To tell the truth

Why I didn’t; why I regret it

Do journalists have an ethical responsibility to correct wrong information being given by their colleagues?

By John M. Barry

John M. Barry is the author of The Ambition and the Power: A true story of Washington.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 2 (February 1991), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

In February 1987, when Texas savings and loan regulators met privately with Speaker of the House Jim Wright in his office — a meeting which would ultimately weigh heavily in his being driven from office — I was sitting in the back of the room taking notes.

I first met Wright when I profiled him for The New York Times Magazine. He interested me and I decided to write a book on his first two years as Speaker. He cooperated by letting me observe any meeting which his staff attended. Nothing was off the record, and he had neither a financial stake in nor editorial control over the book.

This meeting had been requested by the regulators to lobby Wright on a bill he opposed. The discussion centered on real estate values and economic policy, but one regulator did promise Wright that in return for his support of the legislation, they would go easy on individual S & Ls whenever Wright wanted. Wright rejected this offer, specifically said he was concerned about policy and not individuals, and repeated his opposition to the bill. (When the bill was finally voted on — and after Jim Baker’s personal lobbying — Wright did support the regulators.)

Nine months later a Washington magazine called Regardie‘s ran a story which was filled with distortions and inaccuracies about the meeting. The story charged that Wright had “summoned” the regulators and put his “bootheel” on them until they promised to lay off one particularly slimy S & L operator. This simply did not happen. 

Regardie‘s also lifted material from my Times profile of Wright — without attribution — and distorted it.

Wright’s nemesis Newt Gingrich distributed the Regardie‘s article to every member of Congress. National reporters were given copies and began talking and writing about it. Wright was suddenly the target of an ethics investigation.

The situation raised a number of ethical questions for me. Did I have an obligation to try to set the record straight? If I did, would I be improperly crossing the line between observer and participant? This issue was complicated by the one restriction that Wright had imposed on me: to reveal nothing that I had observed until 1989. Surely, he would have waived that restriction here but that would have only made me seem more complicit.

I never really considered feeding the material to another journalist because of the same problems and if the story was unattributed, it would have been virtually meaningless.

There was also the problem: If I did publish a defense of Wright, where would I? I was by then working full-time on the book and had no outlet.

It was in my interest to remain silent. If I did publish something that helped Wright, when my book appeared critics would have ammunition to argue I had been co-opted by my subject.

I talked over the situation with journalist friends, getting differing opinions on what I should do. In the end the self-interest argument — which was really cowardice — prevailed.

I wrote a letter to Regardie‘s editor, but limited it to the issue of not attributing and distorting what was lifted from my Times story. The magazine printed an edited, emasculated version of my letter, including a weaslely admission and apology.

I thought that was the end of the matter. It wasn’t. Later Banker’s Monthly reprinted the story in two parts. After part one appeared, a Wright aide asked me for a copy of my original, unedited letter to Regardie‘s. He planned to take it and other proof of distortions and inaccuracies to Banker’s Monthly. Although he didn’t say so, it was obvious that he wanted to block publication of part two.

In addition to all the earlier arguments against my involvement, how could I approve of, much less help, his effort to prevent publication of an article? In my mind this amounted to prior restraint which every journalist instinctively opposes.

But more and more, I began to think that my first responsibility was to get out the truth. And the reprinting of the story confirmed that a falsehood was entering the public domain as truth. We all know how we work. Once published information makes it into our files we are much more likely to repeat it than check it. Even if false, it has the power of truth. Norman Mailer coined the word “factoids” for such falsehoods. Finally I decided I should disclose what really happened.

But how? If I tried to freelance the story, I had no guarantee if or when it would be published. And I still feared being seen publicly as siding with Wright. So I wrote a new private letter (which later became public) citing my notes of the meeting in detail and gave it to Wright’s staff.

Ironically, if his staff had asked me to do that, I probably wouldn’t have. Banker’s Monthly printed part two but included a 2,000-word rebuttal from Wright.

Would I handle the situation the same way again? Frankly, no.

I should have recounted what actually had happened at the meeting in my letter to Regardie‘s. I hadn’t because I had allowed my self-interest, disguised by peripheral issues about objectivity, to deflect me from my primary responsibility — reporting the truth.

 

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