Friday, November 21, 2008

The Nation's Press Can Do Its Job -- If It Wants To

We are soon to celebrate the anniversary of the first report of a scandal that brought West Virginia University to its knees. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters Len Boselovic and Patricia Sabatini broke the story that WVU had awarded an MBA degree to a student who lacked nearly half of the required credits for the degree in "MBA Mystery in Morgantown." The story hit the streets on Dec. 21, 2007.

At the outset, there was no story. As a matter of routine reporting, Boselovic and Sabatini called WVU to verify that an officer of Mylan Pharmaceutical had an MBA as her official resume stated. Then came the surprise answers. At first, the university said, "No, she didn't." A few days later, WVU was saying "Yes, she did."

What followed was an investigative reporter's dream come true.

The Post-Gazette's reporting by Boselovic and Sabatini stands as a great example of why a free press is so important. As the mystery in Morgantown deepened, it was apparent from reading articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education that universities across the nation were looking inward to see whether they had awarded bogus degrees.

One did not have to look far to see the reporters' impact. Pittsburgh's prestigious Carnegie Mellon University, while never a target of the Post-Gazette's reporting, announced in August that it had forced the resignation of one of its academic deans because of an improperly awarded master's degree in 2004.

While WVU bore the brunt of the Post-Gazette's criticism, the entire academic community took itself to task to examine the issue of bogus degrees. As a result, colleges and universities across the land are better off for doing so, even if their only motive was to avoid bad ink.

Another example of why a free press is so important came to light a few days before the November general election. The Times of London broke a story that Zeituni Onyango, a Kenyan, was living illegally in Boston.

The Times set about to do a human interest story after reading "Dreams Of My Father," a memoir written by President-elect Barack Obama. Reporters went to Kenya to interview family members named in the book. Upon learning that "Uncle Omar" had moved to the United States, The Times' reporters decided to track him down. And that is how Barack Obama's aunt, Zeituni Onyango, came into the picture.

Apparently, not a single American media outlet bothered to do what The Times did -- read Obama's book and then report facts. Instead, American journalists sought political cover, hoping that Aunt Zeituni's expose' by a foreign newspaper would evaporate quickly.

It didn't.

On Nov. 3, The Times (somewhat incensed) reported, "The Democrat campaign has implied that the story might have come from Republican sources - 'the American people are ... pretty suspicious of things that are dumped in the marketplace 72 hours before a campaign,' said Mr. Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod yesterday."

As reported since the election, we now know that Zeituni Onyango has lived in Boston public housing since 2003, that she attended Barack Obama's swearing in to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and that she was instructed to leave the U. S. in 2004 by an immigration court. Zeituni Onyango is neither a phantom living in the shadows nor was she an instrument of political subterfuge.

Imagine how the presidential campaign would have turned had this story broken before the New Hampshire primary. Obama's Democratic opponents would have had a field day when debating him on immigration policy.

During the campaign, we saw that journalism in America is changing from being an honorable trade to being an art -- the art of swallowing a press release whole without developing even the hint of indigestion.

And, in time, we shall see the results of the media's failure to properly scrutinize the selection process and the candidates for America's presidential search. We may have to read about it in The Times, but we will read about it.

Whenever it is that a judge tries to force a reporter to divulge sources, journalists rally around the flags of free expression and freedom of the press. I would submit, however, that freedom of the press never will be endangered because a reporter dared to report the facts.

Quite the contrary.

Freedom of the press is in danger only when the press becomes biased, self-censoring or just plain lazy. The free press will lose its protected franchise only when it chooses to no longer pursue it.