The more mud that gets flung, the harder it is to see anything clearly. The latest such media match pits Secretary of the Army Thomas White and editors at The New York Times and Salon against freelancer Jason Leopold. It all started on August 29, when Salon published a story by Leopold alleging that White, a former Enron vice chairman, knew more about Enron’s shifty accounting practices than he has admitted so far. The story impressed Times columnist Paul Krugman, who dubbed White a “corporate evildoer.” But when White questioned the authenticity of an e-mail attributed to him, the Times and Salon disavowed the story and threw the reporter to the wolves.
Some wags are comparing Leopold, 33, to Stephen Glass, the former New Republic writer who is a confessed fabricator. But Salon‘s behavior calls to mind that of the Cincinnati Enquirer, which renounced its 1998 exposé of Chiquita Brands International when the wounded company accused the reporter of illegally tapping into its phone system. To be sure, Leopold is accused of the journalistic sins of plagiarism and relying on disputed evidence—which are not crimes—and he insists he is innocent. But like the fruit company, White attacked the reporter’s methodology, rather than offering evidence to contradict his reporting. For the uninitiated, Press Clips offers an abridged timeline.
April 2002: Leopold quits his job as Dow Jones Newswires L.A. bureau chief to work on a book about California’s electricity crisis, which he has covered for two years. He begins writing freelance investigative pieces for Salon.
July 18: White testifies in Congress about his 1998 to 2001 tenure as vice chairman of Enron Energy Services, a division that signed long-term energy contracts—then overstated the projected profits. Though White earned a $5.5 million salary his last year at Enron, he claims he was out of the loop, unaware of memos by Enron lawyers describing strategies for manipulating the energy market in California.
August 29: Salon publishes its sixth article by Leopold, this one accusing White of using “highly dubious accounting methods” to inflate Enron’s revenue and hide its losses. Leopold tells the story of how Enron closed a 2001 deal to sell energy to Eli Lilly, despite the anxiety of employees who knew that EES was losing money at the time. According to the disputed e-mail, White told one employee, “Close a bigger deal to hide the loss.”
September 17: Krugman’s Times column recaps the allegation that White knew EES was deliberately and improperly concealing large financial losses. According to Leopold, “That’s when all hell broke loose.” People in the media and Congress begin calling, asking for copies of the supporting documents.
September 23: Salon publishes a correction, noting that seven paragraphs in Leopold’s story were identical to those in a February 4, 2002, Financial Times story, describing an Enron deal with Quaker Oats. (It’s not a case of textbook plagiarism, Leopold says, because the passage cited FT twice and his use of verbatim material was unintentional.) Salon does not use the term “plagiarism.” The correction also states that White’s alleged e-mail was misquoted. It should have read, “Close a bigger deal. Hide the loss before the 1Q.”
September 24: The New York Times publishes a letter from White, who writes, “I am not aware of the document in question, nor to the best of my knowledge has Mr. Leopold contacted me to validate his interpretation. For the record, I do not recall saying or writing anything close to the quote attributed to me.” To the contrary, Leopold says that he contacted Department of Defense spokesman Mike Halbig last summer, asking for comment. (Halbig told the Voice, “I’m not confirming it. I’m not denying it.”) Soon after White’s letter is published, according to an insider, Army spokesman Charles Krohn calls Times reporter Felicity Barringer and Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz to discuss the Salon story.
September 30: According to Leopold, Salon editor Kerry Lauerman phones the source of the e-mail “without my knowledge” and confronts this person “in an antagonistic way,” whereupon the source denies ever speaking to the reporter. Leopold says he provides other sources who speak to Lauerman, confirming his story. (Salon says Leopold knew his editor planned to call his key source, and that his explanations left them increasingly unconvinced.)
October 1: Salon removes Leopold’s story from the Web site, explaining that “we can no longer stand by the story in its entirety. Though we have corroborated most of the reporting . . . some unanswered questions remain. . . . We have been unable to independently confirm the authenticity of [the e-mail].” Salon again acknowledges the verbatim quote from Financial Times, concluding, “This sort of plagiarism is a serious breach of journalistic trust.” (No mention of the attributions to FT.) The same day, Leopold says, Kurtz and Barringer inform Salon they plan to write about the dispute.
October 2: In an unsigned article titled “Salon, Plagiarism, Paul Krugman, and an Unsubstantiated Smear,” National Review Online applauds Salon‘s decision to inform “their readers of the serious problems with Leopold’s piece,” calling on Krugman to do the same. Around the same time, Leopold says, Krugman tells him he will have to publish a correction, unless the Times can somehow verify the story. After Krugman talks to “more than a dozen” of his sources, Leopold says, the columnist is willing to stand by the story, but the Times is not. According to Leopold, the Times tells Krugman he must “take a bullet for the company.” (A Times spokesperson referred the matter to Krugman, who declined to comment.)
October 4: In his column, Krugman writes he “erred” by citing the White e-mail, the authenticity of which “remains in doubt.” The same day, the Times publishes a news story trumpeting Krugman’s “error” and Salon‘s decision to remove the article from its Web site. Without informing Leopold, the Times publishes the name of the former Enron employee to whom the disputed e-mail was addressed. The Times quotes a White lawyer who says White does not recall receiving e-mail from, or sending e-mail to, the named source.
October 9: The online Guerrilla News Network posts a detailed first-person account by Leopold, berating the Times for naming the recipient of the disputed e-mail. He continues to defend the e-mail, which he says Salon editors had in their possession before the piece ran. “I truly believe that’s an authentic e-mail,” he tells the Voice. “There are way too many people who I spoke to who don’t know each other and have never questioned its authenticity.”
October 11: Salon editors send an unsigned response to the Web site Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews, expounding on Leopold’s dodgy behavior. Now, it seems, “no Salon editor actually saw” the e-mail before it was published, which was a “mistake.” In a curious twist, Salon informs readers that they can still read Leopold’s story in the Nexis archives.
Obviously, Leopold made mistakes, but it’s not at all clear they justify a full repudiation of the story or a revocation of his journalistic license. As Paul Krugman told the Voice, “Everything else in that story checked out. The substance of his reporting was entirely correct.”