Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of posts on ABC News' Alexis Debat scandal (all background information is here, which includes some updates to the original post). While this story disappeared in the mainstream media over a week ago and, largely, in the alternative/progressive media as well, MediaBloodhound's coverage will be ongoing. One of the worst breaches of journalistic standards in U.S. history demands much more attention than this surreal but all-too-real tale has received.
Over the weekend, NPR's often excellent program On the Media aired two interviews concerning the Alexis Debat scandal at ABC News. One featured journalist Laura Rozen, who, as national security correspondent for Mother Jones and on warandpiece.com, has led the way on this story in the U.S. (and, personally, has been of great help in confirming aspects of this scandal about which I've written).The other featured ABC News vice president and spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. Bob Garfield hosted both.
If you've been keeping up with this story, Garfield's segment with Rozen sheds no new light, but does a fine job in providing an overview of flim-flam artist Alexis Debat. Its one glaring weakness is Garfield's failure to address ABC News' culpability in both being bamboozled by Debat and having created and
sanctioned the shady news-gathering environment in which he operated. Giving Garfield the benefit of the doubt, one might argue he was saving those questions for ABC's Mr. Schneider. Unfortunately, he also fails to substantively challenge the ABC News spokesman on these points.
The following is the full but brief transcript (the segment was only about 5-6 minutes) of the interview with Schneider, along with my responses:
BOB GARFIELD, HOST: When ABC News learned of Debat’s bogus Ph.D. last May, the network swiftly fired him. It also scrutinized the stories in which Debat had served as a source, but did not find any inaccuracies. This week, in response to news that Debat faked not only his credentials but entire interviews, ABC has opened a second, more extensive investigation into all the stories he touched. But unlike The New York Times after Jayson Blair or USA Today after Jack Kelly, ABC is working internally and has no plans for an outside investigation. Jeffrey Schneider is senior vice president and spokesman for ABC News. He says his company is determined to get to the bottom of the Debat problem.
JEFFREY SCHNEIDER, ABC SPOKESMAN: I could understand why people might want a third party to look at these things. And it’s impossible for me at this point to say whether that would be something that could happen. I do, however, have great confidence in our ability to, I think, answer these questions to the satisfaction of ourselves and to our audience.
No follow-up from Garfield.
ABC News relied on someone for six years who’s been proven to be a fraud. In hiring Debat, it failed to even verify the most basic information on his resume, such as his fabricated Ph.D. from the Sorbonne and greatly embellished “French Defense Ministry official” position (which, via the French government, the French news service AFP confirmed was a fiction back in 2002). Moreover, as Laura Rozen reported in Mother Jones, two journalists familiar with Debat’s work portray the leader of ABC News’ investigative unit, Brian Ross, “not only as the victim of Debat's alleged deceptions, but as an enabler, who has promoted sensational stories—including some that Debat brought the network—at the expense at times of rigorous journalism standards.”
I don’t doubt your “great confidence” to answer these questions to ABC News' satisfaction, Mr. Schneider. Quite the opposite. Nor do I doubt your same confidence in answering these questions to the satisfaction of your audience - especially because ABC News has failed to report this scandal on air (more on this below); consequently, having kept your audience almost completely in the dark, quelling their concerns should be a less than formidable task.
Rather, considering ABC’s negligent track record with regard to Alexis Debat, on what basis should anyone else have confidence in your internal investigation?
BOB GARFIELD, HOST: Now, other news organizations when they discover that they have a liar in their ranks, there, at some point, tends to be disclosure to the audience. In what form has your disclosure taken place?
JEFFREY SCHNEIDER, ABC SPOKESMAN: At the time that we demanded his resignation, you know, we did not ring the bell loudly. Obviously against the backdrop of these outright fabrications, you would say, you know, "How could ABC not have stood up and said very loudly, you know, this guy lied on his resume?" All I can tell you is at the time we felt that demanding his resignation and getting it was appropriate.
Again, no follow-up from Garfield.
The answer to his question? ABC News has yet to offer such an official disclosure to its audience. ABC News online, on its investigative unit's The Blotter, has posted two entries pertaining to Debat’s faked interviews, but it provides little to no information on Debat’s prominent and unethical role at ABC News for the prior six years. To date, ABC has not only failed to officially disclose the details of this scandal to its audience, but also to even report the story on its evening news broadcast, World News, on which some of the biggest Debat-contributed scoops aired.
GARFIELD: There’s one particularly sensitive story I want to ask you about in which Debat played a role. And that was the report that Pakistani militants, who had been involved in cross-border skirmishes in Iran, had been “secretly encouraged and advised by American officials.” A story that suggests that, at least by one or two degrees of separation, the United States is involved in trying to overthrow a government.
SCHNEIDER: You know, that is a story that we worked on for several months, five or six months is my understanding. Debat’s information was a piece of that story, but by no means did the story stand on Debat’s information. We have very good sources both in European and U.S. intelligence and governments. You know, at the end of the day, we want to be the first to report that there’s a problem with that story. So far, through the two reviews we’ve done, we don’t find that problem. But we sure are looking hard.
Once more, no follow-up.
Could you please tell us, Mr. Schneider, which piece of that story, then, was Debat’s? Secondly, did it check out?
GARFIELD: You know, in the end, Jeffrey, I suppose it’s hard for any news organization to protect itself against a liar. What will you do in the future in the hiring of consultants, and maybe just, uh, reporters and producers as well, to make sure that their resumes actually hold up and that they are what they claim to be?
That’s quite a softball. I don't blame Mr. Schneider for overswinging.
SCHNEIDER: You’re right, Bob. If somebody is willing to lie to your face, that does create a difficult situation. It’s also complicated by the fact that time and again he had good information. And not only did he have good information, occasionally he would stand in the way of our other reporting, saying, you know, “I know that’s not the case. Don’t report that.” Particularly there was the issue of this terrorist from Amman being taken into custody supposedly, and Debat waved us off the story. And some weeks later, after we had actually reported that this guy was in custody, it became clear that he was not in custody. You know, he clearly did lie, and was a liar about many things, and yet he did provide solid information that other sources we’re happy to confirm. It’s, uh, it’s really appalling and tragic and, you know, at the same time it’s a pretty interesting story that we want to get to the bottom of.
Last but not least, no follow-up.
First, from the beginning, ABC News’ failure to verify Debat's background, coupled with the network's unethical use of his services, has also been "appalling." Most of us have seen better vetting of a resume for, say, a low-level desk job. But to fail so miserably at vetting the CV for such a powerful position at ABC News - one in which Debat would contribute to stories with national security implications that, among other potentialities, might ultimately influence peace or war between nations - is a monumental blunder.
What’s more, Debat’s dubious multifarious role as attributed source, anonymous source, reporter and analyst is such a patent transgression of sacrosanct journalism standards, it’s surprising Garfield never touches on this. (Did he fail to do his homework with regards to this point, or was there some agreement between Garfield/On the Media and Schneider that this topic would not be addressed?)
Moreover, on its face, Schneider's reply is contextually absurd: “If somebody is willing to lie to your face, that does create a difficult situation.” Well, yes. But that’s part of what's supposed to separate a gullible average Joe from an experienced, capable investigative news team. Which is not to say mistakes still won’t be made. ABC News’ handling of Alexis Debat, however, reveals not an honest mistake or two, but widespread institutionalized dysfunction.
Finally, while Schneider provides a portrait of Debat’s once seeming impeccable reliability as a defense for ABC News having been fooled, he unwittingly further exposes the systemic problems of his network's news-gathering process. If ABC News had reason to put so much trust in Debat and his information, then why did it ignore his vehement warning that the Amman story was untrue? Why didn't this compel ABC News to check and recheck the story - which, logically, would include verifying Debat’s separate information - before running it?
Again, that’s not a Debat problem; that’s an ABC News problem.
In some instances, we already have evidence that suggests, at times, ABC News failed to confirm information obtained solely by Debat from his sources (ostensibly, that's why Brian Ross' producer Rhonda Schwartz is currently trekking around tribal areas in Pakistan). But this comment from Schneider appears to suggest that in other cases, as with the Amman story, even when ABC News rejected information acquired by Debat, it still failed to verify his sources' information. Such unethical and sloppy standards and practices would only give more weight to the allegations that ABC News' investigative unit was more concerned with playing the hot hand - the one with the bigger scoop wins - than it was in presenting factually accurate news stories.
Lastly, Schneider either fails to realize, or refuses to acknowledge, something else one might glean from his Amman anecdote: that Debat may have used such moments to trumpet the quality and dependability of his information in order to influence a more lax vetting of his stories in the future. Sort of the reverse tactic employed by a pool shark or ringer: rather than lead with his worst effort to lure gullible amateurs into eventual high-stakes losses, it's possible that Debat fed ABC News some stellar verifiable nuggets (received from high-ranking neocons who played a role in his post-9/11 ascension?) in order to gain their confidence and push through future unchecked, or shoddily vetted, scoops. Maybe this was Debat's game plan before he even walked through the doors at ABC back in 2001.
Whatever the case, the fact of the matter is, ABC News should have verified Debat’s sourced information regardless of his track record – but especially considering the inherent ethically challenged role in which he operated for the network.
GARFIELD: All right, Jeffrey, thanks again.
SCHNEIDER: Thanks a lot, Bob. Take care.
GARFIELD: Jeffrey Schneider is the senior vice president and spokesman for ABC News.
And he and his network are still getting away with painting Debat as a lone wolf.