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Was the Washington Post used by Democratic operatives in Maryland?


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Stephen Spruiell

Last week, Vanity Fair scooped the Washington Post when it revealed the identity of the Post’s legendary anonymous source Deep Throat. Once Vanity Fair had reported that Deep Throat was actually W. Mark Felt of the FBI, speculation began to circulate about his motives for feeding information to the Post. Bob Shieffer on Face the Nation Sunday argued that Felt’s motives were unimportant, because his actions had saved America from becoming “a nation of men, not laws.”

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Fair enough. Suppose, however, that Deep Throat had orchestrated the Watergate break-in and then leaked to the Washington Post in order to frame his co-conspirators. Would his motives matter then? Judging by the Post’s recent reporting on a political scandal in Maryland, the motives of anonymous sources feeding information to the paper are not important if the result is a chance to relive the Post’s glory days of Watergate, if only in some small way.

E-spionage

In October of 2004, a Maryland state employee named Joseph Steffen entered into a discussion on FreeRepublic.com using the screen name “NCPAC.” Another Free Republic user (or “freeper”) using the screen name “MD4Bush” engaged Steffen in a friendly way on the public message board. The two began exchanging private e-mails, in which they discussed longstanding rumors about the personal life of Baltimore mayor and likely 2006 Maryland gubernatorial candidate Martin O’Malley (D).

In early 2005, the e-mails were “given” to the Washington Post by a source that remains unidentified in the paper’s reporting. Post reporter Matthew Mosk confronted Steffen, who verified that he had written them. When Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich (R) found out that the Post was planning to portray Steffen as part of a coordinated effort to spread rumors about O’Malley, Ehrlich had little choice. He accepted Steffen’s resignation.

February 8, 2005–hours before the Post’s story appeared online–MD4Bush posted excerpts from the private e-mails to a Free Republic message board. MD4Bush had underlined damaging passages and only posted e-mails that NCPAC had written–even though according to Free Republic spokesman Kristinn Taylor, posting such private e-mails (or “freepmails”) without permission is a violation of Free Republic posting guidelines. MD4Bush then vanished from the site and has not posted since.

The most obvious explanation for this behavior is that someone who knew that Steffen was NCPAC set him up. The Post did not report this strange activity. Instead, on February 11 Mosk and David Snyder co-wrote a story headlined: “Uproar brings focus on role of bloggers.” The first half of the article focused on Free Republic, its history and its nature as a place where people traffic in rumors and gossip. But the last half posted more of the exchanges between MD4Bush and NCPAC. The Post chose paragraph 12 to reveal that MD4Bush “drew Steffen into a private conversation and appeared to coax him to share more details about his role in spreading the rumor.” The Post printed the following exchange at the end of the article:

A few weeks later, MD4BUSH contacted NCPAC again, asking, “If some of my friends and I were interested in keeping the story floating, do you have suggestions for us on how best to do it?”

Here, Steffen backed away: “I am sure you will understand, I cannot and will not offer suggestions that may be considered unethical concerning what you should do, campaign-wise. This is especially true concerning [Mayor O'Malley's] personal life.

(Mosk declined to comment on the placement of information in the article.)

The Post abruptly shifted the focus of its coverage of the Steffen matter to his relationship to Gov. Ehrlich and his role in Ehrlich’s administration. Meanwhile, several other reporters, including Dave Collins and Jayne Miller of WBAL TV in Baltimore, started to investigate some of the more curious aspects of the story. For instance, it seemed interesting, Collins said, that the story breaking when it did simultaneously solved a political problem for the mayor (rumors that had plagued him for years) and focused the blame for those rumors on someone connected to his chief political opponent.

Over the course of the following months, reporters for WBAL TV, WBAL Radio and the Maryland Gazette uncovered the following bits of information that the Post neglected in its reporting:

Real Source of the Rumors

Rival coverage: WBAL Radio reported on the existence of a story that appeared in March of 2000 in the Washington Post, in which Mayor O’Malley’s wife mentioned the rumors (“That he’s running around on me. That he has been running around on me for years.”) and attributed them to political opponents from O’Malley’s days on the Baltimore City Council.

Post coverage: In its initial coverage of the Steffen story, the Post reported that the rumors had been “widespread” for at least 18 months. However, the Post did not report that these rumors, according to the Mayor’s wife herself, originated from local political opponents from O’Malley’s days as a councilman. This information could have provided context for O’Malley’s charges, aired in the Post, that for 18 months Ehrlich himself had overseen an orchestrated campaign to smear him. After WBAL Radio reported on O’Malley’s wife’s comments, the Post also did a story.

Nature of the Private E-mails

Rival coverage: WBAL TV posted more of the e-mail exchanges between MD4Bush and NCPAC, demonstrating clearly that MD4Bush had asked leading questions and trying to prompt replies from NCPAC that would look as damaging as possible.

Post coverage: The Post reported extensively on Steffen’s e-mails, even creating a webpage for some of them. However, the Post failed to report the extent to which MD4Bush attempted to put words into NCPAC’s mouth (compare the WBAL TV story to the Post’s most thorough treatment of this angle: the “Uproar brings focus on role of bloggers” story).

Blackmail Attempt

Rival coverage: Collins and Miller of WBAL TV, Thomas Dennison of the Maryland Gazette and others noticed that a third person had been cropped out of a now-famous picture of Gov. Ehrlich with his arm around Steffen–a picture that had been anonymously distributed to all the local news outlets including the Post. Curious, Collins asked Ehrlich’s office about the identity of the missing person. At first, the governor’s office refused to cooperate with Collins. Then, Dennison asked the governor about the photo in public. Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick said, “We had been very reluctant to release that photograph, because we didn’t see any advantage to it, but once that horse got out of the barn, we decided to go with it.”

On March 24, the governor’s office revealed that the third person in the photograph was a former state employee named Michelle Lane. Further, Ehrlich revealed that Lane had sent his office an e-mail on February 12, accusing him of masterminding a “whisper campaign” against her and threatening to release information about Joseph Steffen that she said would damage the administration. Collins and Miller started looking for more information about Lane. From their reporting, the following timeline emerges:

Lane and Steffen were friends at one point. When both worked for Ehrlich, they became close and exchanged e-mails often. At some point, however, they had a falling out and stopped communicating.

While working for the state of Maryland, Lane asked for a promotion three times. Instead, in July 2004 she was let go.

Weeks after she was fired, Lane began meeting with key members of the O’Malley administration. In one e-mail, according to Miller, she wrote that she had “potentially useful information to share.”

When Collins started reporting these facts, he began to receive calls from important state Democrats, who all sounded like they were reading from the “same script,” he said. “‘Why are you guys trying to expose Deep Throat?’ They all asked me that. And I said, ‘Deep Throat was a source of information, and MD4Bush was possibly an operative. Don’t you see the difference?’ And [they] didn’t.”

As Collins and Miller were filing these reports, someone sent an anonymous letter to the Baltimore City Paper attacking Collins’s credibility as a journalist. “I do find it coincidental that it occurred in the middle of our aggressive pursuit of who is MD4Bush and trying to answer the question, ‘Was this an orchestrated effort?’” he said.

Post coverage: The Post story focused on Lane’s attorney’s claim, supported by documents she produced, that she was fired for trying to draw the governor’s attention to the state’s broken foster care system. The next day, the Post ran a story headlined, “Md. foster care draws scrutiny; Ehrlich’s challenge to media on former state worker backfires.” The headline referred to Ehrlich’s challenge to reporters to identify MD4Bush, which he made during the press conference. Instead of accepting the challenge, the Post wrote a fawning profile of Michelle Lane as a courageous whistleblower who was fired for daring to speak truth to power. To date, the Post has not reported on Lane’s rebuffed attempts to get promoted or her recently acquired ties to Democrats.

The Post continues to focus its coverage almost exclusively on items that reflect well on O’Malley and poorly on Ehrlich. The Post has focused primarily on two things: Democrats in the state legislature who complain about Steffen’s role in the hiring and firing of state employees; and Steffen’s personal eccentricities. In the 28 stories Mosk wrote or co-wrote about Steffen, only three stories mention MD4Bush. One is the aforementioned story that focused more on Free Republic than anything. The other two quote Ehrlich officials challenging reporters to find out who MD4Bush is–a challenge the Post has thus far refused to accept.

None of this necessarily proves an anti-Ehrlich bias at the Post. However, it is increasingly clear that the Post has been used by political operatives to simultaneously help O’Malley and hurt Ehrlich, and that the Post doesn’t seem to care. When asked if he shared this view of things, Mosk said, “The articles about Steffen’s behavior reported on the actions of a man long associated with Ehrlich’s campaign activities–actions that weren’t previously known. The reaction of the governor was to fire the aide, and the reaction of the mayor was to express concern and ask for an apology.

“What the reporting did is what we were supposed to do as reporters,” Mosk said. “The reporting exposed an area of government activity that was not previously known to the public. I feel comfortable that the reporting did a public service.”

This answer does not address the matter of what a newspaper owes its readers when it uses (or is used by) anonymous sources. Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. tried to articulate a policy on the use of anonymous sources when he wrote in March of 2004:

… we will try to explain to readers why a source is not being named. We also will strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why such a source would be knowledgeable and whether the source has a particular point of view… We want at least one Post editor to know the identity of each unnamed source cited in the newspaper, as was the case during Watergate, so that editors can help decide whether to use the source in a story.

When I asked Mosk how he could trust the source who gave him the private e-mails from Free Republic, he reminded me that Steffen had confirmed that he had written the e-mails. But this does not tell his readers anything about the way in which these private e-mails were brought to the attention of the Post in the first place. Isn’t that important for readers to know? Don’t readers deserve to know why this source wasn’t named? What does this source have to hide? And why hasn’t the Post made available to its readers the entire e-mail exchange between NCPAC and MD4Bush? Or told its readers about how MD4Bush posted excerpts of the e-mails on Free Republic on February 8 and then vanished? By failing to answer these questions, the Post has failed to live up to its own guidelines.

Who is MD4Bush? “We will find out,” Dave Collins told me. “I have full confidence it’ll come out.” In addition to the reporting of Collins and Miller, Joseph Steffen has retained a lawyer, who said he is attempting to get MD4Bush’s account information from Free Republic. Hopefully the truth will come out before it gets to that point.

Does the Post care about MD4Bush’s identity? Mosk would not tell NRO whether the Post is investigating. It would be in the Post’s best interest to do so. It has already been scooped on the identity of one anonymous source this year.

Stephen Sprueill reports on the media for National Review Online’s new media blog, which debuts today.



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