An editor's hidden hand in reporting

Last month, Wen Ho Lee walked away from prison after nine months of solitary confinement. Dr. Lee was released after pleading guilty to one of 59 felony charges linking him to what the media and government officials portrayed as perhaps the worst breach of American security in recent history.

Prosecutors now blame the media, but especially The New York Times, for jumping to conclusions and prematurely voicing alarm. The Times editors responded on Sept. 26, in a lengthy note that was part apology and part defense. Despite the letter's admission that editors rather than reporters are to blame for any oversight, not one editor was named. While reporters' bylines are a way to track both credit and blame, editors, for the most part, remain anonymous.

That's unfortunate, because on every newsroom investigative project, editors play a role as vital as reporters - sometimes more so. It is true at newspapers, at magazines, at book publishers, and in radio and television. It was true for the Times coverage of Lee's case, which opened on March 6, 1999, with "Breach at Los Alamos: A Special Report/China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say."

Though the investigation, by reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen, didn't identify the chief spy suspect, later stories by Mr. Gerth and Mr. Risen did mention Lee. Then on Sept. 7, 1999, a different Times reporter, William J. Broad, took the Lee case in new directions. Some read Mr. Broad's story as a partial repudiation of the Gerth-Risen stories. As is customary, the Times stories failed to mention Stephen Engelberg, an editor who handled the stories, or any of the other editors who participated in covering the scandal. Self-appointed media-watchdog Brill's Content magazine gave only slightly more attention to the role played by Times editors. In its November 1999 issue, the magazine ran a story criticizing the Times for six months of fingering Lee as a spy, only to, in effect, say "never mind." The magazine discussed the reporting of Gerth, Risen, and Broad at length, but referred only in passing to Mr. Engelberg.

Editors are not always anonymous, though the public must know where to look for a name. In books, the editor traditionally receives an acknowledgment from the author at the beginning or tucked in the back. In television, the editor (usually called by another name such as executive producer) typically receives a fast-moving credit at the end of a program. In most magazines, the editor is listed on what is called the masthead, though it is impossible to know from the masthead which editor handled which article. (The New Yorker magazine, which publishes lots of controversial articles, historically has not even noted its editors on a masthead.)

In newspaper newsrooms, there are often dozens of editors. But the names of only a few appear on the masthead, and they rarely belong to those who performed the line-by-line editing. At the very least, the Times could have justifiably mentioned Engelberg's name in the Sept. 26 article. I have no inside knowledge of his line-by-line editing, but I know Engelberg casually from my years running the national association Investigative Reporters & Editors. Unlike most editors, Engelberg was formerly an investigative reporter.

In some newsrooms, editors have never been reporters, which sometimes means they know little about the nuances of gathering evidence. Or they might have been sports or lifestyle reporters, inclined toward caution when handling potentially explosive projects. It is a reasonable assumption that the Gerth-Risen stories carried a harder edge under Engelberg's guiding hand than if a different editor, one without an investigative background, had been the primary shaper.

Starting with a hypothesis, the best investigative reporters look just as hard for nullifying evidence as for confirming evidence. The most important role of the editor on an investigative report is to make sure this principle is carried out. The editor should also help shape the mass of information into a compelling story, one with a beginning, middle, and end - one that readers will not want to exit until the final word. But such storytelling is hard to do while being faithful to the facts. The success of a story rides as much on a skillful, coolheaded editor as it does on the enterprising reporter. The Times statement went far in explaining the editors' role. But in omitting the names of those editors responsible in the Wen Ho Lee coverage, the Times did not go far enough.

-- Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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