When he’s not busy prosecuting sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan plays media critic. The side job consists of chronicling the myths spun by reporters covering the country’s hottest crime story. And according to Horan, there’s been a lot of work on that front.
“I must confess that I have seen more incorrect reports in this investigation than in any I’ve dealt with in the last 36 years I’ve been doing it,” Horan says. Bad information has cropped up everywhere in sniper-case coverage, like a fleet of white panel trucks: Fictional doozies have included revelations that the sniper wrote multiple tarot cards to authorities,that he was an olive-skinned man, and that he may have fled the scene of a shooting via bicycle.
When Horan spots nonsense in news accounts about Malvo and fellow suspect John Muhammad, he often laughs it off as the inevitable byproduct of overly aggressive reporters. In recent months, though, Horan has gone public with rebuttals of Page One stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
In so doing, Horan has thrown into stark relief how the dailies respond when challenged on their facts: the Post, openly and humbly; the Times, secretively and arrogantly.
On Feb. 4, Post reporter Josh White delivered what appeared to be a scoop on the Malvo case. In the midst of the sniper rampage, wrote White, Malvo entered a branch of Chevy Chase Bank near Dulles International Airport to inquire about wire transfers. The videotaped bank visit, posited the Post, would help prosecutors argue that
the sniper suspects aimed to profit from their rampage.
Like most sniper coverage, the wire-transfer story cited a brigade of unnamed law-enforcement sources. However, White supplemented the sourcing with on-the-record testimony from P. Kevin Smith, the bank’s director of security. “He came in and just wanted to know if he could receive a wire without being a customer and without giving his name,” Smith told the Post.
Slam dunk: With the security guy on the record, the story looked bulletproof. It was certainly better sourced than much of the paper’s terrorism coverage, which has generally relied on one variety of anonymous sandwich or another.
“It was not one of those stories in which the alarms went off in my head,” says Post Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao.
A couple of days later, though, Horan set the alarms off himself. After conducting a second examination of the bank-visit story, Horan called it baseless. The guy who asked about wire transfers at Dulles, said Horan, was not Malvo. The Post did not call Horan when reporting the bank storyan oversight that Armao regrets.
Following Horan’s statement, Chevy Chase Bank sounded like a referee after reviewing instant-replay footage. “We do not have a basis for saying it is or it isn’t” Malvo, said Chevy Chase Bank General Counsel R. Timothy Hanlon. “Mr. Smith believes that he did not confirm that it was.”
That’s a damning quote, one that punctures the reliability of the Post as a news source. And that’s why it took balls for the Post to play it on Page A1, right where the original “scoop” appeared. Instead of burying the Horan refutation, the paper reinterviewed its sources, took its lumps, and showcased the results for readers.
Armao says the paper has no policy of placing correction pieces in the same spot as the original, but she urged the A1 treatment here. “As it turned out, it’s a legitimate Page One story, partly because of the way we played the previous story and partly because of the interest in this case,” she says.
The Times, however, has different standards. In a Dec. 22 story, Times reporter Jayson Blair wrote that evidence in the sniper investigation had fingered Malvo as the triggerman. “Little if any indicates Mr. Muhammad fired a shot,” concluded Blair.
Unnamed “investigators” in Blair’s story pointed to five pieces of evidence against Malvo: the suspect’s admissions to Fairfax detectives, a security videotape at the scene of one of the killings, hair found in the trunk of the Chevy Caprice that the suspects drove, fingerprints on a piece of paper near one of the shootings, and saliva on a grape stem near one of the shootings.
None of the officials backing up Blair’s account spoke on the record for the story. But just after it ran, one prominent official spoke on the record against it: Horan. In a press conference, the veteran prosecutor called the report “dead wrong.” More specifically, he said that three of the five pieces of evidence cited in the story were false.
Washington radio stations and other media gave big play to Horan’s attack on the Times. The Times, however, played hide-and-seek with its customers. “I couldn’t find it when I first looked,” says Horan. That’s because it was hiding on Page A19 with a word count of 340in a story written by the Associated Press. The Times generally uses that space for stories like “Fluoridation for Millions in California.”
When asked why the story didn’t run bigger, Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis blames Horan. “Mr. Horan made the accusations and then left his office without answering any questions about the matter. We called several times that day…and sent a fax to his office,” writes Mathis in an e-mail exchange. “We were fully confident of the accuracy and thoroughness of our reporting, and of the authoritativeness of our multiple law enforcement sources.”
So there you have it: The Times wants you to trust its unnamed sources and ignore a prosecutor with nearly four decades of experience who made his case in full public view. And therein lurks a truth serum of sorts: Horan knows that the evidence against Malvo will eventually spill into the courtroom. So if the public record contradicts what he said about the Times, he stands to lose credibility. The same can’t be said for the Times’ faceless sources.
A couple of weeks after the Times’
Muhammad-didn’t-pull-the-trigger story, the Post reported that the cops found Muhammad’s fingerprints at the scene of an Oct. 9 killing. The Times’ follow-up was a transparent attempt to defend its previous contentions on the scarcity of evidence against Muhammad: “This certainly does not give us any inkling”of who pulled the trigger, said a law-enforcement source in the Times piece.
Horan isn’t charging the Times or other media outlets with willful disregard of journalistic standards. “In fairness, I think they write what they believe to be true,” says the prosecutor. But he might just question the “authoritativeness” of the paper’s sources. “In criminal cases, you have workers out there doing the actual investigating and know what’s going on and what’s being said, and then you have people sitting on the fringes who may know a little bit here and there and tend to act like they’re in the middle of it and become these anonymous sources,” says Horan.
The March 3 issue of the New Republic will feature a shimmering redesign from front to back. “It’s a more contemporary style, which pairs well with the evolving voice of the magazine,” said New Republic President and Publisher Stephanie Sandberg in a press release.
What’s more, the redesign “comes at a time in which the magazine has taken several daring political stances,” reads the promotional release. “Within the past few months, The New Republic has supported war in Iraq, rejected George W. Bush’s tax cut, and called for Democrats to shun controversial presidential candidate Al Sharpton.”
Says New Republic spokesperson Terese Schlachter: “They’re not what you’d probably expect from a paper that many would expect as being liberal.”
Indeed, Dept. of Media was blown away by the boldness of these particular New Republic editorial positions. Just look at all the fringe groups that have joined the centrist political mag in these unprecedented stands:
Rejecting Bush’s Tax Cut:
The New Republic
53 percent of American adults (ABC News/Washington Post poll)
Supporting War Against Iraq:
The New Republic
The Washington Post
88 of 100 senators
69 percent of American adults (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll)
Shunning Al Sharpton:
The New Republic
97 percent of New York Democrats (Quinnipiac University poll) Erik Wemple