Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

Why did The Post deport Jose Antonio Vargas’s story?

Journalists are not public officeholders, nor do they manage public funds. But they do hold, precariously, a public trust. And at the foundation of that trust is the pledge to tell the truth, or at least to get as close to it as they can.

One way journalists keep that trust is to be transparent about their profession, about who they are, and, yes, about their flaws and biases. This is even more true today in the age of social media when online readers, Twitter followers and Facebook friends want to know that there’s a real person behind the dispassionate voice of the traditionally omniscient, anonymous reporter.

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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And this is why I think readers should care about how The Post handled the case of Jose Antonio Vargas, 30, a former Post reporter who confessed in a compelling 4,000-word piece for the New York Times last week that he was an illegal immigrant from the Philippines, brought to California by his grandparents when he was 12. In his rags-to-riches story is a disclosure that Peter Perl, The Post’s assistant managing editor for personnel, knew of Vargas’s illegal status when Vargas was a Post employee from 2004 to 2009. Perl kept it a secret.

Vargas, who was part of a Pulitzer-winning reporting team in 2007, brought his first-person confessional to this paper in late March, and Post editors spent many weeks editing and fact-checking and getting Vargas to do additional work for the free-lance story. Editors described the editing and vetting as unusually thorough and exacting.

Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli suddenly killed the story in mid-June.

Vargas then quickly submitted it to the Times, which published it online Wednesday and is scheduled to print it in its Sunday magazine for June 26.

Why would The Post punt to a rival a riveting, already edited story that could provoke national discussion on immigration — an issue that sorely needs it — and that also included possibly illegal, and perhaps forgivable, conduct by a former Post reporter and current member of management?

Beats the heck out of many in The Post’s newsroom and beats the heck out of me. The cardinal rule of journalism, or politics, is that if there’s bad or questionable information, put it out yourself, be thorough and transparent, and don’t pull any punches.

Brauchli said in an interview with me and in other public statements that he prefers not to discuss internal Post deliberations about news judgment. “We made a judgment not to run the piece,” he said. Fair enough. Few editors go on the record about internal deliberations over a published news story, unless the story later results in accolades and awards.

And, I, too, see cautionary notes about Vargas that might have led to Brauchli’s decision. He left behind a reputation in The Post’s newsroom for being tenacious and talented but also for being a relentless self-promoter whom many colleagues didn’t trust. Editors said that he needed direction, coaching and constant watching.

It’s also disturbing that Vargas has formed a nonprofit group to advocate for immigration reform. He has crossed the line from journalist to advocate.

But these factors were all the more reason to keep the story in-house. Run Vargas’s first-person narrative, as planned, in the opinion-oriented Outlook section of Sunday’s Post. But then do a second, rigorously reported news story that included answers to some of the outstanding questions that readers inevitably have:

How did he come to work at The Post as an undocumented immigrant and get through the background check? Why did Perl decide to keep Vargas’s secret? Are there potential legal consequences for Perl or The Post Co.? And, more generally, is Vargas trustworthy as a journalist even though he covered up a key aspect of his life?

I tried to find answers to some of these questions last week. Mainly I got no comment.

In an interview, Perl said that he informed Post leadership in an e-mail when the Vargas story was submitted to The Post in March that he had known of Vargas’s illegal status and that he had decided to keep it confidential because he was convinced that disclosing his private conversation would end Vargas’s career, if not cause his deportation. Perl said he has not been docked pay, suspended or fired, but he declined to elaborate.

“I did something I believed was the right thing to do,” said Perl, who has had a distinguished 30-year career at The Post. He said that his first official word about Post management’s stance came when he read an Associated Press report on Wednesday quoting a Post spokesman as saying that “what Peter did was wrong.”

I think The Post missed an opportunity to tell a great and compelling story, and to air and take responsibility for some internal dirty laundry. It’s that kind of act that earns you the lasting respect of your readers. It keeps their trust.

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I made two errors in last week’s column: (1) The Presidential Records Act of 1978 was signed by President Jimmy Carter, not by Ronald Reagan; (2) Post senior editor Marc Fisher wrote and reported the first installment in The Post’s “Muslims in America” series, but he is not the series project leader; Post editor Lynda Robinson is.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the omblog at voices.washingtonpost. com/ombudsman-blog/.

 
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