Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

Summaries of under-reported news, short updates on previous Monitor stories

 + THE STOLEN BILLIONS   Here's a quiz: Name the greatest financial scandal in the history of the United States. The Savings and Loan bailout of the 1980s? The 19th-century land giveaway to the railroads? Naw, not even close. The answer is the century-long theft of billions of dollars from the Indian trust fund, as we first reported in 1996.

The ripoff works like this: A mining, logging, or oil-drilling corporation (to name a few examples) wants to use tribal land. Under federal law passed in 1887, they don't pay the tribe -- the money goes instead to a trust fund managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), part of the Interior Department. About $300 million is collected annually. The BIA is then supposed to distribute the money to the 300,000+ descendants of the original Indian land owners. But a funny thing happened: The feds seldom collected all the money due the Indians, and seemed to lose track of much of what was gathered. In the twenty years between 1973 and 1992, an audit found at least $2.4 billion had disappeared from just 2,000 tribal accounts alone. Every audit attempt from the first in 1928 had found similar shortfalls. With no serious solution offered by the feds, the Native American Rights Fund filed a class-action suit in 1996, charging that the government had lost upwards of $10 billion that was rightfully owed to the poorest people in North America for their birthrights.

Since our 1996 feature, matters have gotten mostly worse. That suit still has not come to trial, and negotiations for an out-of-court settlement collapsed last summer. The only ray of hope is U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth.

Charged with sorting out the mess, this Washington DC District Court judge won the respect of cynics early by showing no tolerance for government stalling. Required to turn over trust fund documents to the Native American Rights Fund so their lawyers could prepare for trial, Interior and Treasury officials claimed the papers couldn't be produced; one excuse offered by the Interior Department was that some boxes were in a New Mexico warehouse that was so infested with rodents that their droppings would make workers sick. In February 1999, Lamberth cited top officials -- Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, BIA head Kevin Gover, and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin -- for contempt of court.

That was just the beginning. Lamberth raised the stakes a few months later when he fined Babbitt and Rubin $625,000 for their continual delays. But then the real courtroom drama happened in December, when it was revealed that the feds had destroyed 162 boxes of documents just weeks before -- ironically, on the same day that Treasury officials were trying to explain to the judge why microfilms had been destroyed earlier. The judge noted in a ruling that lawyers that day were "repeatedly assuring the court that all necessary steps were being taken to preserve all relevant documents." Lamberth denounced the federal officials; this was "fiscal and governmental irresponsibility in its purest form," he wrote.

Disgraced but not powerless, the feds still had a card to play. In April of this year, the Department of Interior Data Center was moved from New Mexico to Virginia where the records could be entered into a computer bookkeeping program (presumably, federal workers had now found a way to safely collect the records contaminated with mouse shit). Although the Interior Dept. boasts that "TAAMS" (Trust Assets Accounting Management System) is working perfectly, that's far from certain. According to the Denver Post, lawyers for the plaintiffs said that TAAMS "is in reality a disaster." The Post quoted their written brief, noting that it's "just another title recording system" and that "in truth, TAAMS is still not operational and contains test data only." There was also considerable outrage over moving the operation to Virginia -- almost all Native people owed money by the program live west of the Mississippi River.

Four long years after our first report, the situation is still mired in chaos. Billions remain missing; millions and millions being held in trust for Indian children who have long since become adults and had children of their own. One audit shows they can't find more than 45 thousand individuals that are owed money, and that nearly half of those owed funds have no social security number or other ID required for payment. The only Native American in Congress, Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, has called for the creation of an "Indian Trust Resolution Corporation," like the federal agency that "solved" the Reagan-era S&L crisis. (July 20, 2000)

 + PATRIOTIC PLAGARISM   The 4th of July saw a different sort fireworks this year , as several conservative pundits were caught celebrating the holiday with a little plagarism -- and stranger yet, they all cribbed the exact same essay.

The theme of the little article is that the signers of the Declaration of Independence suffered terribly for their patriotism; several ended their lives in poverty, others died after torture, many lost their family and property. The story is a moving tribute to indivdual courage in the face of overwhelming odds. But two important details were not mentioned by those conservative columnists. 1) Almost none of those facts were true, and 2) that they didn't write it. (If you were among the lucky few whose e-mailbox wasn't littered with copies, here's a version.)

Although discussions of plagarism easily drift into murky waters, the basic definition are clear: Plagarism is theft. It is stealing the work of someone else and writing your own name on it. In this case the original author is unknown, but that doesn't matter; it's still thievery if you don't mention that all -- or a significant chunk -- was lifted from someone else.

Most prominent among those caught red-handed was Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, whom the newspaper suspended without pay for four months. This severity of his punishment -- just a hair short of a firing -- has caused heated discussion in journalism circles. Some feel that the Globe overreacted because the paper is still red-faced over two other columnists caught fabricating parts of stories in 1998, and who were forced to resign.

Jacoby and his supporters are also crying censorship -- that Jacoby was treated poorly because of his conservative opinions. On CNN yesterday, Jacoby raised the "ideological question" by complaining that his boss might exercise tighter editorial oversight: "My politics are clearly right of center. Renee Loth, the brand new editorial page editor, has politics that are distinctly left of center. When you tell a columnist there's got to be a rethink of his column, it sends up all kinds of red flags."

In the same July 22 interview, Jacoby said repeated gossip that, "this is having a real chilling effect through the newsroom. People are walking around thinking, 'If I make one tiny mistake like this, if I forget to attribute something that it didn't even occur to me needed attribution, am I going to get cut off for four months without pay?'"

Jacoby's excuses are reason enough to give him the sack. It's the whine of a guilty child; before publication, he e-mailed his column to about 100 correspondents and clearly acknowledged that he was mostly rehashing someone else's work -- although that honest disclaimer was dropped from his published version. Editor Loth told the Washington Post that this was a factor in evaluating his "intent." Nor is it likely that many Globe reporters fear that this was a "tiny mistake... forget[ting] to attribute something." Let's be real: His entire column churned this single theme as well as passing off many of the direct quotes as his own invention. If he can't fathom that this is theft, then he doesn't deserve a forum. Anywhere. (But want to bet that he ends up at one of those right-wing D.C. "Institutes?")

Another plagarist was National Review's Jonah Goldberg. Like Jacoby, he insisted that it was an honest mistake to Slate columnist Timothy Noah, and that he had "checked out everything" before running it. Pressed for his sources, Golberg cited the Washington Times and other popular conservative newspapers that had also recently plagarized versions of the essay. Goldberg conceded to Noah that he "did a pretty poor job," but like Jacoby, sought excuses. After all, he should be forgiven because his version published a year earlier had clearly disclosed that the article came from anonymous e-mail. And this lapse of honesty was no worse than "mythological accounts" reporting children killed by guns or abducted by strangers, he protested to Slate.

The third plagarizing columnist that week was Ollie North, whose writing appears on MSNBC's on-line "Equal Time" section. Three times convicted of federal crimes (aiding in the obstruction of Congress, accepting illegal gratuities, and destroying Iran-Contra documents), North wins the prize for biggest goof. Ollie declaimed that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara "just don't cut the mustard" compared to his descriptions of the Founding Fathers -- which, of course, were fictional.

Like the Jacoby and Goldberg columns, North's plagarism is no longer available on the web. (Only the Boston Globe offered an explanation why the column had disappeared.) Monitor received no response from "Equal Time," but this week MSNBC Executive Producer Joan Connell returned our call to explain that she ordered North's column yanked. Connell emphasized that it was a mistake for this article to appear anywhere on the MSNBC web site. They did not commission or authorize this column, she stressed, volunteering that North's syndicated columns often don't "meet the bar of journalism."

Rounding out the picture for the July 4 weekend, others published the essay, in whole or in part:

  • Ohio GOP Rep. Lynn Olman was slammed for publishing the essay under his own name in a local newspaper. "To call it plagiarism is like calling Lake Erie moist," charged Democrat opponent John Billis. "He should concentrate on going after some big-time criminals, like people parking in illegal spots," snarled Olman. (To any readers in District 51: are there any other candidates you could possibly vote for?)

  • Antiquitarian senator Strom Thurmond entered a version into the Congressional Record, citing as author a retired congressman -- who plagarized the article in 1965.

  • Ann Landers printed a version of the piece, noting that it came from "Ellen of New Jersey," who told her, "I received this from a friend." Give both Ann and Ellen highest marks for honesty.

  • Rush Limbaugh posted a version to his web site, along with a surprising claim -- that his dad wrote it. "My dad was renowned for his oratory and for his original mind; this speech is, I think, a superb demonstration of both," wrote the talk show host.

So where did the story come from? Researcher James Elbrecht has an excellent web page that explores the origins and errors of the story. The earliest known example appeared in print in 1954, followed soon by a version by radio entertainer Paul Harvey that was widely reprinted. Elbrecht believes that a still-unknown author -- not Limbaugh's dad -- wrote the proto-version.

It's easy to see why that little article is so popular with conservatives. Each version emphasizes that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were men of means and education. (Specifically, they were "white men," added Ollie North.) They were not "wild-eyed, rabble-rousing ruffians" (an anonymous version) or "dreamy-eyed intellectuals or draft card burners" (Limbaugh). In short, they were the priviliged elite -- exactly as most conservatives see themselves. But as the many "improvements" by later authors show, the real message is that they were victimized for being rich and powerful (and a white male, to add Ollie's twist). How interesting that conservatives have boundless empathy for people only like themselves. (July 23, 2000)

 + NADER BASHING   This item from Alternet's "Media Mash" column:

If the New York Times and the San Francisco Examiner are any indication, the corporate press is scared shitless by Ralph Nader's presidential candidacy. First the Times editorialized that Bush and Gore are plenty different and Nader should lay off. Then Anthony Lewis, who used to be a beacon of good sense, followed the Times party line with a column about Nader's unfortunate run.

According to a Nader campaign insider, a very annoyed Nader has let the Times know that given their editorial stance, he expects fair coverage of his campaign. But if the Times coverage of the recent NAACP convention is any indication, then Ralph is in for a tough time with the Sulzbergers -- amidst major stories on appearances by Bush, Gore and Hillary Clinton, Nader was mentioned in only one sentence.

The San Francisco Examiner has been even more unfair. After their editorial questioning Nader's campaign, the entire Op. Ed. page on Friday, July 14th was devoted to 3 hit pieces on Nader and the Greens. First, James Lileks of the Minneapolis Star Tribune attacked the Green's platform -- which wants things like universal health care and free education, as well as items that you would expect from an idealistic Greens platform -- as if Nader was welded to the party's platform with no ideas of his own.

Next, under the heading, "Extraneous Candidates Muddy the Campaign," Hearst columnist Marianne Means opined that if Nader or Buchanan pick up a lot of supporters, it's because voters "are vulnerable to being swayed and side tracked." (Nice to see that trust in your readers, Marianne.)

Then Bonnie Erbe, host of the PBS show To the Contrary, stooped even lower. She wondered why "he [Nader] is letting his ego get in the way of what many refer to as the critical issues of our time." Then, incredibly, she offered that Nader is "completely inexperienced as a political candidate." Aside from the fact that he ran for President four years ago, after close to forty years of consumer advocacy working within the political system, Nader has many more accomplishments under his belt than Gore and Bush combined. A one-term Texas governor who got rich via elite networking is far less experienced than Ralph Nader.

Maybe the good thing about these pontificators is they don't grasp how their disdain for people's brain power and good sense produces a backlash. Fortunately, news coverage in the field of Nader is better than the editorial pages, and clearly comes closer to reporting what some Americans are thinking. AP reporter Sandra Sobieraj wrote on July 15th that Gore had a tough time with an audience in Saginaw, Michigan when one woman sternly admonished: "It has felt to me that the Clinton-Gore administration gave an awful lot of ground to the right and I would like to know why I should vote for you and not Ralph Nader. And don't tell me 'because I will split the vote,' because that is not an answer." (July 26, 2000)

 + SCOOP FOR SALE   This item from the FAIR newsletter:

In accepting a deal to tell only one side of an important story in exchange for a "scoop," editors of the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal violated fundamental principles of journalism and betrayed their readers' trust.

According to Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Washington Post (5/29/00), "a publicist hired by United Airlines and US Airways offered three major newspapers a deal that none of them could refuse. The pitch: We'll give you the exclusive details of a $5 billion merger if you promise not to call any outsiders for comment." All three papers agreed to this censorious arrangement, which only fell apart because the Financial Times website broke the story early, negating the agreement.

It's disturbing that a newspaper would agree to report a major story by relying entirely on one party in the story for information and comment. But the editors' explanations only made things worse. The Wall Street Journal's managing editor, Paul Steiger, claimed to "hate those kind of arrangements" (which implies that this is not the first), but explained that "if the news is big enough, we'd rather give it to our readers with whatever caveats are appropriate." But is a corporate press release without any outsider comment really "news?" And wouldn't a "big" story call for even more caution and balance, rather than a "caveat" saying that normal journalistic procedures weren't followed?

Washington Post financial editor Jill Dutt also put doing the story quickly ahead of balance: "It does a better job for readers to have the story on the first day than not to have the story," she contended. As a matter of fact, Dutt said, the Post doesn't really need outside experts: "The Washington Post, regardless if no one is called, can give much better background and context for the significant issues involved in the deal."

And she understands why corporate executives would want "a clear shot at giving investors your side of the deal before you get all the naysayers." It should go without saying that it is not a newspaper's role to facilitate companies' corporate strategy, or to protect them from "naysayers."

Dutt's bottom-line rationale for accepting the airlines' "scoop" under their restrictions was: "I don't want to get beat."

New York Times business editor Glenn Kramon likewise accepted this kind of deal-making as the price for being a major player in business journalism: "We've been serious about business news for too long to be cut out of big stories like this, and it's about time we were included." But it's no honor to be included in a race to the bottom where newspapers compete to be first through abandoning journalistic values like balance, depth and accuracy.

Howard Kurtz is to be commended for bringing this breach of journalistic standards at major news outlets, including his own, to the public's attention. But his assessment--that the story underscores "the degree to which corporate executives, like politicians, are increasingly determined to shape coverage of their exploits"-- is incomplete. Surely it's also a devastating indictment of the media outlets that accept and abet such manipulation.

A coalition of leading media critics and groups, including FAIR, has written to the editors of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, asking for an explanation of their policy on secret exclusionary deals like that proposed by United Airlines/US Airways. FAIR asks you to please contact one or more of these papers and let them know that agreements to tell only one side of a story are not acceptable journalism.

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