I frequently use the term bootstrapping to describe a journalistic story that presents a series of allegations and/or “facts” that do not produce an accurate story.
The New York Times provides an excellent example of bootstrapping with its story about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his friendship with a Dallas real estate developer, Harlan Crow.
The Times reports the following:
“The two men met in the mid-1990s, a few years after Justice Thomas joined the court. Since then, Mr. Crow has done many favors for the justice and his wife, Virginia, helping finance a Savannah library project dedicated to Justice Thomas, presenting him with a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass and reportedly [emphasis added] providing $500,000 for Ms. Thomas to start a Tea Party-related group. They have also spent time together at gatherings of prominent Republicans and businesspeople at Mr. Crow’s Adirondacks estate and his camp in East Texas.”
Reportedly means the Times doesn’t really know and cannot provide a thing.
The Times continues:
“In several instances, news reports of Mr. Crow’s largess provoked controversy and questions, adding fuel to a rising debate about Supreme Court ethics. But Mr. Crow’s financing of the museum, his largest such act of generosity, previously unreported, raises the sharpest questions yet — both about Justice Thomas’s extrajudicial activities and about the extent to which the justices should remain exempt from the code of conduct for federal judges.”
I guess I missed this great debate. Also, the story cannot prove that Thomas or Carl did anything wrong–ethically or legally. In fact, the museum is one that the U.S. government was a good idea!
The Times continues:
“Although the Supreme Court is not bound by the code, justices have said they adhere to it. Legal ethicists differed [emphasis added] on whether Justice Thomas’s dealings with Mr. Crow pose a problem under the code.”
Differed means they disagreed. Also, the code does not apply to Justice Thomas.
The Times continues:
“At first glance the Pin Point Heritage Museum, scheduled to open this fall, would seem an unlikely catalyst for an ethical quandary. That Pin Point’s history is worthy of preservation is not in dispute.” [emphasis added]
Part of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor designated by Congress, it is representative of tight-knit Southern coastal settlements that trace their roots to freed slaves and were often based around fishing. In Pin Point, the Varn crab and oyster cannery, founded in the 1920s, was a primary source of jobs until it closed in 1985.”
That means the whole plan, including the museum, is a good one.
The Times adds the following:
“On Jan. 4, 2010, when Justice Thomas was in Savannah for the dedication of a building in his honor, Mr. Crow’s plane flew from Washington to Savannah and returned to Washington the next day. Justice Thomas reported in his financial disclosure that his travel had been paid for by the Savannah College of Art and Design, which owned the building.
In his 2009 financial disclosure, Justice Thomas reported that Southern Methodist University in Dallas — Trammell Crow’s alma mater — had provided his travel for a speech there on Sept. 30. Flight records show that Mr. Crow’s plane flew from Washington to Dallas that day.
Among the questions The Times submitted to Justice Thomas was whether he was on any of those flights, and if so, whether the colleges reimbursed him or Mr. Crow. The colleges declined to comment.”
That means that the Times cannot prove that Justice Thomas did anything wrong.
The Times again”
“One item not required to be reported in Justice Thomas’s financial disclosures is the millions of dollars Mr. Crow is spending on the museum. That is because the money is not being given to the justice as a gift.”
That means Justice Thomas hasn’t done anything wrong!
Finally, the Times reports:
“Travel records for Mr. Crow’s planes and yacht, however, suggest [emphasis added] that Justice Thomas may have used them in recent years.”
That means the Times cannot prove anything!
An editor needed to throw this one back at the reporters to nail down the story before the Times printed it in the Sunday edition. There are so many holes in this story, including a variety of serious charges that the Times cannot prove. This is not investigative journalism. It is sloppy journalism irrespective of whether you like Justice Thomas or not. Shame on the Times for bootstrapping this story onto the front page when it needed a lot more boots on the ground and less bootstrapping from a desk!