August 29, 2012
Pre-Publication Disclosure of Dowd Column: A Breach of Two Boundaries
By ARTHUR S. BRISBANE
My final column as public editor was published in print on Sunday. However, I remain on duty through Friday and want to offer my take on the controversy this week over the pre-publication disclosure of a Maureen Dowd column. I see this as a problem of boundaries -- the failure to maintain them.
The facts, in brief: a year ago Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd asked Mark Mazzetti, a Washington-based national security reporter for The Times, to help her fact-check one item in a column she was preparing for publication in print on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011. 
Mr. Mazzetti did this for her but then emailed the entire column  text to Marie E. Harf, then a public affairs official at the C.I.A., writing: "this didn't come from me... and please delete after you read. See, nothing to worry about." 
The e-mail came to light through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch,  a watchdog group. The Mazzetti e-mail was just a piece of a larger picture Judicial Watch was interested in filling in -- which centered on the claim that the Obama administration has tried to exploit the killing of Osama Bin Laden for political gain.
The Dowd column reported that filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were accorded special national security access to assist them in the making of a film about the Bin Laden operation. Ms. Dowd's column said:
"The White House is also counting on the Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal big-screen version of the killing of Bin Laden to counter Obama's growing reputation as ineffectual. The Sony film by the Oscar-winning pair who made "The Hurt Locker" will no doubt reflect the president's cool, gutsy decision against shaky odds. Just as Obamaland was hoping, the movie is scheduled to open on Oct. 12, 2012 -- perfectly timed to give a home-stretch boost to a campaign that has grown tougher.
"The moviemakers are getting top-level access to the most classified mission in history from an administration that has tried to throw more people in jail for leaking classified information than the Bush administration.
"It was clear that the White House had outsourced the job of manning up the president's image to Hollywood when Boal got welcomed to the upper echelons of the White House and the Pentagon and showed up recently -- to the surprise of some military officers -- at a C.I.A. ceremony celebrating the hero Seals."
It was the nugget in the previous paragraph -- concerning Mr. Boal's appearance at the C.I.A. ceremony -- that Mr. Mazzetti was asked to fact-check.
However, it is clear that Mr. Mazzetti went beyond fact-checking a single item when he passed the column in its entirety to Ms. Harf. His message -- "see, nothing to worry about" -- seems to suggest that he thought the full text would allay concerns about what Ms. Dowd was planning to say.
The Times's public statement on the matter from spokeswoman Eileen Murphy was minimal:
"Last August, Maureen Dowd asked Mark Mazzetti to help check a fact for her column. In the course of doing so, he sent the entire column to a C.I.A. spokeswoman shortly before her deadline. He did this without the knowledge of Ms. Dowd. This action was a mistake that is not consistent with New York Times standards."
I asked Jill Abramson, the executive editor, whether Mr. Mazzetti was doing a source a favor by providing the text of the column and she replied, "I can't provide further detail on why the entire column was sent. I can assure you that Mark was not doing the C.I.A. a favor. He is an experienced, terrific reporter. Your suggestion is flat wrong."
Mr. Mazzetti was also circumspect, saying: "I did make a bunch of calls and was doing this on deadline. As part of the process, I also did send the column. It was definitely a mistake to do. I have never done it before and I will never do it again."
I have searched The Times's body of ethics-related guidelines and can't find anything that directly addresses circumstances like this. The formal ethics policy has a statement saying that staff members "may not seek any advantage for themselves or others by acting on or disclosing information acquired in their work but not yet available to readers."
Times editors, however, tell me they interpret that section to refer to financial or other material gain or advantage. I am advised further that The Times does not have a formal policy on sharing an entire article pre-publication for the purposes of fact-checking.
Whatever Mr. Mazzetti's motivation, it is a clear boundary violation to disclose a potentially sensitive article pre-publication under such circumstances. This goes well beyond the normal give-and-take that characterizes the handling of sources and suggests the absence of an arm's-length relationship between a reporter and those he is dealing with.
Mr. Mazzetti told me: "I absolutely believe we should have an arm's-length with sources and my only priority in this case was to help a colleague and help The Times."
The second boundary violation relates to the oft-cited wall separating news from editorial. After all, in this case a news-side person was fact-checking for a colleague working on the opinion side. The wall is extremely important to The Times because it insulates the news side, which embraces a standard of neutrality in news coverage, from the opinion side, which is free to take sides.
Mr. Mazzetti argued that this simply a case of helping a colleague: "There absolutely should be strong separation but I think in the case of checking facts and helping colleagues, I don't see there is any breach. She is not assigning me stories, I am not assigning her columns. It is colleagues helping each other."
The problem, I think, is that many will not see it that way. The facts and appearances of this case strongly suggest that The Times should redouble its efforts to strengthen the boundaries that are so essential to cultivating reader trust.