Twist, But No Exoneration, For Eric Lichtblau’s NYT Story About Darrell Issa
NOTE: I’m assuming you already know about last week’s New York Times article on Rep. Darrell Issa by Eric Lichtblau. The article accused the Vista Republican of unseemly financial practices that took advantage of his public office. If you aren’t up to speed, go read the original NYT article, along with my previous posts about the article.
A limited defense for New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau may have arrived, via a blog post by a watchdog group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. As far as I can tell by some quick reading, the group isn’t one of those ideologically biased front organizations that abound in D.C. And the blog post itself appears to be fair and balanced.
On one of the most serious charges the NYT made against Issa, CREW found evidence that the reporter accurately described a tax filing by the Issa Family Foundation, although the filing itself was inaccurate. At least, the tax filing appears to be the one Lichtblau relied on; his story doesn’t give a source for that allegation. Here’s the pertinent info from CREW:
Rep. Issa complains this information is “based on reporting errors by the New York Times” and “based on an incorrect form obtained by the Times.” As proof, Rep. Issa provided a Merrill Lynch trade confirmation showing his initial investment actually cost slightly less than $500,000. That means the foundation sold the shares at a loss, not a profit.
The Times information appears to be based on the Issa Family Foundation’s 2008 tax filing, which indeed reports the foundation bought 18,789 shares in the fund for $18,789 in April 2007, and sold them in January 2008 for $375,026. If Rep. Issa’s trade confirmation is correct- and CREW has no reason to think it isn’t – then the foundation itself incorrectly reported the transaction to the Internal Revenue Service. The Times’ conclusions were based on the foundation’s own incorrect public disclosures. So Rep. Issa’s claim the error was due to “reporting errors by the New York Times” is unfair.
CREW’s conclusion is, of course, based on that filing, which appears to match the information given in the NYT story. However, as a reporter who’s dealt with the trickiness of financial forms, I caution that such forms can be difficult to interpret and verify. For example, there could have been an amended form giving the corrected information that Issa’s office provided to CREW. Only Issa can say for sure — and he should.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume CREW’s rather tentative “appears to be based on” formulation is correct. In that case, the NYT story could have been made stronger by citing the source of its contention. It’s called showing your work, and is a great way to defend your story.
But as with the other charges against Issa, Lichtblau and the New York Times declined to document its sourcing. That’s the fusty old thinking of the Grey Lady in action — if it’s in the New York Times, it must be true. After all, the New York Times substitutes for religion in providing absolute truth for some people. But that fossilized thinking is laughably outdated in the Internet age, when people can check the facts on their own and distribute the information immediately.
I began this piece by saying Lichtblau got “limited defense.” Key word is “limited.” For if the CREW analysis is correct, Lichtblau had good reason to believe what he wrote about the Issa Family Foundation. It was an innocent mistake.
However, even under the CREW scenario, Lichtblau’s claim is still false.
It is still a major reporting error that went to the heart of Lichtblau’s case against Issa.
The New York Times is ethically obligated to correct the error.
To recap what this and other investigations of what Issa have found, of the three major claims of improper dealing Lichtblau made against Issa, all have been refuted:
– Issa didn’t make a profit selling a medical office building
– The Issa Family Foundation didn’t make a profit on a Merrill Lynch trade
– Directed Electronics Inc. wasn’t a “major supplier” to Toyota. According to Toyota, DEI wasn’t even a supplier, period
And the best case assumption is that one of those errors was made by relying on false information from a tax filing. (An error that made the foundation’s financial performance look better than it actually was).
Preventive journalism would have helped
There’s really nothing of Lichtblau’s smoking grease spot of a story to save at this point. But Lichtblau could redeem himself somewhat by citing his sources for his false claims. If the sources appear valid, then Lichtblau could claim they were innocent mistakes (that just by coincidence happened to make Issa look bad).
And if Lichtblau had been more careful in his journalism, he would have first confronted Issa’s office with the allegations. Issa would doubtless have issued a press release preempting the story. But the response would have been valuable, because it would reveal whether the story had any holes that needed to be fixed before publication.
A dodgy response filled with word-play would have implied the story was accurate. Flat denials from Issa would have spelled trouble. Getting that response could have saved Lichtblau and the New York Times from wearing face omelettes.
Perhaps the increasingly befuddled Grey Lady might learn a lesson from this debacle on how to win trust in the Internet age: Don’t make a claim without backing it up.
(DISCLAIMER: This is my opinion, not necessarily that of my employer, the North County Times).