The only reason one will respect you as a journalist is because of your integrity. Your integrity is based on your credibility. Your credibility comes from your truthfulness.
Shaka Ssali, a Ugandan born American journalist
Sexual harassment isn’t Harvey Weinstein’s only sin and women weren’t his only victims. He has also wounded journalists.
Yes, I know, the public’s mistrust of the media is already extreme, but the Weinstein imbroglio has made things worse. It did so by using journalists in his effort to discredit his accusers and employing fake journalists to ferret out damaging information on them.
I’m sensitive to this because I worked as a reporter for 10 years and learned a lot of lessons about the importance of honesty and trust in journalism.
I once investigated an apparent scam artist who was purportedly bilking people out of their money. I was making a lot of progress when the man got suspicious and asked if I was a reporter. I figured it was OK to fudge, so I hemmed and hawed and didn’t admit that I was. When I told my editor what I’d done he pulled me off the story. “We do not conceal our identity as a reporter when asked,” he said. “It undermines our credibility.”
In the Weinstein case, clearly, no such standards of truthfulness or integrity applied to:
- Black Cube, a private intelligence agency hired by Weinstein to undermine his accusers (Ronan Farrow, who broke the Weinstein spying story in the New Yorker, identified Black Cube as a key player in the Weinstein case).
- Dylan Howard, the chief content officer of American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer, who passed on to Weinstein’s people information gleaned by his reporters.
- The freelance writer hired by Black Cube who passed on information from women with allegations against Weinstein, including the actress Annabella Sciorra, who later went public in The New Yorker with a rape allegation against Weinstein, or
- Other journalists enlisted by Weinstein to uncover information he could use to compromise the credibility of women he’d abused.
Unfortunately, Weinstein isn’t the only guilty party in the reporter impersonation game. Recent incidents include:
- In April 2017, Barron’s, a prominent financial magazine, said it had learned that somebody posing as one of its reporters contacted investment researchers, a hedge fund and the editor of the Capitol Forum, a Washington media outfit, about a controversial stock.
- On Nov. 15, the Washington Post reported that a robocall from someone posing as a Post reporter offering money for “damaging remarks” about Alabama Republican Roy Moore was fake.
- Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that on Nov. 13, 2017, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments in a case that grew out of an FBI agent pretending to be an Associated Press journalist as part of an investigation into bomb threats at a high school in Washington state.
In 2015, AP’s general counsel, Karen Kaiser, wrote to then-U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that the government’s conduct in the Washington case raised “serious constitutional concerns.”
“I think it could erode people’s trust in reporters if one of your sources doesn’t know whether you’re really a reporter or the police,” Aaron Caplan, a professor at Loyola Law School, told the Los Angeles Times. “They may be less willing to share information with you. That hurts the public.”
That’s equally true if the public isn’t sure if doesn’t know if you are a real reporter investigating a story or a snitch for the story’s subject.
The behavior of Weinstein’s minions is a shameful abuse of journalism. The media and the public are going to be dealing with its repercussions for a very long time.