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Sam Smith: News Junkie - Jason Leopold

News Junkie - Jason Leopold

By Editor Sam Smith

If I were Jason Leopold I probably wouldn't bother to tell you that we had the same publisher since, after all, Process Media (which published Leopold) and Feral House (which published me) are separate operations even if Adam Parfrey is the force behind both. It's the way you start to think after you've been reading 'News Junkie' for awhile.

We have a few other differences. I, for example, have never been a drug addict, never stolen 450 CDs from a record company to feed that habit, never agreed to a plea bargain for doing so, never tried to kill myself, and never had to worry that if I went on national TV someone might recognize me and inform my editor of my felonious past.

One other difference: I have never written any stories that help to break the Enron scandal.

Leopold has written a book that I had intended not to like. But before long, I found myself disliking Leopold a quarter of the time, feeling sorry for him another quarter, cheering for him in a third quarter, and in the final quarter knowing that there but for the grace of God went I.

The contradictions between Leopold's achievements and the failures that destroyed them come at you like an absorbing, never-ending tennis rally. One of the few people who sized Leopold up well was Arden Dale, who hired him as Los Angeles bureau chief of Dow Jones Newswire: Dale told Leopold, "I figure you're either a really great journalist or a serial killer. So we'd like to offer you [the job]."

By today's journalistic rules, you're not meant to think kindly towards the Leopolds of the trade. Actually, it's hard to find a Leopold in the trade anymore. When I started out, there were a lot of them, sinners of various sorts seeking salvation on a deadline. They were part of the allure of the business, adding gratuitous spice to one's own reputation and damn good company. As with the politics of the time, even the disreputable were a lot more interesting and fun to be around than most of today's precious and priggish role models.

Take the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, for example, one of those who seemed to take some pleasure outlining Leopold's problems. Ask yourself: what has Kurtz done for journalism or the nation worth half as much as helping to expose Enron? Would Kurtz, given the chance, have put half as much effort into the story as Leopold?

You take your choice: a respectable stenographer for an entropic establishment or a flawed but insatiable scribe who might just tell you what's really going on.

One need look no further than how the respectable, source-checking, objective, balanced media led us into the Reagan revolution and the second robber baron era, not to mention the Iraq war and the end of the First American Republic, to understand the weakness in its pretenses of propriety. The media has been on the take big time - but instead of bribes, it has taken endless bromides - freely and without skepticism - from the most corrupt and damaging leadership this country has even known.

So bad has it been that, despite lying to his bosses, using some poor sources, and once plagiarizing paragraphs from the Financial Times (albeit giving it credit three other times in the same article), Leopold can still make a case for himself.

Leopold came from a truly screwed up family, screwed himself up further with drugs and other mischief to make up for the lack of love, and then tried to wipe the slate clean with a lot of scoops.

"I naively thought that breaking stories on the energy crisis would impress working journalists to look up to me as the new Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. But instead following up on my scoops and going after bad guys, the press corps attacked my credibility. Reporters go out of their way to discredit journalists who continually scoop them. Otherwise they have to explain to their editors why they aren't breaking the same stories. When the press corps rejected me I convinced myself that the whole goddamn world was conspiring against me. All I wanted was to be accepted as a member of their club.

"What I found out about my competitors is that most of them were a bunch of lazy fucks who were less inclined to dig for the truth than report bureaucratic bullshit and then go home for the day. They weren't interested in the relentless, gumshoe reporting I shot my wad over. Luckily for me no one in the Sacramento press corps was smart enough to end my writing career by exposing me as the felonious thief and drug addict I was."

Some seek money as an substitute for love lost in action; Leopold went after fame and stories. Along the way he was denied the one thing that could have made it all work well, but which the Center for Journalistic Excellence never seems to worry about: an editor or two who recognized his talents and, rather than merely exploit them until he got in trouble, taught him how to do it right. The real bad guys in this book are those who used Leopold without helping him.

But Leopold is not out to make you feel sorry for him. He's trying to tell a hell of a story and does an exceptional job of it. And he's not to be confused with that other Jason, Jason Blair, who wrote things in his book like, "The cognitive logic of my belief that I could get away with not visiting a city that I was supposed to be writing from can easily be understood, though not excused." Although like Leopold, Blair was on cocaine and tried suicide, he, as Publisher's Weekly noted, "composed many of his stories while hiding out in his Brooklyn apartment, relying on information from phone interviews and the Internet to fill the column inches. The book, in fact, is filled with excuses-cum-explanations, most of a personal nature." Leopold, whatever his faults, actually covered his stories.

He is still having problems such as his recent report that Karl Rove had been indicted. Maybe his source was wrong, maybe he was being used for reasons not yet clear (such as helping the prosecutors turn Rove) and perhaps there is more to come.

In any case, I didn't run that story. And if Leopold had asked me why, I would have told him that stories about what is going to happen based on anonymous sources are among the most dangerous you can handle. I would have told him to work more on his reputation and less on his fame. I would have quoted I.F. Stone's line about the fact that most of what the government does wrong it does out in the open - and to spend more time on that than on the undercover stuff. And then he would have called me a "fucking stupid bastard." If Rove had been indicted, he would have been right.

That's the way real journalism is. Hands reaching for the light switch in the dark. The difference between Leopold and many of his more respectable colleagues is that he, albeit with sometimes lousy aim, never stopped trying.



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