On October 30, 2002, the New York Times ran a front page, above-the-fold exposé charging that U.S. Attorney for Maryland Thomas DiBiagio, who purportedly claimed he was “on orders from the Justice Department and the White House,” had stopped the interrogation of sniper suspect John Muhammad, just when it looked like Muhammad would confess.
The blockbuster allegation reportedly came from four unnamed law-enforcement officials, one of whom was quoted in the devastating third paragraph of the Times piece: “It did not look like the juvenile was going to talk. But it looked like Muhammad was ready to share everything, and these guys were going to get a confession.”
The shocking charge — that the Bush administration, and its Republican U.S. Attorney for Maryland had essentially bungled the biggest criminal case in America since 9/11 — was quickly denied by DiBiagio and the administration. DiBiagio issued a written statement later on the 30th:
“The allegations in the New York Times article today are false. At no time did I say that the White House had anything to do with the decision to place John Allen Mohammad in federal custody. Further, it should be clear to everyone involved in this matter that no White House officials had anything to do with any of the decisions about where these individuals would be in custody or where charges might be brought.”
Both the accusation in the Times story, and the DiBiagio denial, received extensive media coverage nationwide. Many Republicans assumed the story was a plant by the ambitious Montgomery County, Maryland state’s attorney, Democrat Douglas Gansler. After all, he could face DiBiagio in a future run for Maryland attorney general.
The Washington Times, in its October 31 edition, reported that “Some [Justice] department officials suggested Mr. Gansler was behind the leak to the New York Times.” Byron York, writing on National Review Online the same day, carried the same charge: “Some Justice Department officials suggest that blame for the sensational Muhammad-was-going-to-confess story lies with Douglas Gansler, the top Montgomery County prosecutor, who has long had a reputation for cultivating his public image.”
While the New York Times piece suggested the Bush administration was guilty of incompetence, and possibly grandstanding, the article was also cited as an example of the Washington Post getting beaten to a big story in its own backyard. Erik Wemple, who pens a “Dept. of Media” column for Washington City Paper, wrote that the Times October 30 story “punctured the Post’s regional news hegemony.” He also reported that the “bombshell set off some hasty huddling in the Post newsroom.”
The day after the Times piece appeared, the Washington Post’s Susan Schmidt and Katherine Shaver wrote their own front-page piece that, as Wemple put it, “reported that the Times had it all wrong.” The Post piece quoted DiBiagio’s denial and said “Officials on both sides — federal and local — agreed that the Times was wrong in saying that DiBiagio told local officials in a phone call that the White House and Justice Department had ordered that Muhammad be taken to Baltimore.”
Wemple in his City Paper column even quoted the New York Times writer who nabbed the October 30 exclusive: “In the Post story, Blair saw evidence of an agenda aside from the truth. ‘The Post got beat in their own back yard, and I can understand why they would have sore feelings,’ he says.”
The New York Times reporter, of course, is now former-New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who resigned in disgrace and apologized last week after it was learned he had plagiarized a San Antonio Express-News story about the family of the last U.S. soldier missing in Iraq. (The soldier has since been identified, deceased.) The soldier’s grieving mother does not even believe Blair ever visited her home, although he describes the home’s interior in detail. The Blair article that cost him his job was available on the Times website early Saturday morning for $2.95:
As Howard Kurtz reported in Friday’s Post, Blair “has been involved in a number of controversies and the paper has run 50 corrections on his stories.” He also reports that Blair joined the Times “in 1999 and was a summer intern there in 1998.” (Romenesko’s MediaNews also posts a letter suggesting Blair had similar problems as a Boston Globe intern. The Times owns the Globe.
Blair is the new Stephen Glass, the disgraced former New Republic writer who fabricated all of six and parts of 21 other articles. Everything Jayson Blair has ever written must be scrutinized and presumed false unless otherwise verifiable. This will be a tremendously painful process for the Paper of Record, but it is essential that every story be vigorously reviewed. The Times has assigned four reporters and two editors to review all of Blair’s work for the paper.
Some sources are already writing Blair out of their lives. The University of Maryland Journalism School, where Blair studied but did not graduate, has already removed his name from their roster of famous alumni. (Thanks to the power of Google’s “cache” feature, we can see how the page read before Blair’s latest troubles.)
It thus appears highly likely that U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and President George W. Bush are all owed apologies by the Times. The scurrilous and apparently fictional allegation they fronted made headlines coast to coast. We’ll see if the retraction gets similar coverage.
Finally, while Montgomery County, Maryland state’s attorney, Douglas Gansler may be off the hook for this one, and owed his own apology, statements he admits making on those days are as bad as the one he apparently was wrongly accused of making. On October 30, the day the fictional Blair piece ran, the Times also ran a piece by reporter Eric Lichtblau that quoted Gansler undercutting the federal charges against the two suspects in the sniper serial killings. Lichtblau wrote:
But Mr. Gansler said that federal prosecutors would have a “major hurdle” in convincing a jury that extortion, which came 17 days after the first murder, was the actual motive for the attacks and “not just an afterthought.”
Mr. Gansler said that “murder is a local crime. Crossing state lines to commit a murder is not a federal crime. The Justice Department needed to find some statute to pigeonhole what is clearly a local crime into a federal statute, and that’s clearly what they’ve done here with this extortion charge.”
And he was not done. The next day, in the Washington Post, the Schmidt and Shaver piece also quoted Gansler. “There really is no federal case here. This case is not appropriate to be tried in the federal system. These are murders, and murder is a local crime.”
These quotes drew a stinging rebuke from an unnamed senior Justice Department official in the same article: “You have to question the professionalism of someone who goes out and trashes the federal charges when that will affect the very people he is serving. What is he, a witness for the defense?”
Infamous to readers on the right for its corrections page, the Blair scandal seems to mark the apex of Times factual laxity. Will this finally bring humility to the Paper of Record?
— Michael Paranzino is president of PPC Strategies, Inc. and a public- policy consultant in Bethesda, Maryland.