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A news story often records a moment in time, like a screen grab, yet the repercussions live on. You're about to hear about a man who asked The Wall Street Journal to revisit an article from eight years ago, an article that critics have used to trash his reputation. NPR's David Folkenflik tells us what happened next.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: For decades, Robert Shireman has been focused on protecting students from unaffordable levels of college debt, looking especially at for-profit campuses. Shireman helped craft new policies as a senior education department official in the first years of the Obama administration. Yet, for our purposes, Shireman is less of interest as a policymaker than as a punching bag.
ROBERT SHIREMAN: Every six or 12 months, somebody - usually somebody probably in the for-profit college industry - decides to resuscitate these old, tired claims.
FOLKENFLIK: The colleges and their allies have used a Wall Street Journal article to shred Shireman's reputation for years. He says it's caused deep stress and wasted time. Shireman has been accused of corruption by pro-industry websites, conservative opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, even liberal groups with financial ties to an industry leader.
SHIREMAN: And they look for ways that they can try to smear me. And they find this article, and they cite it as evidence of something, even though there's nothing to it.
FOLKENFLIK: In 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department was investigating Shireman for violating a policy prohibiting communications with his former employer. And that much was true. The article went further, though. The Journal implied he might have been involved in insider trading, giving secret information to an investor who could have made money off it. A federal inspector general's report had already determined he had not. The Journal didn't report that. The inspector general had found his emails with his former employer were innocuous. The Journal didn't report that, either. The Justice Department investigation went nowhere, but the attacks kept coming, including one in April from Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who cautioned a former colleague of Shireman's.
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RICHARD BURR: Finally, I want to carefully point out your close proximity to potentially unethical conduct at the department under the Obama administration.
FOLKENFLIK: Burr didn't use Shireman's name but accused him of...
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BURR: Providing deliberative and confidential regulatory information to short sellers on Wall Street.
FOLKENFLIK: The problem is that's just not true.
JUSTIN HAMILTON: It's preposterous. It's absolutely preposterous.
FOLKENFLIK: Justin Hamilton worked with Shireman at the U.S. Education Department. He was the spokesman for the department in 2010. That's when Shireman listened in by telephone as a Wall Street investor named Steve Eisman made a presentation. Eisman warned that student loans from for-profit colleges could collapse. That said, Eisman was a short seller. He stood to make money if the price of their stocks fell. Shireman later emailed Eisman to say he had gotten a statistic wrong. That's it. Again, Justin Hamilton.
HAMILTON: There was no conspiracy to do the bidding of short sellers in order to make a quick buck. I think what you had here is a guy who dedicated his entire career to this issue.
MELANIE SLOAN: For me, the focus was never Shireman. It was Eisman.
FOLKENFLIK: Melanie Sloan is the founder of a liberal watchdog group called CREW. Her group had been a key source for The Wall Street Journal.
SLOAN: I just don't think we want short sellers making policy on the issues in which they are shorting companies. I think that's dangerous for everybody.
FOLKENFLIK: Something to know about Sloan's outfit and many of Shireman's critics - they have ties to the for-profit colleges. Senator Burr received $47,000 in campaign contributions. And Melanie Sloan's group? It received $150,000 in 2010 and 2011 from the founder of the University of Phoenix. Sloan says she has no regrets about what Shireman went through.
SLOAN: In Washington, do people get hurt all the time, all the time?
FOLKENFLIK: This spring, the attacks kept coming, some still citing that 2013 Wall Street Journal story. Shireman went to the Journal. He hoped it would revisit its reporting, maybe with a correction or even an update. A political editor replied that the paper concluded no action was warranted.
SHIREMAN: I thought they would at least take some kind of corrective action. And I'm, you know, frankly, quite surprised that they did kind of less than nothing.
FOLKENFLIK: The Journal told NPR it reviewed Shireman's request seriously, despite the age of the article in question.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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