Former L.A. Times reporter Evan Maxwell wrote the following e-mail to Readers’ Representative Jamie Gold, regarding the Khalidi tape controversy. He copied me on the e-mail and authorized me to publish it:
As a former Times staff writer, I am dismayed by the Times’ decision to betray a basic tenet of journalism: make the best evidence available to the readers and let the readers form their own conclusion.
Sources are, perhaps, entitled to some protection, though I no longer think blind sourcing was the good idea I thought it was as a reporter. But this situation presents a real breakdown of editorial judgement. Journalists can’t withhold the best evidence of any news event from the reader and at the same time characterize the contents and draw conclusions and impressions. That kind of gate-keeping arrogance, in the present climate, is unacceptable.
Look at the matter with a different fact set: If the Times obtained a videotape of a nasty, bloody murder, reported on its impressions of the contents, drew inferences as to guilt or innocence and then withheld the tape from the public and the police, readers would be outraged and the law would intervene. This is a political event, not a murder. The stakes may or may not be greater, but principles are the same. You either show your whole hand, report your story as fully as you possibly can, or you leave a terrible taste in the mouths of people you say you pride yourself by serving.
I am not inured to the nuance of the practice of journalism. But even in the good old days of the last century, reporters who came into possession of confidential material from a source usually were smart enough not to admit in print that they possess the material. The moment a journalist says he is using a secret report to validate his work, and then refuses to reveal the full contents of the report, he is guilty of the kind of conduct that deservedly brought Sen. Joseph McCarthy to disgrace.
You let the cat’s tail out of the bag and you admitted you still possess that bag. Now I think you have no choice but to show us the rest of the animal so we can see it for ourselves. We are, after all, big boys and girls out here now. Hell, they even let us cast our votes. So help us to do that.
I sent Evan an e-mail asking his response to the argument that a promise was made to the source not to release the tape. After all, I can easily envision a situation where the act of releasing the tape would necessarily amount to disclosing the identity of the source. If the tape was made using a handheld camera, taking footage from a particular table, that might give away who made the tape. This would be especially true if, for example, the source was making comments throughout the taping process, in an identifiable voice. Evan responded:
Disclosure is a risk. Of course it’s a risk. That’s precisely why journalists shouldn’t use blind sources and this is an illustration of the dangers that pertain thereto.
When sources are blind, the journalist becomes the ultimate firewall, and his judgment about the meaning and importance of vital evidence is final. We don’t trust journalists so much any more, if we ever did, and the Internet, blogs, etc., have made many of us eager to knock down the firewall and judge the evidence for ourselves. The best example of this is debunked 60 Minutes National Guard documents.
In the old days, there wasn’t a way for readers to access the best evidence and they were much more willing to swallow the received wisdom as conveyed by the reporter and his editors. Nowadays, the paper has the capability of posting the best evidence and letting the reader examine it. That’s what I think ought to be done here and increasingly, I think it ought to be done in all manner of journalistic situations. Some media outlets are doing that. For instance, Frontline regularly posts the transcripts of entire interviews, even if only snips of the interview appear onscreen. I applaud that practice. It allows me as a reader/viewer to draw my own conclusions about both the source individual and the program itself.
I never made this kind of argument when I made my living as a reporter. I was as addicted as anybody to the anonymous source, the blind quote. I never misrepresented the situation, never made up a source to come up with the quote I needed to make the point of the story. But since I left daily journalism, I have become more and more uneasy about the pernicious effect of unnamed sources. I am even thinking about taking the revolutionary position that reporters ought to post their notes and their source materials online, so we can look over their shoulders directly and make up our minds, if we are inclined to do so. That would certainly change the practice of journalism.
Your question about burning a source is a real one and I am indulging in hindsight, which allows me to say the reporter should never have used the material from the videotape as the basis for a story unless he had the right to display it openly. Reporters are pawns, really; they are the conduits for material that somebody wants to see published, often for selfish reasons. I do think that the Times and this reporter, have backed themselves into an untenable situation and ought to be working hard to find a way to make the evidence public. Maybe there’s nothing on the tape worth worrying about, as a voter, and maybe its as inflammatory as some zealots think it is. But now the tape itself is a legitimate issue and the Times is standing in the way of truth, a position that great newspapers should never occupy.
I agree that newspapers should generally make their source documentation available. This has been a hobby horse of mine for years.
But I also suspect that there’s probably no great revelation on the tape. And I strongly suspect that the alleged leaked quotes from the tape are phony — a bid to put pressure on the newspaper to release the tape and disprove the quotes.
Also, if the only way to get the story out — the only way — was to make this promise, it’s not obvious to me that the paper did the wrong thing in making that promise. And no, I don’t think Russ Stanton is flatly lying to the public about this. And I still think newspapers have to keep promises to their sources.
The main problem I have with the paper’s handling of this situation is that editors didn’t immediately tell readers that the tape could not be released because a promise had been made. Instead, we were told “no comment” or “Does Politico release unpublished information?” or “We’re not a video service.” This was not the best way to handle reasonable inquiries about the tape. These responses — together with the paper’s history of being, at times, perfectly willing to allow readers believe things that aren’t true — fuel the fires of suspicion among many conservatives.
I think Evan Maxwell is right that the paper “ought to be working hard to find a way to make the evidence public.” I have gone to work trying to explore ways that could happen; I’ll let you know if my efforts bear fruit.