of false rumors across Alabama that The Washington Post had paid Moore’s accusers to come forward, and were offering thousands of dollars to other women for salacious stories about him.

There is a reason Moore’s allies used this particular tactic: They knew that any whiff of a financial motive behind the stories would taint them. There is also a reason their efforts failed. And there is a reason I’m bringing this up seven years later.

The practice of paying for information violates ethical standards at The Washington Post, where I worked for nearly 20 years, and is forbidden in most American newsrooms. Will Lewis, the paper’s new British publisher, engaged in the practice when he was an editor at The Daily Telegraph, paying about $120,000 to secure information that led to a major government scandal. Lewis has defended his decision. Further reporting by the Post and The New York Times has linked him to using fraudulently obtained records in news stories.

The controversy around Lewis is not some small matter of different journalistic methods. The reputation of the Post newsroom has been built upon readers’ trust that reporters do not pay sources, much less steal documents, hack computers, or engage in other deceptive news-gathering practices that have been associated with a certain kind of British journalism and the worst of American tabloid journalism. This is why the Roy Moore stories were not vulnerable to the attacks launched against them. How their credibility was achieved remains highly relevant.

First of all, the women who came forward—all of them using their full names—did so at great personal risk and for no reason other than that they wished the voting public to know the candidate as they did. None of them had slick lawyers or PR firms or shady intermediaries; all suffered an array of consequences for their decision to go public with their stories. Our primary source was working as a payday-loan clerk at the time, missed weeks of work, endured an array of threats, and essentially went into hiding after the first story appeared.

Second, my colleagues Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites and I spent weeks doing what Washington Post journalists do: old-fashioned reporting. This entailed long conversations, patience, and knocking on the same doors again and again. It entailed going through court records and vetting the minute details of the stories the women told us. It entailed vetting the accusers themselves. We earned the trust of our sources with the only assurance any journalist can provide: that we would do our work thoroughly and carefully and ethically and see where the reporting took us.

Third, and perhaps most important, we were transparent, laying out our reporting methods in the stories. Readers could see that we were playing no tricks.

The campaign to undermine the credibility of these stories was relentless. The elaborate Project Veritas operation got the most attention. But the false rumors that we’d paid for information were potentially more damaging in the way they sought to cast news-gathering as a cheap and tawdry affair. The conspiracy-peddling website Gateway Pundit spread a false story based on a false tweet claiming that a colleague of mine had been “outed” for offering $1,000 to Moore’s accusers. In Alabama, a minister claimed to have received a call falsely purporting to be from a Washington Post reporter trying “to find out if anyone at this address is a female between the ages of 54 to 57 years old, willing to make damaging remarks about candidate Roy Moore for a reward of between $5,000 and $7,000.”

The truth is that reporters earn revelations by listening, digging, and bearing witness. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward did not pay for information that led them to uncover the Watergate scandal; Bart Gellman did not pay Edward Snowden. David Fahrenthold did not purchase the Access Hollywood tape.

As publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Lewis did not institute the practice of paying for information, and he has pledged not to do so at the Post. This is a relief, to a degree. Journalism cannot afford to undermine itself. Since 2017, the kinds of active-measure attacks we faced while reporting on Moore have only become more ubiquitous. Threats against journalists are rising. Efforts to undermine legitimate reporting are sadly succeeding in many corners of the country. The Post and other newsrooms should defend the values and practices that produce journalism in the public interest, and that cynical forces would like to see swept away.

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