Links May Be Deceiving

Posted by Michael Getler on

Last week, a viewer in Eureka, Calif., Charles Cox, sent me a couple of emails that raised disturbing questions and suspicions. Here is what he wrote:

“It looks like PBS has a journalist on its website working for the CIA. I'm referring to Ken Dilanian, and here's the link for his page on PBS. Why is he on PBS website? Who suggested him to represent PBS? How much does he get paid? Do other journalists refer to him before they report stories for PBS? At this point, PBS news, the NewsHour, are suspect as propaganda arms of the CIA. There are no stories that I would consider-nor should anyone else-honest, factual journalism.”

Then he emailed again to include the links “revealing Ken Dilanian to be a CIA operative and for his page on PBS. Who hired him? Does he have editorial control of news? How much does PBS pay him? Does he contribute to NewsHour and other 'news' generated by PBS? At this point, PBS has little credibility as a honest news/journalistic organization. It is a corporate/government controlled entity and should be disregarded as a source of journalism.”

First, an over-simplified guide for the column and sequence of events. This involves an article in a new online investigative site about the work of a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who, since May of this year, works for The Associated Press, and some of whose stories, as is the case with many journalists, also get posted on the website of the PBS NewsHour.

The Intercept and the Los Angeles Times

The first link Cox refers to is a lengthy online article posted on Sept. 5 by Ken Silverstein in The Intercept, a new web operation aimed, in part, at providing a “platform to report on the documents previously provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden” and in part at “producing fearless, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues.”

The story starts out this way: “A prominent national security reporter for the Los Angeles Times routinely submitted drafts and detailed summaries of his stories to CIA press handlers prior to publication, according to documents obtained by The Intercept. Email exchanges between CIA public affairs officers and Ken Dilanian, now an Associated Press intelligence reporter who previously covered the CIA for the Times, show that Dilanian enjoyed a closely collaborative relationship with the agency, explicitly promising positive news coverage and sometimes sending the press office entire story drafts for review prior to publication. In at least one instance, the CIA’s reaction appears to have led to significant changes in the story that was eventually published in the Times.”

The story seems to be pretty well documented and nailed down by Silverstein. Indeed, Dilanian acknowledges to Silverstein that it was a bad idea. “I probably shouldn’t have done it, and I wouldn’t do it now.”

Bob Drogin, the Times’ deputy bureau chief and national security editor, said in the story that he had been unaware that Dilanian had sent story drafts to the CIA and would have not allowed him to do it. “Ken is a diligent reporter and it’s responsible to seek comment and response to your reporting,” he told me. “But sharing story drafts is not appropriate.”

Silverstein, in his article, also acknowledges that Dilanian, during his years at the Times “has done some strong work and has at times been highly critical of the CIA.”

Enter, the AP

Dilanian left the LA Times in May to join the Associated Press. AP spokesman Paul Colford told The Intercept that the news organization is “satisfied that any pre-publication exchanges that Ken had with the CIA before joining AP were in pursuit of accuracy in his reporting on intelligence matters,” and added that “we do not coordinate with government agencies on the phrasing of material.”

Indeed, Colford has supplied several challenges to what he says are "some inaccuracies in The Intercept's story about Ken Dilanian's earlier work for the Los Angeles Times, as referenced in the emails." They are included farther down in this posting. They resulted from my questions to the NewsHour about the viewer’s comments and the NewsHour’s subsequent inquires to the Associated Press. I am not interested in getting into a dispute between the AP and Intercept but in the interests of keeping this in one place, and at the risk of too much to read, I’m including it.

And Then, PBS

So what does this have to do with PBS and the NewsHour? That’s where the viewer’s second linkcomes in because it shows a web page on the NewsHour’s online operation that is titled: “Ken Dilanian, Associated Press” and contains links to “Ken’s Most Recent Stories.”

Viewed in isolation, it could, I guess, lead some to believe there was some link between the reporter and NewsHour other than just a place where his wire service stories are posted. And that could raise doubts especially if there had been a story elsewhere about that reporter's techniques and connections to the CIA.

So, I’m posting this column because I think there are some important questions raised by the viewer, and answers from the NewsHour and the AP, dealing with how even major news organizations can be vulnerable and have been vulnerable in a couple of well-publicized cases over the last several years to a reporter operating outside the organization’s own ground-rules, and also how associations online need to be made as clear to readers as they usually are in print.

Good Questions But…

I should also say that while I think the viewer has raised worthwhile points calling attention to this situation, I do not agree with his accompanying characterizations and suspicions. I have the highest regard for the journalism and the ethics of the PBS NewsHour and the Associated Press. Everyone and every organization, at times, makes mistakes or takes missteps. I write about the NewsHour very frequently and sometimes critically, because they are the only daily news program on PBS and naturally PBS viewers are engaged in the news and express their views. But they are, and always have been, in my opinion, vital to an in-depth understanding of the news on a daily basis that is not available elsewhere on television.

The NewsHour Response:

In response to the viewer’s questions, the NewsHour’s foreign editor and senior producer, Justin Kenny, says this:

“The NewsHour has absolutely no relationship with Ken Dilanian and never has. We, like every major news organization in the U.S., are subscribers to the AP and post AP stories that we deem newsworthy and useful to our audience on our website. We did have Dilanian on as a guest [Aug. 31, 2012] when he was still with the LAT. Given that it was CIA related and we had him on during his time at LAT, I will have our tech team pull it down off the website.

“Every single ‘Author’ (could be an employee, commissioned freelancer, wire service reporter or other contributor) has their own page on our website. Our content management system automatically builds a directory page of every byline on the site, much like it does for every tag. We currently have roughly 29,000 different pages dynamically created from tags or bylines.

“Ken Dilanian was and is clearly identified as an AP reporter on our website. We understand, however, that there may be confusion for some of our readers about who works for us directly and who doesn’t. We will be discussing ways to delineate that more clearly on the site and we can update you if there are any changes to announce.

“Following our communications over the weekend, I reached out to AP today with some questions about Ken Dilanian’s reporting and reporting practices. AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee responded to all of them. I have included Q and A below which you are welcome to share publicly or with individual viewers.

(Ombudsman’s Note: This exchange occurred after I passed along a further email to me from Charles Cox who said, in part: “For the Newshour editor to think that a journalist who was writing his stories for the benefit of the CIA at a certain point in time, is trustworthy now, calls into question the editor’s credibility as well, and his independence from the CIA. How many other journalists that the Newshour interviews and gives webpages to are, in reality, paid propagandists for vested interests or the government?”)

The Q and A

NH: Was AP aware of Ken Dilanian’s reporting practices at LAT before he joined AP?

AP: Yes, we knew about the email exchanges before we hired him. A FOIA by another news organization resulted earlier this year in the release of email exchanges between CIA press officers and several intelligence beat reporters in Washington.  We discussed the issue and AP’s guidelines, in full, before Ken joined our organization.

NH: Is the AP confident that Dilanian hasn’t shared story wordings with the CIA or other sources prior to publication since he came on board?

AP: Yes, in keeping with AP policy, we are confident he has not shared story wordings or story drafts with sources prior to publication since joining the AP. He works closely with his editor here, as do all our reporters. He has been aware of our policies from the start of our relationship and has followed them.

NH: Has a review of Dilanian’s reporting and reporting practices for the AP been conducted (if not, is there a plan to do so?)

AP: As with all reporters here, he works closely with an editor day to day, including in his communications with sources, and we are confident he has followed all AP guidelines since he joined us. We stand by and are proud of the work he has done for us.

NH: Does the AP stand by Dilanian’s reporting and reporting practices since he joined the news organization?

AP: Yes. We would encourage people to read the body of his work, which include stories critical of practices of the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

NH: Anything else we should know?

AP: Ken remains a key reporter in AP’s award-winning intelligence coverage and is focused on his upcoming stories.

And the NewsHour adds this: “We are thus far satisfied with AP’s response and have no plans at this time to remove Ken Dilanian’s AP stories from our site.

“Most of the guests we have on are people whose work we are quite familiar with. When we bring on new guests, we generally have conversations with them, review some of their work and often inquire about them informally with their peers. When we have new interview subjects on during breaking news situations, the process needs to adapt. We generally choose to work with news organizations who have a strong track record of quality journalism and working with us like the New York Times, Associated Press and others or try to reach out to principles in a particular story. If we feel that there may be a conflict of interest with any of our guests, we may ask questions of them and others in their area of expertise. Based on that information, we may choose not to have a guest on or have them on and disclose who they are working for.”

The AP’s Paul Colford Responds to The Intercept Article:

Here are some inaccuracies in The Intercept’s story about Ken Dilanian, whose diligence is illustrated herein: 

1. The story says he “explicitly promised” positive news coverage, but he did not. In some cases he tried to prompt the CIA to answer questions about classified programs or intelligence by arguing it would be in the agency’s interest to provide information to the public, but he never promised anything in return. The stories in question were neither favorable nor unfavorable to the CIA.

2. The only changes he made in response to agency comments were fact-based. On the Yemen story, “does this look better?” meant “Is this more accurate?” The issue was the following: he had sources telling him there were CIA officers on the ground in Yemen, but he did not have it confirmed. He was trying to get the CIA to confirm it or some other aspect of increased CIA engagement in Yemen and he was trying to phrase accurately what the facts were.  In the end, he could not confirm that CIA officers were on the ground, so he took it out and wrote what he knew.

3. On the story about congressional oversight of drone strikes, he was trying to get the agency to answer questions about a controversial covert program. The resulting story, based on congressional sources, revealed for the first time that congressional overseers were watching video of drone strikes. Far from soft-pedaling drone strikes, as the Intercept suggests, it includes these lines: “The United States faces international criticism for its drone strikes. Officials in Pakistan, in particular, have complained that strikes have killed many civilians, and some members of Congress have recently raised questions about `signature’ drone attacks based on an individual's pattern of behavior. Congressional officials say their review has made the CIA more careful. They are hard-pressed, however, to point to any changes the agency has made.”

4. The Intercept claims Dilanian “closely collaborated with the CIA in a May 2012 story that minimized the agency’s cooperation with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal on their film about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty.” That is an utter mischaracterization. In fact, the story, headlined “Hollywood is a longtime friend of the CIA,” was about the CIA’s efforts to burnish its image in Hollywood, and it showed the agency has cooperated not only with Boal/Bigelow, but with many others. It did not suggest that such collaboration was bad or good, it just laid out what the cooperation had been. People disturbed by such cooperation could find plenty of ammunition in Dilanian’s story.

Posted on Sept. 10, 2014 at 4:06 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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