Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mommy, Where Do Stories Come From?

To be just and honest, the noble ambition of credible journalism, it should be said up front that Tom Foley does not, or rather did not, beat his wife; neither is Ned Lamont a racist.

That is the undeclared imputation in two recent stories: one involving Foley, the Republican Party nominee for governor, and the other involving Lamont, now locked in a primary battle with former Mayor of Stamford Dan Malloy.

In the quarter decade old Foley story, the perp momentarily blocked his wife from leaving a driveway and disputed with her through a couple of stop signs, after which both were arrested. The matter was settled privately, charges were dropped, and the details of the case were not shared with the news media. A messy divorce is no walk through a rose garden, especially when the two former lovebirds quarrel over visitation procedures involving a young child.

The Foley story is, relatively speaking, old and hoary; the Lamont story is somewhat fresher.

Lamont, according to this one, was sued in 2002 by an African American fellow, an executive in the Delaware corporate offices of Lamont Digital Systems who felt, according to a Courant story, that he had been “’maliciously” fired after being denied stock, bonuses and commissions from sales activities.”

The African American fellow, asserting he was let go for racial reasons, figured the matter could have been righted if Lamont kindly surrendered to him a million dollars. The suit was settled privately in 2003; which is to say, the particulars of the dispute were not shared with the news media. The “secret” arrangements in both cases were secret because the principals involved declined to share their pain with the world, and the arrangements made satisfied all the parties involved, as well as the adjudicating authority.

But there is something about a secret that journalists do not love, particularly when it is held close to the chests of people who want to govern states.

Both stories, now in the public domain, have caused frayed relations between the three Republicans and two Democrats vying for governor because no one but the reporter who first released the information knows its provenance, and he is not likely to blow his sources to settle quarrels bubbling up in the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial camps. Reporters are generally circumspect and overly protective concerning their sources. The one piece of information flowing out of Watergate that remained a mystery for years after ex-President Nixon was tucked safely beneath the sod was – who was “Deepthroat?” Eventually, “Deepthroat” outted himself. Had he not done so, the world even now might be turning over in its mind the dread suspicion that it was Henry Kissinger who killed Cock Robin.

Both stories cited above are invitations to probe the general question: Does it matter where political dirt comes from? Where do stories come from, Mommy?A few days prior to the Democratic Party primary, Brian Lockhart, an investigative reporter and blogger for he Hearst papers, let the cat out of the bag:

“Today the Lamont campaign gave our newspapers a binder’s worth of opposition research it claims proves Malloy, who was cleared by the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney of any wrongdoing back in 2005, never got the hint that he should at the very least have made an effort to avoid perceived conflicts when accepting campaign donations while mayor. Lamont also took the story to The Hartford Courant.”
To historians, who are sticklers for facts, the source of information always matters. And certainly the person whose ribs are poked with the knife would dearly like to have his curiosity appeased. But in journalism, a source is not likely to be revealed by the journalist unless the stream of information provided is false or malicious or directly intended to poison the political well – in which case, it matters a great deal where the information comes from. Presumably, the responsible journalist will have checked other reliable sources before he releases the politically damaging information. Even in dire circumstances, a journalist whose well has been poisoned by a bad source still may be reluctant to name names.

Why so?

Because he does not want to interrupt the flow of information coming his way from a source who would be unwilling to disgorge raw untested truth if it were certain that his anonymity could not be guaranteed by the journalist. As in a war, a great deal of raw political information comes from opposing political camps, but it does not follow that because candidate X has loosed the sluice gates on candidate Y, the information provided is, for that reason, unusable. Even the blackest lie carries within itself a grain of truth that, planted in terra firma, may, like the biblical mustard seed, though it is the smallest of seeds, grow into a tree large enough to provide in its spreading branches a home for all the chirping birds of the air.
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