former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Archive for June, 2014|Monthly archive page

VA Inspector General wrong to demand POGO records

In Blog on June 22, 2014 at 7:16 pm

Full disclosure first: I work for a nonprofit that often hears from federal agency whistleblowers.  I also have a very positive and longstanding relationship with the staff of the Project on Government Oversight, POGO for short.  (Heck, their executive director even publicly praised my book.)

POGO is a big-time advocate for and communicator with whistleblowers.  During its 33 years of existence, its work with whistleblowers has helped raise media visibility and Congressional attention to issues ranging from gross underpayment of royalties by oil companies drilling on federal lands to the Navy and Marine Corps’ refusal to disclose toxic water contamination at the U.S. Army base at Camp Lejeune, to the newest scandal plaguing Washington, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ cover-up of delays in treatment.

It is that latest scandal that has put POGO in the crosshairs of agency’s Acting Inspector General, Richard Griffin.  Griffin has subpoenaed all POGO records “from current of former employees” of the VA “relating in any way to wait-times, access to care and/or patient scheduling issues.”

Griffin’s request has major ramifications.  POGO has been soliciting VA employees to report on fraud and mismanagement at the agency, at a special website.  POGO promises that it “will work to protect your identity” while trying to “expose and remedy” the VA’s problems while “lowering the risk of jeopardizing your career.”   The website says the information submitted “will be encrypted and anonymous.”

Griffin wants the records to facilitate its investigation.  But what he doesn’t seem to understand is that his desire for more complete information is jeopardizing something much more important – the freedom of whistleblowers to find a safe harbor to report their concerns about government waste, fraud and abuse.

The IG’s quest is ironic for at least two reasons.  First, POGO’s work helped prompt the media and the Congress to take this scandal seriously and helped stir Congressional demands for accountability.  Secondly, POGO has been a great advocate for federal inspectors general.

POGO refuses to comply, defending itself in part by contending ”the First Amendment reporter’s privilege and legal precedents afforded to those who investigate and report the news apply to POGO. “ It has solid grounds for that assertion.  POGO has journalists on staff, does comprehensive investigative reports, and recently won accolades from the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for its work.

But there is a more fundamental reason for the Inspector General to lay off.  POGO, as many other nonprofits, is a safe harbor for whistleblowers.  They often trust the nonprofits they know more than the media outlets or reporters they may not.

And in this era of diminishing resources and time to do good journalism, when investigative reporters are an endangered species, nonprofits like POGO increasingly are the intermediaries between whistleblowers and the mainstream media.

Nonprofits not only are trusted by whistleblowers.  They also work hard to frame their stories in ways that will make them easier for reporters to use.  And they usually do the initial pass at verifying the information and filling in the gaps.  As a result, many media outlets rely on this pre-digested information for their stories.

Good reporters will always do their own fact-checking and enterprise reporting.  But it’s a heck of a lot easier because of the work POGO and other nonprofits do.

Whistleblowers need and deserve safe harbors.  They have to be willing to trust that when they supply sensitive information, their identities will be kept confidential.  If they can’t trust that confidentiality will be maintained, they will not share their stories.  While we have stronger whistleblower laws that offer federal workers legal rights to fight back if they suffer retaliation, those rights to due process are not foolproof.  And fighting retaliation may take months, if not years.

Even if a whistleblower ultimately wins his or her case, speaking truth to power can often be tantamount to career suicide.  Just ask Franz Gayl, whose efforts to protect soldiers in Iraq by pressing for better armored vehicles led to his being reprimanded and denied a security clearance,  or Bunnatine Greenhouse, a senior federal contracting official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who blew the whistle on waste and fraud and was demoted. Being vindicated does not restore years of struggle and exile from the federal workforce.

Journalism, the public and whistleblowers will benefit if the VA drops its demand for POGO’s records.  Let’s hope that the agency’s Inspector General gets the message.





SCOTUSblog deserves congressional access

In Blog on June 9, 2014 at 9:10 pm

I remember one of the hardest adjustments I had to make when I left my job at the trade daily, American Banker, and joined the national staff of the good-government group, Common Cause: While I love my new job, I hated giving up the access.  I hated having to plan to attend congressional hearings, and then stand in line for an hour or more, when my former colleagues in the fourth estate could run into a hearing room at the last minute, assured of a seat and access to all the materials.

The irony was, that when I was working for Common Cause, most of my time was spent doing journalism – hard-hitting reports focused on the influence of big money on policymaking.  Yes, it’s true, the journalism had a point of view– it was aimed at making our campaign finance system and our government more open, honest and accountable.

But the reports I wrote were the best journalism I ever did.  And they received terrific play in the mainstream media. Heck, one report, on the conflicts of interest besetting then SEC chair Harvey Pitt popped up on Meet the Press.  I tuned in to find some of the words I had written for that report on the big screen as the late Tim Russert asked Pitt about my report’s assertions.

That isn’t to say I expected to receive credentials from the Senate Press Gallery.  There is a distinction between non-profit advocacy groups and entities that practice journalism.

But in this new world of blogs, and increasingly opinionated journalism, the way we define journalism and journalists needs a lot of re-thinking.   I serve on the membership committee of the National Press Club, and sometimes I feel like a member of the Vatican curia trying to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

One symptom of the need to update our definitions and qualifications is reflected in the current controversy over SCOTUSblog and the decision by the U.S. Senate Daily Press Gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents to refuse to credential its journalists.

The SCOTUS in SCOTUSblog stands for Supreme Court of the United States, and the blog, by all accounts, has done an outstanding job covering the court and its decisions.  It has received a Peabody award and an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for its excellent and comprehensive reporting.

But what has got the credentialing committee’s knickers in a twist concerns the way the blog supports itself financially, and whether its support structure erodes its ability to avoid “lobbying” the court.

SCOTUSblog does have a complicated structure, in part because its founder is a practicing lawyer.  But the blog has gone to great lengths to wall off its coverage from conflicts of interest.

And it has valid reason for seeking congressional credentials. Not only do such congressional credentials carry some weight with the folks who give premium access to Supreme Court proceedings, they also give reporters writing on court-related issues in Congress the access they need.

For ages, journalists have worked for publishers and media owners who have had financial ties that could affect coverage of a myriad political and economic issues.  The Graham family, which owned The Washington Post, also owned for-profit colleges; the paper’s current owner, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, practically owns the world.  NBC News now is owned by cable giant Comcast and its reporters will have to write about Comcast’s effort to gain government permission to merge with Time Warner. Yet when we’re dealing with legacy journalism, these questions of ownership and independence seem less threatening.

Reporters tend to be very respectful – I would say too respectful – of one another.  But in a May 22 letter to the chair of the credentialing committee, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 14 media outlets wrote a letter urging the committee to re-consider its decision.  (SCOTUSblog appealed the rejection and there was a public hearing on the matter on May 23. The committee has not yet said whether it will reconsider its rejection.)

The letter, signed by National Public Radio, The New Yorker, Politico, and CNN, among others, made this common-sense point: “The function a journalist serves – providing news and commentary about pressing issues to the public – has always been to us more important than the organizational format within which he or she sits, so long as his or her news outlet has clear policies to maintain editorial independence.”

In this era of blogs and non-traditional media, it is crazy to make decisions about journalism qualifications on the basis of organizational structure. Our media landscape is different these days. Traditional media outlets are feeling the sharp elbows of online publications whose correspondents also expect – and deserve – access, provided they don’t make stuff up and provide serious news coverage. Needless to say, their employers should give them the independence to report honestly and fairly.

To my mind, a journalist should be defined as someone who produces journalism – information or commentary that serves the public interest.  I would extend that definition to journalists who may have to take second or third jobs to support their expensive habit of wanting to report the news.

SCOTUSblog is not your average media outlet, but it has more than proven it is committing acts of journalism.  It seems strange to demur on its media credentials, when 200 media outlets, including non-traditional sites such as Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, are given this valuable access.  Let’s hope the credentials committee changes its mind.