The sniper beat anchored the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times. Covering the story required that the Times gear up a ground-level police-and-courts reporting operation on unfamiliar turf. Blair met that challenge by working from other people’s reporting and using his own fill-in-the-gaps creativity.
Folks at the Times have done their best to close the Blair chapter, yet they still haven’t quite solved the sniper-beat problem.
On Oct. 10, Times reporter Adam Liptak wrote a roundup story on the prosecutions of sniper suspects Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad. There was big news on both fronts: Malvo’s lawyers had introduced a sudden change of tactics, throwing up an insanity defense for their 18-year-old defendant. As for Muhammad, he had refused to be interviewed by a prosecution psychiatrista pivotal event that could handicap the defendant’s attorneys.
Liptak did not attend the court hearings but managed to reconstruct developments via telephone for his Page A1 story. He gathered original quotes from lawyers, prosecutors, and observers involved in the cases.
But one six-word quote in the piece wasn’t the fruit of his long-distance reporting. The story quoted the prosecutor in the Muhammad case, Paul Ebert, as saying that the defendant had “thumbed his nose at the court.” To the casual reader, it was by no means a dramatic quote, and it appeared toward the end of Liptak’s 949-word story.
As it turns out, however, Ebert’s statements in court that Thursday hadn’t yet entered the zone of public ownership. They were the product of journalistic enterpriseand not Liptak’s.
The quote came out of a hearing called on the spur of the moment by Prince William County Circuit Court Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. Only the Washington Post and community publication the Potomac News found out about the hearing and showed up for it. Even the Associated Press’ ubiquitous sniper reporter, Matthew Barakat, apparently missed the session.
The surprise hearing produced a major change in the case. In turning away the prosecution’s psychiatrist, Muhammad essentially screwed himself: Citing the lack of cooperation, Millette excluded all mental-health testimony from Muhammad’s trial, depriving his attorneys of a potentially critical source of mitigating evidence.
When asked how he came up with the Ebert quote, Liptak at first responded, “That, I did take from the AP, I think.” But the quote didn’t appear on the wires, and Liptak later explained, “It was in something. It was on the Web.”
That sounds right: Post sources say the Ebert quote appeared in an account of the hearing that ran on Washingtonpost.com the same afternoon. It didn’t make it into the paper’s final account of the proceedings.
Wherever it appeared, it sure didn’t come from the Times’ own shoe leather. At the post-Blair Times, that’ll set off a mini-probe.
“If we can say conclusively that it came from the Post Web site, we will do so,” says Times national editor Jim Roberts.
Liptak is a highly regarded Timesman who helped write the paper’s mea culpa on the Blair affair.
Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler has made a name for himself with a simple routine. He reads the Post cover to cover, swallowing every last quote and photo credit. He checks mail from disgruntled Post readers. And then he writes often-blistering critiques of the paper’s journalism.
Last week, however, Getler skipped straight to Step 3, savaging the Post’s series of excerpts from its book on last year’s premier story, Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation. Written by Post reporters Sari Horwitz and Michael E. Ruane, the book was produced by the paper, and the windy excerpts appeared over five days last week.
It was too much rehash for the ombud. “[I] must confess to a dereliction of my Omb duties: I have not yet read the whole series….[I] am having trouble sticking with this, even though I get paid to read the Post. My problem is that I think I know this story, and every time I pick up one of five daily segments of more than two full pages each, I have trouble overcoming my instinct to push away from so much type about a story whose outlines have already been exhaustively covered by the paper and whose details are about to confront us again in court,” wrote Getler in an internal e-mail to the Post newsroom.
Certain Post brass aren’t enjoying life in Getler’s cross hairs. “[He] owed it to the reporters involvedif he was going to criticize it, to be more specific. Where? What? Show me. He didn’t,” says Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao, who professes to be “disappointed” in the newsroom’s in-house watchdog.
Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie notes that Getler has made an issue of the paper’s tendency to serialize big stories, laying them out in splashy narratives over several days. “He often has complaints about longer stories in the newspaper and narrative journalism in particular,” says Downie, who insists that such pieces are “important to our readers.”
Sure, if you define “readers” as the folks who are knee-deep in sniper minutiae. On Oct. 3, defense attorneys for defendant Muhammad filed a motion detailing all the inside scoops that Horwitz and Ruane had gatheredscoops that had not been provided to the defense in preparation for Muhammad’s ongoing trial. “The book lives up to its title. It is, in short, the insider’s view of the unfolding of the investigation into the ‘sniper’ shootings,” write Muhammad’s attorneys, showing a flair for classic blurb style.
Most folks, though, don’t share the obsession of Muhammad’s defense lawyers. Perhaps they had trouble marching through the excerpts’ law-enforcement wonkdom and over-the-top detail. Some excerpt excerpts:
Robert Switzer, the deputy assistant director of field operations in Washington, had tracked Cavanaugh down the day before en route to an assignment in Memphis. Technically, he would be the ATF’s deputy incident commander, behind Michael Bouchard, the special agent in charge of the Baltimore office. But he was the seniormost special agent in charge in the country.
Just after 4:30, a phone call was transferred to media services from Chief Charles A. Moose’s office. Someone had called Moose’s number, which was in the phone book, and said he had information about the sniper. According to department protocol, all such calls pertaining to the sniper investigation were to be transferred to media services for screening. Baliles took the call.
Bowers, who took responsibility for its transportation, knew that a standard or flatbed tow truck wouldn’t work, so he put out the word: He wanted an enclosed trailer, like the ones that hauled race cars. It took a while to find one, and when it finally arrived, the Caprice was pushed inside. Accompanied by a police escort, the trailer headed south to Montgomery County.
Getler wrote in his internal e-mail that the excerpts hadn’t kicked up any mail from readers. “Don’t know what that means,” mused the ombud.
Allow Dept. of Media to fill in the blank: People react only to what they’ve bothered to read.
Posties are conditioned not to expect generosity from their employer. Unlike their peers at other major dailies, for instance, they don’t even get subscription discounts, and annual raises often hover in the cup-of-coffee range.
So when reporters beheld a spread of gift bags in the Post lobby a couple of weeks ago, they should have known better. One or two, though, tried to push the envelope.
Metro reporter Lyndsey Layton, for one, thought that the gift-bag distribution operated on a free-for-all basis. “[I] assumed they were for the taking, so I put my hand on one,” says Layton. Big mistake: By the time she had lifted the bag “a couple of inches” off the table, a tuxedo-clad goon manning the bags scolded her. “I was informed that they were gifts for non-Post employees,” she says.
Indeed, the gifts were intended for the 150 guestsa crowd heavy on law-enforcement and political types such as D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, and Montgomery County State’s Attorney Doug Ganslerwho attended a soiree marking the publication of the Post’s sniper book. Metro editor Armao laid down the rule and makes no apologies for it. “We ordered some books, and I did want to make sure that people from the outside who attended the event got a copy of the book with our compliments,” says Armao.
No one quibbles with keeping sources happy. However, the paper has carefully guarded its pile of comp copies, stiffing even some reporters who have assisted with sniper coverage.
“They’re making money based on our reporting. We contributed to this thing, and they didn’t even give us a book,” says a Post reporter. Erik Wemple