Robert Pollock, features editor for the Wall Street Journal, has responded to my e-mail faulting the paper for not disclosing Radley Balko’s hidden agenda in his recent piece on Dr. Steve Hayne.
Brace yourself for some eye-opening sophistry.
1) I know of no reporter who believes good stories discovered in the pursuit of other stories create conflicts of interest or “hidden agendas”
2) Hayne was offered an opportunity to defend himself; he is still welcome to write a letter to the editor if he likes.
3) Balko is not a DJ employee so I fail to see the relevance of our Code of Conduct policy (see also point 1)
If there is any part of the Balko story that is inaccurate we’d like to know.
This glib brush-off is notable for at least two reasons. First, there is the blatant strawman employed in point 1, which is more characteristic of a flippant blog commenter than an editor for a prestigious national publication. Second, there is the breathtaking assertion in point 3, that outside contributors to the WSJ are not subject to the rule against hidden agendas.
Here is my response — which, under the circumstances, I consider restrained:
Re: Your claim that outside contributors to the WSJ are allowed to have undisclosed agendas
In your October 12 reply to my e-mail about Radley Balko’s failure to disclose a hidden agenda in his recent op-ed, you say: “Balko is not a DJ employee so I fail to see the relevance of our Code of Conduct policy” against hidden agendas in WSJ journalistic undertakings.
You can’t seriously mean to say that outside contributors are free to have undisclosed agendas.
Placing that extraordinary claim to one side, you are a Dow Jones employee, Mr. Pollock, as is everyone on the Wall Street Journal editorial page staff. I have told you about a hidden agenda in a WSJ journalistic undertaking.
Do you see the relevance of the policy now?
I understand that you don’t believe Balko had a hidden agenda, but your belief rests on a misstatement of my argument. You say:
I know of no reporter who believes good stories discovered in the pursuit of other stories create conflicts of interest or “hidden agendas”
That is a devastating retort — to an argument I never made. Now, could you please address the argument I did make?
This is not about the fact that Balko discovered this story while working on another story. If that were the only issue, sir, I wouldn’t have bothered to write you.
The issue is one of disclosure of a pre-existing bias. Journalistic principles require disclosure of such biases, even if you believe that the story’s facts are correct, and that the bias had no effect on the piece.
As I have already explained, Radley Balko is the public face of the case for Cory Maye’s innocence. Balko is deeply invested in the effort to free Maye from prison, on a personal and professional level. One of the main obstacles to freeing Maye is the testimony of Dr. Hayne at Maye’s trial. As Balko himself has said: “Hayne’s testimony was crucial in securing Maye’s conviction.”
If Dr. Hayne is discredited in the eyes of the Mississippi courts, it could lead to Maye’s case being re-evaluated. Balko has admitted on this blog that he hopes this will happen, saying: “Here’s hoping Hayne gets continued scrutiny from the state’s supreme court going forward, including when they sit to hear Cory’s case,” and “Do I hope my expose of Dr. Hayne gets Cory’s case reviewed? Absolutely.” If Maye were freed due to Balko’s work, it would benefit Balko on a personal and professional level, just as Balko has achieved renown for his efforts in getting Maye off of Death Row.
Such agendas should be disclosed.
I know that the WSJ understands this, because I see the principle in action in today’s edition of the WSJ, in a case that is far less compelling for disclosure.
Today, Naomi Schaefer Riley has a commentary about  donors’ efforts to ensure that their donations to universities are used for their intended purpose. The piece mentions the Templeton Foundation, which runs contests in which schools compete for grants. The piece ends with a disclosure that the author “has received grants from the Templeton Foundation.”
The WSJ made this disclosure even though 1) the Templeton Foundation is mentioned only in passing; 2) nobody is alleging that Ms, Riley got any facts wrong; and 3) nobody is suggesting that the grants she received had any effect on the views expressed in the piece.
It’s a simple matter of disclosure, and your paper handled it properly — with Ms. Riley.
It’s not necessary that money change hands for such disclosures to be appropriate. The WSJ would not let a reporter do a hit piece on a CEO without revealing that the reporter is one of the primary stockholders in a rival company. Money needn’t be involved; a WSJ editorial writer would never criticize a candidate for political office without revealing that the editor’s wife is an adviser to the candidate’s opponent. The WSJ would not let a scientist ridicule a rival’s scientific theory, without revealing that the rival’s theory questions the validity of the author’s own theory.
These people all have hidden agendas — or at least, there is a basis for a critic to argue that they have hidden agendas.
Similarly, Radley Balko (at least arguably) has a hidden agenda in attacking Dr. Hayne.
That, Mr. Pollock, is the issue — not some easily refuted point about Balko having discovered this story in the pursuit of another story. Balko has a pre-existing bias against Dr. Hayne, and an undisclosed agenda to discredit him. WSJ readers should have been told this. They should be told now.
Since I haven’t received a response to that argument, I would appreciate one now.
P.S. You ask whether anything in Balko’s piece is inaccurate. Although it is not clear-cut, there is strong evidence that Balko’s opening anecdote is potentially misleading — or at least that there is a more innocent explanation for Dr. Hayne’s testimony than the interpretation related by Mr. Balko. For more information, see my blog posts on the issue here and here, with quotes from a court opinion that disputes Mr. Balko’s characterization. (This opinion was overturned by a Mississippi Supreme Court opinion — but even Mr. Balko has conceded that the Mississippi Supreme Court 1) mischaracterized the Court of Appeals opinion and 2) offered no explanation for rejecting the considered analysis of the Court of Appeal regarding the nature of Dr. Hayne’s testimony.)
That said, Balko has raised serious issues about Dr. Hayne, and I have called for a state investigation of him and his work. I write in defense of full disclosure and accuracy, not Dr. Hayne.