New York Times reporter Adam Goldman scooped all of journalism with his stunning Dec. 7 interview with 28-year-old Edgar M. Welch, the suspect in the Pizzagate affair. Welch had entered Comet Pizza and fired a gun as he was “self-investigating” a fake news story in which the establishment’s owner and various Democratic Party bigwigs were running a child sex ring. “I just wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way,” Welch told Goldman.
Other details were just as compelling. Or more so: “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” said Welch in a videoconference with Goldman. That sentiment pretty well sums up the fake-news scourge of 2016 with great word economy. Welch’s visit to Comet, after all, was propelled by the most vile and baseless of Internet rumors.
How did that interview come about? Not via approved and formal D.C. Department of Corrections policies, according to a spokeswoman for the department. Here’s a statement provided to the Erik Wemple Blog via spokeswoman Sylvia Lane:
The Department of Corrections (DOC) media/public relations policy requires any media interview of an inmate to be coordinated with the agency’s public information officer. The policy specifically prohibits any media interviews at the Video Visitation Center under the guise of it being a visit between the inmate and a friend.
If an inmate is a pretrial detainee or has a pending appeal, the inmate is given the opportunity to consult with his or her attorney of record before the interview occurs. In accordance with DOC policy regarding security, privacy, and confidentiality, some special status inmates may require more restrictive media access.
While almost all reporters have adhered to the DOC policy on inmate interviews, the N.Y. Times reporter who interviewed Mr. Welch did not follow agency policy. DOC records indicate the reporter identified himself as Mr. Welch’s friend. Additionally, the reporter arranged the meeting with Mr. Welch through the video visitation scheduling process. Neither of these actions were in accordance with DOC policy.
The New York Times is vigorously contesting the department’s version of events. A company spokeswoman issued this statement: “At no point did our reporter misrepresent himself. In accordance with Times policy, he identified himself as a New York Times reporter to all parties. When asked by jail staff if he was friend or family, our reporter said ‘neither.’ And in fact, our reporter’s communication with the jail staff about the visit was conducted using his New York Times contact information and email address.”
Given that statement, we’ve asked the corrections department just how Goldman allegedly identified himself as a friend of Welch. We are awaiting a reply. Department guidelines stipulate that no media interviews take place at the “Video Visitation Center under the guise of a social visit” — though Goldman and the New York Times insist there was no “guise” of any sort. “I always identified myself honestly, as the statement says,” Goldman tells the Erik Wemple Blog in a brief chat.
What’s really going on here, suggests Goldman, is the ever-advancing effort of flacks to rule the world. “If the suggestion here is that the reporter should always call the public affairs department at any institution, I don’t know how we’re doing to do our job covering the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon and the White House,” says Goldman. “There is a long, long long history of journalists interviewing people in jail, and as long as the interview is consensual and we’ve identified ourselves, there is nothing wrong with it.”
Don’t tell that to former D.C. public defender Stephen Cooper, who wrote in The Hill last week that the New York Times violated media ethics even before the corrections department issued its statement. As reported in Goldman’s story, Welch spoke cautiously in the interview and cited advice from his attorney. “Nevertheless, despite the fact police reports alone indicate to even the casual observer (much less an experienced reporter at a prestigious news organization) that Welch is grappling with mental health issues, Goldman pressed on,” writes Cooper. Nor does Cooper appear to buy any parallels between interviewing a heretofore anonymous jailhouse suspect and accountability coverage of federal agencies. “Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects,” note Society of Professional Journalists’ guidelines cited by Cooper.
There’s a long-running tug of war at work here. Lawyers for suspects don’t want them talking to the media under any circumstances, considering that anything they say will be reviewed by prosecutors seeking incriminating discrepancies and admissions. Journalists, meanwhile, need to inform the public about suspects and the possible motivations behind their deeds. There’s no question that Welch’s reflections on the “intel” are a matter of extreme public interest. “I feel like I’m being criticized for doing good journalism,” Goldman says. “God forbid I should hustle and leave my desk.”
In any case, the D.C. Department of Corrections will revise some procedures in light of this dispute. “Although clearly stated in our policy in more than one section, we want to ensure that folks follow the process — so we are making some adjustments in scheduling,” Lane tells the Erik Wemple Blog.