The ‘Post’ Withholds Credit Where It’s Due

It’s intellectual dishonesty time again! Chatterbox’s Indis citation goes this time to the Washington Post, which today reports on Page 1 the firing of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born American scientist at Los Alamos who’s suspected of turning over nuclear secrets to the Chinese. According to the Post, Lee got fired after failing a polygraph test last month and after complaints from Sens. Trent Lott and Richard Shelby. (Shelby is chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee.) That’s true. But readers will be forgiven for wondering whether the firing has anything to do with a splashy New York Times front-page story that appeared two days before and identified (but did not name) a Los Alamos scientist who was believed to have passed along nuclear secrets to the Chinese. The Times story’s impact was mentioned in yesterday’s accounts of Lee’s firing by the AP and UPI, but it wasn’t mentioned in today’s Post story by Walter Pincus.

Newspapers hate to credit other newspapers. They will do it when they have to, which is why, in its initial follow-up story to the Times scoop two days ago, the Post did cite the Times. Because that piece was also by Pincus, Chatterbox won’t bother to set the Indis Hall of Fame timer a-ticking this time out. But the fact remains that the appearance of the Times piece was surely a precipitating event, perhaps the precipitating event, in the firing of Wen Ho Lee. It had a big impact. It was hyped by Matt Drudge on his Web site. It landed Richard Shelby on NBC’s Meet the Press one day later, giving Shelby a highly visible platform from which to scream and yell about the alleged security breach. (Meet the Press credited the Times generously, too.)

Whether the disproportionate attention given to the front page of the New York Times ought to be a major factor in government decisions is, of course, another question. One can argue, as the Post has more or less been doing in its coverage of the ongoing China technology-transfer story, that questions about what the U.S. should be selling to the Chinese are very murky, and that the Pulitzer-hungy Times has been hyping this scandal’s importance in the series of pieces that Jeff Gerth has been grinding out. (That’s the subliminal message of an accompanying story in today’s Post). But if the Times’ take, even if it’s wrong, really is driving events, shouldn’t the Post acknowledge that?

On a less lofty plane, it does seem a bit unfair that the Times gets to cover itself with glory over exposing Wen Ho Lee when the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on page A3 (for breaking news, its version of “page 1”) by Carla Anne Robbins conveying essentially the same information on Jan. 7. This fact seems to have eluded the media, as do many facts that appear in the Journal, for the simple reason that the Journal is not available on Nexis. (This used to drive Chatterbox crazy when he worked in the Journal’s Washington bureau.) Assuming no one else had it before Robbins, shouldn’t Gerth have credited her?

–Timothy Noah