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When and how to trust sources

By Ben L. Kaufman · May 27th, 2008 · On Second Thought

Over the months, I've touched on the problem of documents and sources and how far to trust them.

The subject was suggested by the jailed conman who recently persuaded the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times that he was providing FBI documents that implicated rappers in a violent assault on a competitor.

thesmokinggun.com spotted the phonies when The Los Angeles Times posted them to support its story. Then AP backed off its earlier story. Ouch.

The need for trust creates tension between editor and reporter, reporter and sources and the news media and audiences. And let me add: Trust does not equal approval. Trust means that you expect someone to act as anticipated. A con man will con; a longtime reliable source will remain reliable.

Either way, that's why reporters check out information we're given, describe or name our sources and alert editors early and repeatedly to uncertainties. If doubts aren't fatal to the story, unresolved questions are shared with readers, viewers and listeners.

Problematic documents and sources figured in a number of stories that I chased for The Enquirer.

� A classic instance involved the suit accusing Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of sodomy when he was archbishop of Cincinnati. The complaint was authentic, as was the accuser, Steven Cook. He had been a pre-seminary student here.

I talked to people who knew him and/or his family. I don't recall talking to him at that time. His claim to hypnosis-prodded recovered memory were troubling.

Bernardin's quick and total denial quieted the storm. He invited reporters in and said, "The allegations are totally false. I am 65 years old, and I can tell you that all my life I have lived a chaste and celibate life."

Cook, dying of AIDS, eventually recanted. He said his memory was untrustworthy and that after Bernardin came to pray with him he accepted Bernardin's denial.

� Another potential story involved a stranger who offered me drawings of a GE military jet engine, saying a clamp allowed a control cable to fray and create flight problems. He also brought drawings of what he said was the replacement clamp designed to solve the problem. He said he was motivated by what he called GE's dilatory response to the problem.

Great story if true. I had drawings. I knew only that my source he said he was a GE draftsman.

I called GE in Evendale, where the engines were made. That wasn't risky. I knew of no other way to authenticate the documents. If they were legit, I didn't care about his identity or motives.

This is how I recall GE's response: The drawings were real, but cables frayed during shipping, not flight. The new clamp ended the problem. The company alerted the Air Force promptly and provided improved clamps. GE asked for my source and accepted my promise of confidentiality if the drawings were authentic. I don't recall getting a response from the Air Force.

My editor killed the story. Absent news of cable-related control problems in flight or Air Force complaints, it was our source's word against GE. We decided against an inconclusive "he says, they deny" story.

� During the costly fiasco at Zimmer Nuclear Power Station in Clermont County, I had years of tips from unhappy workers, some accompanied by documents copied onsite and brought to The Enquirer.

Many sources were itinerant journeymen who rarely went on the record; they feared dismissal and/or blacklisting.

So I chased the information. When it was newsworthy and verified, I pursued the stories. I can't recall a phony document or tip which smelled of falsity. Even though the plant was 95 percent complete, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission indicated that uncertainties about construction/inspections would prevent it from granting an operating license. Zimmer was converted to coal at great expense.

� When I covered courts, any document with court time stamp was authentic, but that did not establish it truth or accuracy.

In one case, a friend familiar with commercial real estate complained that some Hamilton County property was getting unwarranted tax breaks and an unfair market advantage. He urged me to look for "FOJ" written on favored property tax records in that pre-computer era.

FOJ was there. What I didn't know, however, is who owned the property and whether FOJ meant those properties received unjustified tax breaks. Relevant property plats were meaningless to me. We had a trustworthy if confidential source, and documents appeared to be what he said they were.

My editor said we didn't have time for me to master property and tax records; I already was covering federal and state courts, and there was no one to fill in. Other Cincinnati news media won awards for exposing the FOJ (Friend of Joe) scandal.

� Then there was a suit for wrongful dismissal filed by former Cincinnati Bell installer Lonnie Gates. Boring stuff as I leafed through it at the federal court clerk's office until he claimed to have done illegal wiretapping.

Gates named a "who's who" of left-wing and anti-war activists, local and federal officials, corporate targets and President Ford. Gates said they were tapped on oral orders from Cincinnati Bell and/or the Cincinnati police intelligence unit.

My editor's first question was, "Who is this guy?" All I knew was in his complaint. I never had met him. He didn't have a lawyer. My editor said we'd skip it for the moment but watch to see if anything less fantastic came up.

Greg Flannery, then a reporter for the weekly Mount Washington Press and recently my editor at CityBeat, soon began writing about the case. He also included similar claims by another fired Cincinnati Bell installer, Bob Draise, who had been convicted on an unrelated wiretap charge after Cincinnati Bell caught him freelancing.

Together, Gates and Draise said they did more than 1,200 illegal wiretaps. The Enquirer began covering their wiretapping claims and probing Cincinnati Police interference in anti-war activities.

Other documents included what appeared to be inexplicably high paychecks; Gates and Draise said they doubled their pay doing illegal wiretaps. There were no work orders to back up their stories. That was another documentation problem.

Before long, police admitted they had an intelligence unit. Officers who invoked the Fifth Amendment during a grand jury probe of the affair then admitted 12 illegal wiretaps. A hotel security chief described finding wiretap equipment on the hotel's phone system during President Ford's visit. GE, another alleged target, took the claims seriously enough to meet with Gates and Draise.

Gates lost his wrongful dismissal suit; it claimed retaliation unrelated to wiretapping.

Cincinnati Bell and two company officials accused of directing illegal wiretapping sued both men for defamation. Gates and Draise represented themselves and lost. The court decided that Gates and Draise were liars.

A defamation countersuit filed by Gates and Draise was dismissed.

Flannery recently recalled, "It's worth noting, however, that (Hamilton County Common Pleas) Judge Fred Cartolano barred the confessed police wiretappers from testifying, and Gates and Draise, not knowing better, failed to object. Thus the jury heard no confirmation that any illegal wiretaps had actually occurred."

� Problematic documents are an issue in covering religion, too; none more so than books considered holy. No end of sources expressed impatience with my handling of their claims in some controversy.

This usually involved their asserting proof from Hebrew or Christian Scripture because they accept it as literal and inerrant. I try to explain that this is based on a belief that most people do not share, but this fails to ease deep doubts about my reporting or likelihood of salvation.

I won't even go into the absence of archaeological evidence for many biblical stories or the controversy over the Donation of Constantine. What is fact to believers -- Moses at Sinai, Jesus' resurrection, the dictation of the Qur'an -- is not a fact to others.

Whether existing texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek or Arabic are original or accurate versions of originals is a matter of belief, not fact. It's a question of source and document authenticity.

The same problem arises when confronted by so many differing translations of Hebrew and Christian Scripture. This is not a problem for Muslims; they accept no translation of the Qur'an as authoritative, saying only the original Arabic was dictated letter by letter by Allah, God.

Then there are controversies over extra-biblical texts, including gospels not included in the Christian canon, or a burial chamber or ossuary on which an inscribed text purports to identify the bones of an important figure contrary to religious tradition. Scholars often debate the authenticity of those inscriptions and/or their meaning.

Modern forgeries are rife. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a lethal classic. Dan Brown continues to make millions from credulous readers' willingness to suspend skepticism about Jesus' fate.

More recently, some experts and editors were fooled by fabricated "Hitler Diaries" and purportedly deciphered Soviet files prove/disprove who was a Communist spy before, during and after World War II.

Today, dodgy autobiographies continue to bedevil us with pretense, forgery, fakery and exaggeration. Until recently, reporters trusted publishers to establish the authenticity of the source and text before printing thousands of copies and making authors available for interviews. Oprah, The New York Times and others were embarrassed by that trust recently.

As we so often say, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFAMN: letters@citybeat.com



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