Mark Bowden On 'The Story Behind The Story'

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Bowden investigates situations in which media outlets have picked up stories that have been researched and surfaced by "political hit men."

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Last week, a video made the news rounds - two conservative activists posing as a pimp and a prostitute, soliciting tax advice from ACORN. Now there are calls for federal and state investigations into the political organizing group. And Congress has taken steps to cut its funding. And you are undoubtedly familiar with this video clip from May.

Justice SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Supreme Court Justice): All of the legal defense funds out there, they're looking for people with Court of Appeals experience, because it is - Court of Appeals is where policy is made. And I know this is on tape, that I should never say that, because we don't make law. I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Justice SOTOMAYOR: Okay. I know. I know. I'm not promoting it and I'm advocating it. I'm - you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Justice SOTOMAYOR: Okay.

ROBERTS: That's Justice Sonia Sotomayor, of course, on a panel discussion at Duke University Law School from 2005. After President Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court, news organizations - including this one - played that clip over and over and over again. But where did it come from? Who sifted through hours of archived video at the university's Web site to find it?

The clip wasn't unearthed by a professional journalist. In the new article published in the Atlantic magazine, journalist Mark Bowden says that several hours of Internet snooping by a blogger at his upstairs computer wound up shaping the public's perception of Sonia Sotomayor, at least for the first few weeks following her nomination.

So have we said goodbye to old-fashioned investigative journalism? Joining us now from Philadelphia is Mark Bowden, a national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine. You can find the link to his most recent piece, "The Story Behind the Story," at our Web site, npr.org.

Mark Bowden, it's good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. MARK BOWDEN (National Correspondent, Atlantic Magazine): Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: So let's go back to that Sotomayor clip. Who unearthed it and how?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, it was unearthed by a fellow named Morgen Richmond, who is - he's got a full-time day job, but in the evenings, he cruises the Internet and he basically looks for material to support his blogging on a conservative Web site called the verumserum.com. And so he found it without actually too much trouble.

ROBERTS: And what did he do with it?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, he edited it and he posted it on - initially on YouTube, and then on the Verum Serum Web site. And he packaged it in basically that - actually, a little bit less of the clipping that I just showed on your program as something that really called into question whether or not Sotomayor was a judicial activist in the sense that conservatives so despised.

ROBERTS: Well, the other clip that made the rounds along the same time with the wise Latina remark. Where did that one come from?

Mr. BOWDEN: That came from a speech that Sotomayor gave at Berkeley in 2001. It was on the occasion of a - an annual talk honoring an Hispanic faculty member at Berkeley.

ROBERTS: So how does it go from Morgen Richmond's upstairs computer to every major and every minor news organization in the country?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, Verum Serum is read by, Morgan estimated, 20 or 30 people. Those 20 or 30 people are other conservative bloggers, for the most part, some of whom have much larger - much more heavily trafficked Web sites like the Volokh Conspiracy and hotair.com. And those Web sites are monitored by, well, you know, the journalists at Fox and - but more importantly in this case, by the Judicial Confirmation Network, which is an activist group, conservative group in Washington that works to derail liberal nominees to the Supreme Court. So from them, it gets sent out to - or tips are sent out to journalists from the major networks.

ROBERTS: Do you see any difference between this and a video press release?

Mr. BOWDEN: Not a whole lot different. Journalists generally know how to take a press release. They know they're getting a sales job, or to put it less kindly, a work of propaganda. And real journalists go out and do their own reporting.

ROBERTS: Well, of course, this - the rise of this, sort of, taking a video from another source and throwing it up on the air coincides with both the gaping maw of the 24-hour news cycle, but also, you know, lack of resources in those news rooms.

Mr. BOWDEN: Right.

ROBERTS: Is that the perfect storm? Which do you think is driving the growth of this?

Mr. BOWDEN: I think, you know, it is, in part, the decline in resources for news organizations. But it's also laziness. You know, the fact is that those clippings of Sotomayor showed her in her own voice, I mean, speaking for herself. Of course, anyone who's worked with videotape or audiotape or interviewed people knows that how you choose to edit someone's remark can very - it does a whole lot to shape the content of what they appear to be saying.

And so, you know, I think then, what we get down to and what the story in the Atlantic tries to - the point I'm trying to make is that the work that political activists do is motivated by a desire to further their cause - or in this case, to damage a nominee - as opposed to a journalist's objective, which is to try and get to the truth of a matter.

ROBERTS: So in that case, if that video had been unearth by a journalist as opposed to a conservative blogger, what would the context have showed? Why is - considering it was a video of her in her own words, what was unfair about it?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, let's take them one at a time. The comment about being a wise Latina woman and thereby being able to make superior judgment, which was aired universally, was actually the second part of a paragraph that began by looking at a case involving sexual or racial discrimination.

So what Sotomayor was saying was not that her gender and her ethnicity made her superior across the board. What she was saying was something considerably narrower, which was that she felt that her background and her gender would make her more empathetic and perhaps wiser in deciding cases involving sexual and racial discrimination. Now that's an arguable statement, but it's nowhere near the same statement as saying, you know, that she considers herself to be superior across the board.

As for the second quote, it was - she was on a panel at Duke University. She was asked to explain by a student whether - how they should target their application to a judicial courtships, whether they should be looking for a job at the district court level or the appellate level. And Sotomayor's point there was that if you go to work as a clerk on the district court, you're going to be a lot of very rapid research for a judge who needs to make decisions right away about the specific issues of an individual case, whereas on the appellate court level, you're making - you are researching decisions that will affect judicial policy, that will set precedents that will determine the way the law is interpreted across the board. That's simply true.

And any - I think any journalist looking at those comments in context would find them unremarkable. It's only the laughter in the room when Sotomayor used the word policy which made the whole thing sound suspicious and conspiratorial, and it made it sound like she would say that she's part of some sort of wink-wink conspiracy to make policy from the bench.

ROBERTS: Let's talk about that ACORN video, because it was also not produced by journalists, but by conservative activists. But it's a little different. What did you make of it?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I thought it was a very effective piece of political activism. And it was - and kudos to the…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOWDEN: …young people who did it. Now, once again, you know, I think it's very important for viewers of their video to know who they were, what their motivations were. And it's also, I think, incumbent on journalists when they present that information to present it in that context and, ideally, do some of their own reporting - ask questions like: How is this material edited? What were the circumstances under which these comments were made? Because, as I said, anyone who has any experience with editing audiotape or videotape knows that you can selectively, sort of, bend the material to make it looked like what you want it to look like.

ROBERTS: On the other hand, the fact that these people had an agenda and a political point of view doesn't necessarily make it invalid that, you know, ACORN did something illegal and immoral.

Mr. BOWDEN: Not at all. I mean, it's a revelation, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with what they did. In fact, I think it showed considerable pluck and ingenuity. Nevertheless, it's not journalism. It's not journalism because the motivation is to further a political agenda, in this case, to attack ACORN. That doesn't make it completely illegitimate, but it does raise questions in my mind, as a journalist, that I would like to have answered before I would use that material.

ROBERTS: So is this a one-way curve? Is this the only direction journalism is going, or is there a counteracting force?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I just think that, you know, we are, as a society, adapting to an enormous, rapid change in technology. In the past, the - if you heard a report or you read a story or you saw something on television, it was being presented to you by a journalist. That was the way, you know, basically, large journalistic organizations controlled media. Today, everyone has access to television cameras, audiotapes. The Internet allows people to broadcast and publish things on their own. And so that means that the political activists and every person, really, has the same tools at their disposal as journalists have long had. I don't think that makes them journalists.

The tools themselves, you know, can be very powerful and certainly are very useful to political activists. But I think it's incumbent on journalists to, first of all, understand themselves what the difference is between what activists are doing and what they're supposed to be doing as journalists and make that distinction clear to their readers and viewers.

ROBERTS: Does either Morgan Richmond or the two ACORN activists - do they call themselves journalists?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, you know what? When I first interviewed them, they did. But I think in discussions with me where I raised these issues with them and explained to them what the difference was, in my opinion, and what the motivations and ethics of journalists are as opposed to those of someone who's a political activist, they retreated from calling themselves journalists and now no longer do.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You mentioned, sort of, in the past, the news came from journalists. But, of course, the news source with a political bent is not a new phenomenon. Or even the news source with an agenda, if you go to, you know, William Randolph Hearst is not a phenomenon - a new phenomenon. How is this different?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, it's different, first and foremost, as I've said, because the tools of broadcasting and publishing are in everyone's hands now.

It is true that the history of journalism is a long one, and, you know, it's only really been since the mid-20th century that the standards and values that I grew up in in the newspaper business really took hold. We went through long periods where newspapers in America where owned by and operated by publishers with a very strong local, sometimes national and international, agenda.

And yet, around the post-World War II period, there emerged a much more professional, white collar form of journalism because of the success of newspapers that separated the newsroom and the editorial side of a news operation from the publisher and the marketing side of things.

And I know that, you know, in the years that I worked - the decades that I worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer, that was a very rigidly enforced wall. No one ever influenced me in my work for The Philadelphia Inquirer to slant a story in one direction or the other, and nor was I even aware of any effort to censor or shape the reports that went into the newspaper.

ROBERTS: Mark Bowden, a national correspondent for the Atlantic Magazine, joining us from our home in Philadelphia. You can read his article at npr.org. Mark Bowden, thanks so much.

Mr. BOWDEN: My pleasure, Rebecca. Thank you.

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