Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Time and a place

As long as we're sharing our strange beliefs here, I'll note that in general, I'm not terribly bothered by unnamed sources -- or at least that as source qualities go, I'm less bothered by anonymity than by dishonesty, malice or stupidity. With that out of the way, though, it's worth noting that some cases of naming are more important than others. Prosecutions, for example. Here's why:

A former contract worker for the CIA pleaded guilty Tuesday in Detroit to fabricating background checks of federal employees and potential employees. The suspected motive: laziness and greed.

Service journalism at its best! You didn't even know you needed a link to backgroundcheckgateway.com, did you? But there's something bigger to worry about here:

Two sources familiar with the case said Tuesday that Kerry Gerdes, 26, of Royal Oak simply avoided conducting the interviews as a fast track to getting paid.

Uh, no. If you're going to talk about the defendant's motives, you stand up and do it in an open court or you shut up. This is where the whole fair-trial thing is actually a complement to the whole free-press thing. Trials aren't open just so you can write down lots of lurid details and run big screaming heds with near-complete protection from libel claims. They're open so one side (usually the one with the power and resources; guess which?) doesn't get to make blind claims about the other.

..."The defendant was entrusted by the United States to conduct background investigations of applicants to sensitive positions," U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg said. "The false reports submitted by Gerdes were a betrayal of the trust placed in her."

Does he just talk like a press release, or are we, erm, quoting his press release? No law against that, but it doesn't make much of a case for the independence of your reporting.

... Sources said she was paid per background check and simply didn't do the required work as a way to quickly move on to the next paycheck.

At the very least, tell me why these sources are credible enough to quote (and whether they're the same "two sources" you mentioned earlier). Is this assertion part of the record? If not, what's it doing in the plea story?

... Her attorney, Richard Helfrick of the Federal Defender's Office, did not return phone calls Tuesday.

So at this point, is it fair to conclude that we've covered a key moment in a fairly prominent case (in traditional terms, I'd call the story a second-front offlede) without bothering to attend it? That's too bad. Showing up in court is often a good way of finding out stuff that the prosecutor's office doesn't put in press releases -- or of actually finding the defendant's lawyer, should you want to compare his take with what "sources" say. That used to be a fairly good way of distinguishing journalism from PR.

Granted, the Freep has too few people covering too much frontage. (Gannett managers aren't the only ones who can count bylines.) And given their say, I expect some -- maybe most -- of them would rather cover the story from the courtroom than by phone and fax. Just a reminder that when we lose the routines of journalism, we're losing a lot of stuff that's less prominent, but not less important, than the big FOIA fights.

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