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Salon.com's Response to Jason Leopold & His Reply

EDITOR'S NOTE: Following is a Salon.com editor's response to Jason Leopold's “Shafted By The New York Times” and a response to this from Leopold.

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Salon.com's Response To Jason Leopold's Account Of The Tom White Story Deletion

Salon decided to remove freelancer Jason Leopold's Aug. 29, 2002 story about Thomas White and Enron from its site at the end of a two-week-long investigation. At the time we made that decision we felt that it spoke for itself and did not think reporting every detail served any purpose. Now, Leopold has distributed an account of the events that led up to our decision that is riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations, and that omits the most important factors behind Salon's decision to take down his story -- factors that relate to his own credibility. Salon now has no choice but to respond and set the record straight.

Before we started working with Leopold, we spoke to journalists who had worked with him at Dow Jones Newswires and other publications, and they all praised his work. None told us about the significant corrections Dow Jones had had to make on Leopold's reporting that were later cited in a New York Times story about this matter.

Our initial review of Leopold's White story included detailed verification of many of the documents Leopold alludes to relating to Enron Energy Services' Lilly and Quaker Oats deals. Nothing in our review then or thereafter has raised questions about the authenticity of those documents or the accuracy of Leopold's reporting of them.

However, no Salon editor actually saw, before publication, the e-mail mentioned in the story -- purportedly from Thomas White to a colleague, reading "Close a bigger deal. Hide the loss before the 1Q." We recognize now that this was a mistake, and we regret it.

On Sept. 17, an editor at the Financial Times contacted Salon and expressed concern that some material in Leopold's story might have been plagiarized from an article that ran in his newspaper on Feb. 4, 2002. This was a serious charge and we investigated it quickly and carefully. It turned out that, indeed, Leopold had used seven full paragraphs amounting to 480 words, virtually verbatim, from the FT. There were two attributions to the FT within the passage, but they appeared to apply only to the specific sentences that contained them, not to the full passage.

Salon senior editor Kerry Lauerman, Leopold's editor at Salon, asked Leopold if he could explain what happened. Leopold told us he felt that the Financial Times' reporters had in fact based their work on his own earlier reporting on Dow Jones Newswires. We asked Leopold to send us evidence, and he e-mailed us a document that appeared to be a Jan. 15, 2002, Dow Jones Energy Service report by him.

But when we contacted Dow Jones to verify the story, they informed us that they had no record of it in their database. Leopold told us that he believed Dow Jones had "deleted 420 of my stories" from its archive. We pressed Dow Jones for a formal statement and this is what they wrote us: "Articles published by Dow Jones Newswires are included in a database available through Factiva. There has been no purging, let alone a wholesale purging, of articles from that database, whether written by Mr. Leopold or any other Dow Jones reporter. In short, no one at Dow Jones can find a copy of the article you have sent to us that is described as having been published on Dow Jones Newswires on January 15; no one at Dow Jones has any recollection of ever working on or reading that article before it was sent to us by Salon."

At this point and throughout the remainder of this process, reaching Leopold became more difficult. We felt these issues were matters of considerable urgency, and at least two Salon editors were spending the bulk of their time on this problem, but Leopold would disappear for a day or two or fail to respond to us.

In the absence of any corroborating evidence to support Leopold's version of events, we decided to post a correction noting what we reluctantly had to conclude was an instance of plagiarism. Leopold still maintains that his two brief attributions to the FT mean that he did not plagiarize. The original version of his story remains in the Nexis archives [and here on Scoop “US Army Secretary Helped Cook Enron's Books” ed.], so readers are free to review it in its original form and draw their own conclusions.

As the questions surrounding the Dow Jones story began to multiply, we felt we had no choice but to review every aspect of Leopold's original story for us, again. It was only at this stage of our investigation, Sept. 20, that Leopold finally provided us with the evidence supporting his story's account of an e-mail from White.

What he provided was a fax of a printout of an e-mail exchange. We noticed immediately that the wording on the e-mail -- "Close a bigger deal. Hide the loss before the 1Q" -- was different from the wording in Leopold's story ("Close a bigger deal to hide the loss"). When we published our correction notice concerning the Financial Times plagiarism on Sept. 23, we also corrected that wording, as we continued to investigate the e-mail itself.

The faxed e-mail contained no e-mail addresses or other headers, and that raised our concern, as did a published denial from White in a letter to the New York Times, where columnist Paul Krugman had picked up Leopold's story. We told Leopold we needed to authenticate the e-mail. He told us the name of his source for it, and Lauerman told Leopold he was going to call the source to verify the e-mail. The source denied ever having spoken to Leopold.

With sensitive investigative stories, it can happen that a source will get "cold feet," and that was certainly a possibility in this situation. Leopold assured us that he had cell phone records to prove that he had indeed talked to the source on numerous occasions. Then he told us that he didn't have the cell phone bill, but he would have the phone company send it to us by the morning of Monday, Sept. 30.

We were increasingly concerned that the process was becoming drawn out, but felt we needed to review the phone records. By early Monday afternoon we had not received them, and found that Leopold was not returning our calls or e-mails. Later that afternoon we received a call not from Leopold but from a relative of his who was also apparently serving as his attorney and intermediary.

First, this intermediary had a phone company representative in a conference call read off phone numbers and dates of calls to us -- but they were calls to a different source in the story than to the one Leopold had told us was his source for the e-mail. Furthermore, all the calls took place after the story had been published. Next, the intermediary explained that the delay in getting the cell phone bill was because the phone belonged to Leopold's wife, not to Leopold himself, and that the bill had been at Leopold's home all along, and that he would fax it to us shortly.

When we reviewed this phone bill early Tuesday it contained numerous calls to the "other source" phone number (the same one the phone-service rep had cited the previous evening), but only one call to the number of the source Leopold originally named as the supplier of the White e-mail. The call was only one minute long, indicating that it was possibly unanswered, and in any case hardly long enough to conduct any sort of interview or obtain a fax of a sensitive e-mail. In any case, the call had taken place five days after Leopold had filed an early draft of the story that already quoted the e-mail.

At this point we concluded that we were never going to get the supporting evidence Leopold kept promising, and decided to remove the story.

There were other inconsistencies and problems we encountered as we worked with Leopold to try to reconfirm all aspects of his story, but these were the most important. At the end of this process we felt that the essential trust between editor and writer that underlies all reliable journalism had broken down, and that in the wake of that breakdown, we had no choice but to take the story down.

It was not an action we sought. After all, our interest all along was to try to support the story. Contrary to Leopold, Salon has been under no pressure of any kind about this story. There has been no "political pressure." If there had been, we would have been delighted to report on it and expose it. There have been no legal threats (except veiled ones from Leopold himself). We operated on our own schedule, not one related to other media coverage. We tried to balance the time necessary for a careful review with the responsibility to report to the public quickly as problems with the story emerged.

- Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2002

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Jason Leopold’s Response To The Salon Editors

Salon's account of the circumstances that led up to the removal of the Tom White story contains nothing but lies.

At this point, I wonder why Salon would go to great lengths to further twist the knife into my back. I suppose the New York Times will now release their version of the events. I can see the headline now "Jason Leopold Must Die."

Mr. Lauerman, Salon's Washington, D.C., bureau chief, had every single document, including the email, prior to publication of the story.

Must I shout this from the rooftops? SALON HAD ALL OF THE DOCUMENTS, INCLUDING THE EMAIL.

Salon still fails to mention that the FT story was credited three times in my White story. Again, I ask, why would I credit a story only to pass off other grafs of the same story as my own work? It doesn't make sense.

It was a mistake, a careless one, and a correction was made. But Salon feels that slandering me, in public and private, will somehow sway people to believe that it was me who screwed Salon over rather than the other way around.

Since we're getting into some name calling, let me just say that Scott Rosenberg, Salon's managing editor, is one of the most antagonistic people I have ever met.

Unfortunately, I had to deal with Rosenberg and not Lauerman. There were times when I was on the phone with Rosenberg that I actually thought about hanging myself. The man just wouldn't stop berating me.

Despite what Salon said in its account of the facts and in their note to subscribers, I stand behind my story and I did everything humanly possible to help Salon and the New York Times.

In the end, Salon and the NYT felt it was better to tarnish my integrity as a journalist rather than do their job and properly investigate Thomas White and thereby save whatever integrity they have left as news organizations.

- Posted October 11th 2002 (PDT)

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