By Jesse Eisinger and Stephen Engelberg
Around midday on Friday, June 16, ProPublica reporters Justin Elliott and Josh Kaplan sent an email to Patricia McCabe, the Supreme Court’s spokesperson, with questions for Justice Samuel Alito about a forthcoming story on his fishing trip to Alaska with a hedge fund billionaire.
We set a deadline of the following Tuesday at noon for a response.
Fifteen minutes later, McCabe called the reporters. It was an unusual moment in our dealings with the high court’s press office, the first time any of its public information officers had spoken directly with the ProPublica journalists in the many months we have spent looking into the justices’ ethics and conduct. When we sent detailed questions to the court for our stories on Justice Clarence Thomas, McCabe responded with an email that said they had been passed on to the justice. There was no further word from her before those stories appeared, not even a statement that Thomas would have no comment.
The conversation about Alito was brisk and professional. McCabe said she had noticed a formatting issue with an email, and the reporters agreed to resend the 18 questions in a Word document. Kaplan and Elliott told McCabe they understood that this was a busy time at the court and that they were willing to extend the deadline if Alito needed more time.
Monday was a federal holiday, Juneteenth. On Tuesday, McCabe called the reporters to tell them Alito would not respond to our requests for comment but said we should not write that he declined to comment. (In the story, we wrote that she told us he “would not be commenting.”)
She asked when the story was likely to be published. Certainly not today, the reporters replied. Perhaps as soon as Wednesday.
Six hours later, The Wall Street Journal editorial page posted an essay by Alito in which he used our questions to guess at the points in our unpublished story and rebut them in advance. His piece, headlined “Justice Samuel Alito: ProPublica Misleads Readers,” was hard to follow for anyone outside ProPublica since it shot down allegations (notably the purported consumption of expensive wine) that had not yet been made.
In the hours after Alito’s response appeared, editors and reporters worked quickly to complete work on our investigative story. We did additional reporting to put Alito’s claims in context. The justice wrote in the Journal, “My recollection is that I have spoken to Mr. Singer on no more than a handful of occasions,” and that none of those conversations involved “any case or issue before the Court.” He said he did not know of Singer’s involvement in a case about a long-standing dispute involving Argentina because the fund that was a party to the suit was called NML Capital and the billionaire’s name did not appear in Supreme Court briefs.
Alex Mierjeski, another reporter on the team, quickly pulled together a long list of prominent stories from the Journal, The New York Times and The Financial Times that identified Singer as the head of the hedge fund seeking to earn handsome profits by suing Argentina in U.S. courts. (The Supreme Court, with Alito joining the 7-1 majority, backed Singer’s arguments on a key legal issue, and Argentina ultimately paid the hedge fund $2.4 billion to settle the dispute.)
It does not appear that the editors at the Journal made much of an effort to fact-check Alito’s assertions.
If Alito had sent his response to us, we’d have asked some more questions. For example, Alito wrote that Supreme Court justices “commonly interpreted” the requirement to disclose gifts as not applying to “accommodations and transportation for social events.” We would have asked whether he meant to say it was common practice for justices to accept free vacations and private jet flights without disclosing them.
We also would have asked Alito more about his interpretation of the Watergate-era disclosure law that requires justices and many other federal officials to publicly report most gifts. The statute has a narrow “personal hospitality” exemption that allows federal officials to avoid disclosing “food, lodging, or entertainment” provided by a host on his own property. Seven ethics law experts, including former government ethics lawyers from both Republican and Democratic administrations, have told ProPublica that the exemption does not apply to private jet flights — and never has. Such flights, they said, are clearly not forms of food, lodging or entertainment. We had already combed through judicial disclosures, so we knew that several federal judges have disclosed gifts of private jet flights.
We might also have sent Alito some of the contemporaneous stories about Singer’s dispute with Argentina that were readily available online. Given Alito’s previous ties to the Journal’s editorial page — he granted it an exclusive interview this year complaining about negative coverage of the court — it’s probable that the stories we sent him would have included the page’s 2013 piece titled “Deadbeats Down South” that approvingly noted that “a subsidiary of Paul Singer’s Elliott Management” was holding out for a better deal from Argentina. We would have asked how his office checks for conflicts and whether he is concerned it didn’t catch Singer’s widely publicized connection to the case.
The Journal’s editorial page is entirely separate from its newsroom. Journalists were nonetheless sharply critical of the decision to help the subject of another news organization’s investigation “pre-but” the findings.
“This is a terrible look for @WSJ,” tweeted John Carreyrou, a former investigative reporter at the Journal whose award-winning articles on Theranos lead to the indictment and criminal conviction of its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. “Let’s see how it feels when another news organization front runs a sensitive story it’s working on with a preemptive comment from the story subject.”
Bill Grueskin, a former senior editor at the Journal and a professor of journalism at Columbia, told the Times that “Justice Alito could have issued this as a statement on the SCOTUS website. But the fact that he chose The Journal — and that the editorial page was willing to serve as his loyal factotum — says a great deal about the relationship between the two parties.”
Even Fox News got in the game. “Alito must be congratulating himself on his preemptive strike, but given that the nonprofit news agency sent him questions last week, was that really fair? And should the Journal, which has criticized ProPublica as a left-wing outfit, have played along with this? The paper included an editor’s note that ProPublica had sent the justice the questions, but did not mention that its story had not yet run,” the cable news outfit’s media watcher Howard Kurtz wrote.
There are lessons for ProPublica in this experience. Our reporters are likely to be a bit more skeptical when a spokesperson asks about the timing of a story’s publication.
But one thing is not changing. Regardless of the consequences, we will continue to give everyone mentioned in our stories a chance to respond before publication to what we’re planning to say about them.
Our practice, known internally as “no surprises,” is a matter of both accuracy and fairness. As editors, we have seen numerous instances over the years in which responses to our detailed questions have changed stories. Some have been substantially rewritten and rethought in light of the new information provided by subjects of stories. On rare occasions, we’ve killed stories after learning new facts.
We leave it to the PR professionals to assess whether pre-buttals are an effective strategy. Alito’s assertion that the private flight to Alaska was of no value because the seat was empty anyway became the subject of considerable online amusement.
And the readership of our story has been robust: 2 million page views and counting. It’s possible that Alito has won the argument with the audience he cares the most about. But it seems equally plausible that he drew even more attention to the very story he was trying to knock down.
Alito’s behavior underscores that the “no surprises” approach involves taking a risk, allowing subjects to “spit in our soup,” as Paul Steiger, the former Journal editor who founded ProPublica, liked to say.
Nevertheless, following our practice, we asked the Journal editorial page, Alito and McCabe for comment before this column appeared. We did not immediately hear back from them.