Saturday, July 23, 2005

Timing is everything

Q: What’s worse than getting scooped by a competing publication on a story you have been sitting on because you were afraid you might be get hauled into court to identify the source?

A: Running the story a day late and getting hauled into court, anyway.

That’s how things went down – and I do mean down – at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, whose editor gained an embarrassing 15 minutes of national fame when he admitted he wasn’t publishing “two stories of profound importance” because his company, Advance Publications, didn’t want to go to the trouble and expense of protecting reporters who might be compelled by a court to reveal their confidential sources.

This all comes at a time, of course, when Judith Miller of the New York Times is serving a contempt sentence in a federal prison for refusing to name the sources she interviewed for a story she never wrote about a crime that evidently wasn’t committed.

The Plain’s Dealer’s determination to sit on its too-hot-to-handle stories crumbled rapidly after the Cleveland Scene, a scrappy alternative weekly, published the details of one of the stories gathering dust at the rival P-D.

The story actually is profoundly important, too. As reported first by Cleveland Scene and confirmed a day later by the newly emboldened P-D, a 2002 FBI affidavit sealed by a judge asserts that there is "probable cause" that former Cleveland Mayor Mike White was on the take.

"Once another medium identified us as a holder of the documents in question, holding back the story became moot," said P-D editor Doug Clifton, explaining his abrupt reversal. "We think that it was a public service to be done in reporting the contents of the affidavit," he added in what could be construed as a compliment to the Scene.

Until the point Doug’s paper was beaten on the scoop languishing in his “in” box, he gamely defended not publishing a story “the public would be well served to know,” because it was “based on documents leaked to us by people who would face deep trouble for having leaked them.”

Once the stories were published, Doug and the editors of the Scene were summoned before a federal judge who demanded to know who leaked the sealed affidavits on which the articles were based. When the editors refused, the U.S. attorney said he would check with his bosses in Washington to see who should prosecute the matter.

"We'll go to jail if we have to," said Doug.

If he had said that three or four weeks ago, he would have been a hero. Now, he looks like something else.

Related previous posts

Not so plain dealing in Cleveland
A license to chill
Open season on confidential sources


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