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The Unjustified Contempt for Watchdog Journalism

By Ben L. Kaufman · May 29th, 2013 · On Second Thought
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I doubt there is much sympathy when reporters complain that government is intruding on our privacy. After all, intruding is what we do, as I noted a couple weeks ago (“The Ethics of Intrusion,” issue of May 15).

But the Obama administration’s latest search of reporters’ phone records and emails goes beyond an opportunity for our critics to enjoy a moment of schadenfreude. 

If sources begin to think twice about contacting us in any fashion other than midnight meetings in darkened parking garages, public service reporting will become an endangered species. 

My bizarre cause for hope is how few Americans read daily papers, and this brouhaha probably won’t intrude on potential sources’ active consciousness. 

Officials who theoretically work for us often hide information we need. That’s why we need whistleblowers and confidential sources for our reporting on health care, domestic and foreign policies and actions, government at every level and decisions by moneylenders and corporate executives. 

With phone and email records available to any government prober and the Obama Justice Department approaching Nixonian depths, today it can be foolhardy to contact a reporter.   

In those Bad Old Days, Nixon and his often-criminal top officials and aides went after the news media in every way they could. Leaks prevailed, plumbers failed and Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, trial and conviction. 

Obama has been laughable in his assertions of transparency. His administration’s contempt for the watchdog role of the news media encourages reporters’ greater assertiveness. I’m talking about reporting about North Korea’s nuclear program, Guantanamo inmates, IRS harassment, prisoner torture, etc.

This hostility surfaced recently when the Associated Press, the nation’s foremost and historically nonpartisan news service, learned that the Justice Department obtained telephone records of some reporters and editors. 

Justice said it was part of a search for anyone whose leaks produced a story about a foiled terrorist plot based in Yemen. The story, Justice said, told too much about anti-terrorism efforts. 

Then the Washington Post reported that Justice also obtained phone records of James Rosen, a Fox News reporter, and the search warrants used scary language like “conspirator.” That stinks of an espionage charge to hang over Rosen’s head; talk about intimidation.

More puzzling is Attorney General Eric Holder’s high-minded assurance that he’d taken himself out of the AP investigation and phone record grab, but admission that he personally approved the search of Rosen’s communications and, reportedly, even Rosen’s parents’ telephone records. 

Both searches are so sweeping that they smell of fishing expeditions. Feds apparently hope to find something to silence government insiders by making reporters too cautious to pursue their leaks. 

In years of stories at the Enquirer, people occasionally came to me after their good-faith internal protests were rebuffed or silenced. Any number alerted me to stories with a whisper, a telephone call, or plain brown envelope left with a receptionist. None stood to gain financially or professionally from talking to me, whether with a promise of confidentiality or agreement that I could use their name(s). 

One whistleblower was Ed Blankenship. He came to the Enquirer with his tale of wild behavioral changes that he blamed on the leaky, dust-and-fume-rich environment where he worked: Cincinnati Milacron Chemicals in Reading. Blankenship also cautioned me that his story might change because of what he believed was exposure-related confusion. He urged me to talk to coworkers who complained of similar symptoms. 

Blankenship and his wife described violent domestic episodes. Coworkers had DUI convictions although they were teetotal. One was so befuddled that he was reduced to pushing a scrap cart along colored lines in the floor. Another blamed failed baseball hopes on chemical exposures. 

They inhaled the dust that whoomped up through a hatch when they loaded dry chemicals into vats to make an ingredient in PVC. 

If there were respirators, men didn’t wear them. They said respirators were uncomfortable and hindered mobility when carrying sacks of chemicals on ladders.

Milacron Chemicals supervisors did not insist workers wear them. 

I spent weeks interviewing current and past plant workers. Their worst moments were eerily similar. Eventually, Milacron admitted it knew about the men’s exposure/health problem. Prompted by our questions, OSHA inspected and issued a book of citations.

After our stories ran, Blankenship and coworkers sued Milacron. A local lawyer pursued the seemingly hopeless case to the Ohio Supreme Court. They won and changed state law. The court said workers’ compensation didn’t protect employers from being sued when employers knew they were injuring their employees.


CURMUDGEON NOTES:

• New evidence that the sun revolves around Cincinnati: The first serious scandal of Obama’s second term began here with a handful of IRS employees.

Heads already are rolling at the IRS in Washington. The mess is far more toxic than the GOP-generated brouhaha over Benghazi or the latest manifestations of administration hostility to the news media. 

So here’s my question: Would the Enquirer have broken the IRS harassment story here months ago if the paper had a regular federal agency/court reporter? That beat died years ago for lack of publisher’s/editors’ interest. 

Now that it’s a national story, the Enquirer is on it. That agencies aren’t boring shit is demonstrated by James Pilcher’s Enquirer stories on how the local IRS employees harassed Tea Party and other groups that share the Tea Party’s suspicion and disgust with the way the federal government operates. The Enquirer’s Deirdre Shesgreen in Washington drew a dismal picture of how the IRS reacted to the problem. 

As described by Pilcher and Shesgreen, oversight of the confused and overweening Cincinnati-based IRS unit was a total cockup. If there had been an Enquirer reporter regularly checking federal courts and agencies, IRS sins of omission and commission might not have gone unnoticed or unremarked.  

Enough people would have known the reporter well enough to suggest IRS treatment of 501(c)(4) applicants was a story. Potential sources rarely take a chance on a reporter they don’t recognize. It’s also worth noting that no one in Washington tipped the Enquirer’s Shesgreen there about the IRS story. 

Editors and publishers decide what is to be covered. This isn’t Pilcher’s fault. A veteran reporter, he rejoined the Enquirer after those local IRS employees screwed up. He’s playing catch-up locally while national news media cover the impact in Washington, D.C. 

Reading the Enquirer must assure local developers, educators, physicians and hospitals that their calls will get a warm reception at the paper. The reverse is true. The Enquirer’s demonstrated lack of interest in federal agencies does nothing to encourage whistleblowers or complaining Tea Party members and other citizens to contact at our Sole Surviving Daily with their tales of woe.  

• I don’t know who did it first — I was fishing in Canada for a week — but Fox 19 WXIX named many Cincinnati IRS staff it said were implicated in the harassment scandal. Names give credibility to broader reporting. This is no time for “errors were made.” Who made them? Who put their names to official IRS demands for more information from groups seeking 501(c)(4) tax-deductible status? Those IRS employees had no expectation of privacy. 

• Jay Leno said we should demand written answers from the IRS about the harassment scandal and set a deadline, maybe April 15. The IRS now rivals New York mayor candidate Anthony Weiner as a punchline. Weiner’s a jerk. The integrity and effectiveness of the IRS is central to our government functions. If you don’t believe that, look at the role pervasive tax avoidance plays in recessions in Italy, Greece, Spain and some other Euro zone countries. 

• There was a curious omission in a WVXU newscast about Joseph Poynter, the La Salle senior who shot himself in the classroom. The WVXU reporter said the “unnamed” student’s condition improved sufficiently to begin rehab. The Enquirer named him. CityBeat named him. Classmates and others named him on social media. WVXU’s decision doesn’t make him “unnamed.” 

• If you haven’t appreciated the ubiquity of smartphone cameras, watch online videos recorded by bystanders at the midday London murder of British soldier Lee Rigby by two men protesting Britain’s combat roles in Islamic societies. 

One killer, London-born Michael Adebolajo, 28, his bloody hands holding a cleaver and a knife, calmly talks to the person with the cell phone camera, saying why he hacked the young soldier to death. In another image, a woman engages the second armed killer in a conversation about his motives. She later said it was her way of deflecting him from further attacks. 

• British papers are giving extensive coverage to killer Michael Adebolajo’s conversion from Christianity to Islam and his religious radicalization. Apparently, he previously was arrested in Kenya en route to Somalia to join Islamic insurgents, and Kenyan officials deported him to Britain. Adebolajo also was an activist in London, allied and marching with other radical Muslims. MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service, tried and failed to recruit Adebolajo as an informer. Now, the news media are full of accusations that British authorities screwed up. However, easily outraged London journalists rarely concede that Adebolajo broke no British laws before killing Lee Rigby and authorities had no reason to restrict his freedom until he and his accomplice hacked Rigby to death in suburban London.

• As predicted in my “blood on our hands” column (“Media Culpable in Vaccine Controversy,” issue of Feb. 7, 2011), journalists’ respectful coverage of mindless rejection of infant vaccinations is taking its toll. Minor outbreaks have been reported in this country. However, the worst has been in Britain where a leading medical journal, Lancet, scared the bejesus out of parents worldwide with a 1998 article linking the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccination to rising rates of autism. 

Now, British health officials confirm the inevitable after a generation of frightened British parents rejected MMR for their youngsters. “Herd immunity” occurs when so many people are vaccinated that an infectious disease cannot spread: think smallpox today or polio in all but a few countries like Afghanistan and Nigeria. Too many unvaccinated children can destroy that herd immunity. In Wales, hundreds of new cases of measles have been reported. Health officials expect it to spread, according to the Daily Mail because thousands of Welsh parents denied their children the MMR vaccine.

Closer to us, America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported three cases of congenital rubella (German measles) in children born last year in this country to unvaccinated mothers. Those were the first cases since 2008, thedailybeast.com reported, but they didn’t involve Americans who usually are vaccinated when they start school.  

“The mothers of the three infants with congenital rubella were from African countries — Tanzania, Nigeria, and the Sudan — prior to delivering babies in Maryland, Alabama and Illinois, respectively. None appear to have been vaccinated against rubella. One of the infants died of congenital disease while the other two have severe congenital abnormalities.” 

British reporters forced the willfully blind Lancet to admit the 1998 article and research claims were fraudulent. It withdrew the article. Primary author Andrew Wakefield lost his British medical license and moved to Texas. 

• Another victory for British reporters has implications for our health care. Journalists appear to have driven a stake through the heart of the British perversion of hospice — benignly called the Liverpool Care Pathway. The National Health Service says it plans to quit paying bonuses to hospitals that use this lethal technique — depriving patients of nutrition and hydration until they die — to free beds for other patients. The incentives and outcomes came under fire from British news media, especially the populist Daily Mail. Here’s a recent Daily Mail story: 

“NHS payments — which amount to at least £30million (about $45 million) — are likely to be stopped later this year.

A Health Department inquiry is underway into the Pathway, which was originally developed to ease the last days and hours of dying patients. … Some (hospitals) have been paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for reaching targets for LCP deaths. For example, the hospital trust in Blackpool was last year paid £450,000 ($675 million) in return for ensuring 35 percent of patients who die in hospital are on the LCP. Families have protested that relatives who were not dying have been placed on the Pathway. … An end to payments for Pathway targets would free hospitals from the suspicion of taking money in return for the deaths of patients. Analysts believe the inquiry will also recommend that no patient should be put on the Pathway without either their own consent or that of their closest family.”



CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



 
 
 
 

 

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