There’s an old saying in journalism: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That’s not “check it out” like be proud or brag to your siblings or post it on Instagram, it means be skeptical and make sure that even your own mother is telling you the truth. It’s something newspaper reporters learn on Day 1 in college journalism (or possibly Day 2 if the professor is more inclined to discuss “who, what, where, when, why and how” of news writing). And by the time you land your first newspaper or other (if you will pardon the expression) “mainstream media” job, it’s practically in your DNA.
That’s why our professional colleagues about 40 miles south on I-95 deserve a shout-out today. Not simply because they foiled a “sting” operation that aspired to paint The Washington Post as promoting a political agenda. But more specifically by how they did it: Reporters and editors simply did their jobs in a forthright manner, never claiming to be someone they were not, never offering money to an informant, never accepting something on face value because it was lurid, never selectively editing video to make a response seem different than it actually was.
For those who have not read The Post’s account of how James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas tried to scam them, please visit washingtonpost.com and read each juicy word. You won’t be disappointed. Done? Well, for those more pressed for time, the facts are these. It’s pretty clear Project Veritas sent a female recruit to the Post for the purposes of selling them on a fake Roy Moore story about how she’d had an affair with the Republican senate candidate when she was only 15 and subsequently had an abortion. The Post reporter listened but wasn’t going to swallow an unsubstantiated account hook, line and sinker. The Post staff did the same thing it did with previous claims made by women about Mr. Moore before they posted a groundbreaking article earlier this month: They checked it out.
What they discovered was that their informant had ties to Project Veritas, inconsistencies in her tall tale and no corroboration. It was also clear from their encounters that the woman was interested in getting representatives of the Post to speak ill of Mr. Moore and pledge to prevent his election. Post researchers even uncovered a GoFundMe.com page under fake informant Jamie Phillips’ name seeking help to move to New York to “work in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and [deceit] of the liberal MSM.” And here’s the capper: After the Post confronted Mr. O’Keefe about this deception, he posted a video purporting to show how he was victimized and bullied by the reporter. The Post then released its own secret video of that same encounter revealing Mr. O’Keefe’s ham-handed and misleading editing of that tape.
As satisfying as it may be for liberals to see Mr. O’Keefe, the political conservative who earlier used secret recordings and deceptive techniques to go after ACORN and Planned Parenthood, get his comeuppance, the real value is in reinforcing the distinction between journalism and political activism. The Post didn’t respond by “going after” Project Veritas any more than the newspaper went after Roy Moore. The reporters and editors did their jobs. They acted as professionals. They did what thousands of journalists do every day. The Post may be the preeminent news organization in the nation’s capital, it may have more people covering events than almost any organization not called The New York Times, but the essence of what they do — finding out what’s going on of importance to their audience and giving honest, objective and fearless reports about it — still happens every hour of every day in this country from small towns to big cities.
But will it always? These are difficult times in the profession. Not just because Donald Trump likes to insult reporting as “fake news” when media accounts fail to accord with his conception of reality. Not just because politics have become so polarized or social media so full of “alternative facts” and propaganda (Russian or domestic) that the public is understandably confused about whom to trust. And it’s not just about how the basic business model of journalism has become so disrupted by the Internet and the dramatic decline of traditional advertising revenue. It’s all of the above. Yet there are also days when truth comes out, when criminals are caught, when bad decisions are righted, when corruption is uncovered and when misguided plots are foiled. And then there are days like today, when people get a behind-the-scenes look at what journalists do all the time. Well done, Marty Baron et al.