A June 28 Style article incorrectly reported the outcome of an assault case involving Maryland resident Cheryl Gargac and her ex-boyfriend, a D.C. police official. Assault charges were dropped in the case, and Gargac pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of property and agreed to pay $600 for breaking a window. (Published 10/7/04)
When New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau wrote a story last fall that the FBI didn't like, the bureau responded by trying to freeze him out.
FBI spokeswoman Cassandra Chandler sent top officials a memo disputing the story and assailing "the slanted and biased report[ing] style of Mr. Lichtblau. In the meantime, we encourage each of you to please avoid providing information to this reporter. He has consistently demonstrated that he lacks the ethics of a respected journalist."
During the same period, the Justice Department revoked Lichtblau's credentials -- a move that a spokesman calls coincidental.
"I was very surprised they took the action they did, both at the FBI and the Justice Department," says Lichtblau, whose credentials were restored after the Times protested. Earlier, he was abruptly disinvited from a Justice Department press briefing.
He reported in November, based on an FBI memo, that the bureau had collected extensive information on antiwar demonstrators. FBI officials were quoted as saying the effort was aimed at identifying extremists plotting violence.
Times Washington Bureau Chief Philip Taubman, praising Lichtblau as "an inquisitive, skilled and fair reporter," says Justice and FBI officials understood the inherent tensions with the press when he covered the beat two decades ago. "I've been surprised that that attitude is not apparently shared by their counterparts in those agencies today," he says.
Chandler did not respond to requests for comment. An FBI spokesman, who declined to be identified, says only that "the matter has been handled and we cooperate with the New York Times." After Chandler's memo, Taubman had heated discussions in a meeting with her and in phone conversations with Justice spokesman Mark Corallo.
Corallo says that Lichtblau's credentials were lifted as a routine matter because he does not visit the building very often and that many other journalists have lost theirs for the same reason. He says the move was unrelated to any particular story. Lichtblau says he visits the headquarters regularly each week.
Lichtblau isn't the only Justice correspondent who's had prickly relations with the department. A number of news organizations signed a letter to the press office last year complaining about their lack of access to Attorney General John Ashcroft, among other things.
Conservative activist Brent Bozell has long argued that the liberal media are distorting the news. Now, six months before the election, he's paying to get his message out.
Bozell's Media Research Center has raised $2.8 million for newspaper ads in 15 markets, billboards in 40 cities and a talk-radio blitz aimed at countering what he sees as a "liberal jihad" that is unfair to President Bush. The slogan (also on T-shirts and mugs) is not exactly subtle. A finger-pointing Uncle Sam declares: "Don't believe the liberal media!"
"This is a media that in the last year has gotten out of control," Bozell says. "They're so blatant in the way they slant the news. . . . It's as if people in newsrooms have just taken off the gloves, whether it's foreign policy, economic news or political news, there's a spin on everything that's said."
Steve Rendall of the liberal group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting scoffs at the indictment, saying that "things are going badly for the White House in Iraq. Accurately reporting that isn't bias. As for the economy, positive indicators are reported every day. That many Americans still see a net loss of jobs, wages lagging behind inflation and rising health care costs, well, reflecting their views is basic journalism."
From 9/11 through last summer, Rendall says, "journalism was largely in the tank for the White House."
A look at the Bozell group's Web site shows that what is depicted as bias often tends to reflect a conservative outlook: Complaints that some journalists were too hard on Ronald Reagan, too easy on Bill Clinton and too critical of Ken Starr. "For Clinton, Dan Rather Is Putty in His Hands," a typical headline says.
Bozell, who hopes to reach 50 million people a week with the forthcoming campaign, says that on Iraq "there is almost an obsession with reporting the negative. There are lots of positive developments going on and you never hear about them."
The effort is not designed to help Bush or hurt John Kerry, Bozell says. "If Bush wins, the media will continue to try to make his life miserable. If Kerry wins, they'll still be promoting a left-wing agenda."
Public and Private
As a general assignment reporter for WRC-TV, Jackie Bensen often covers D.C. police and crime stories.
She sees no problem with the fact that she lives with an assistant D.C. police chief, Peter Newsham, who oversees ethics investigations and disciplinary reviews as head of the department's Office of Professional Responsibility.
"We're both professionals who have been in our respective fields for some time," Bensen says. "We made a conscious decision not to have contact with each other professionally." By agreement with her bosses, she says, she does not cover anything involving Newsham's office.
Newsham says his girlfriend doesn't cover police corruption stories and that "we're very careful not to discuss business. My personal business may be of some interest to people because of my position, but I don't think it's unusual in this particular city."
Although no one is questioning Bensen's journalistic abilities, several police officers have said in interviews they feel they must cooperate with her because of the relationship. Newsham says he has "never told anyone but my closest friends -- and most of my closest friends aren't police officers -- that we even have a relationship."
Vickie Burns, Channel 4's vice president for news, who had been unaware of the relationship, says she is "comfortable" with Bensen just steering clear of Newsham's unit. "She's a terrific reporter with great access," Burns says. "Jackie's sources, whether they're police department sources or other sources, predate this specific relationship, and I'm confident about her ability to handle things both ethically and sensitively."
The relationship attracted attention in March after Newsham's ex-girlfriend pleaded guilty to assaulting Newsham and Bensen. Cheryl Gargac says in an interview that she showed up at what she thought was Newsham's Bethesda home and discovered Bensen there, and in the altercation that followed she smacked Newsham in the face and grabbed Bensen by the back of the hair. Bensen, who owns the house, said in a statement to police that she was also kicked in the groin. Gargac says she agreed to pay $600 for breaking a window.
For decades -- at least since Henry Kissinger did business as a "senior State Department official" on diplomatic trips -- reporters have been complaining about so-called background briefings. But since nobody wants to miss the juicy stuff -- or at least marginally flavorful tidbits unavailable in on-the-record sessions -- news organizations have reluctantly gone along for competitive reasons.
Now New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent, calling these encounters "an affront to journalistic integrity," is demanding a change. Yesterday he challenged the top editors of the Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the Associated Press to refuse to cover such briefings unless the officials agree to be identified. If no one played along, the theory goes, the practice would disappear.
Intriguing idea -- but don't hold your breath.