How Not to Practice Journalism

Last week's vicious smear and libel campaign against Brazilian drug policy reform leader Fábio Mesquita (read about his timely exoneration here) was an atrocity. The perpetrator, Phil Smith of DRCNet, instead of admitting that he was wrong by posting a correction and offering the apology that any professional journalist would offer, hides in his bunker.

Narco News has obtained the texts of four "private" emails that are now published here, below. They demonstrate grossly unethical journalism on the part of Smith. We didn't hack anybody's email account: Smith sent them, by accident, last week to a public mailing list. He later posted a message to that list confessing: "This was supposed to be a private message."

The emails reveal:

  1. Prior intent, by Smith, to smear Fábio Mesquita.
  2. That Smith reported information he knew to be untrue in his newsletter.
  3. Dishonesty, by Smith, to his sources regarding the subject of his article.
  4. The suggestion that Smith unethically shared his text, in advance, with one side of the conflict.
  5. The fundamental unfairness of conducting interviews in English with native Spanish and Portuguese speakers.
  6. The presence of the legal definition of "malice" in Smith's reporting.
If you don't like to read someone's emails that were intended to be private, nobody's forcing you to click to read more. But for those of us who care about journalism and ethics, this is a textbook case on how not to do it. Exhibit A:

Wednesday, 12:01 p.m. from a Washington, DC organization…

From: "Phillip Smith" <psmith@drcnet.org>
To: <RELARD@yahoogroups.com>
Sent: Wednesday, February 18, 2004 12:01 PM
Subject: [RELARD] Conflict at RELARD?

Dear Ms. Batista:

Although I could not attend the RELARD conference last week, I am interested in what happened and so are my readers. I have read the email message from Silvia Inchaurraga complaining of irregularities in the voting at the conference. I have asked Ms. Inchaurraga and others to comment for a story I am doing (it is mostly about the decriminalization bill in Brazil, but will mention the conference), and I believe I should extend the same courtesy to you. I have a few questions for you below. I would like to use your replies in my story, but because of deadlines, I would need to hear from you by tomorow afternoon.

  1. Were the election procedures irregular or unfair?
  2. There have been allegations of corruption against Fabio Mesquita. What role did those allegations play at the conference?
  3. Has this dispute damaged RELARD, and if yes, what can you do to reduce the harm?
  4. Will RELARD break up now?
  5. About the decriminalization bill. What do you think about it? Does it go far enough?
We North American drug reformers watch with great interest what happens in South America. I hope you can take the time to help enlighten us about what went on at the conference.

Thanks in advance,

Phillip Smith

School of Authentic Journalism Analysis:

1. Playing the Gringo Card

Smith writes:

"We North American drug reformers watch with great interest what happens in South America."

Commentary:

Regarding this phraseology, and Smith's previously stated, above, "I am interested in what happened and so are my readers" (emphasis added):

Do "his readers" in English really have such interest in the internal conflicts of a South American activist organization? Of course they don't. Most have never even heard of the organization. And Smith chose this non-story to introduce that organization to readers. There are great news stories to be written about Brazilian and Latin American harm reduction organizations, and the important work they do. We've reported dozens of them on Narco News. Smith chose to skip all the important, issue oriented, reporting, though, and instead go on a hunt for scandal and dirt.

Smith's prattling about "We North American drug reformers" to Latin Americans is loaded with the weight of a long imperial history of unfair relations between the two continents. Smith knows that the Latin American groups he's writing to are largely dependent on grants and support from North Americans: not just for funding, but also for the kind of positive international attention that provides some degree of physical protection in dangerous places. Not all gringos understand that dynamic but most Latin Americans sure do: When a gringo starts waving his blue passport around in that way, the threat is implied: "I'm a gringo. I'm superior to you. Kiss my ass, or I can make your life miserable."

That this behavior stems from Smith's profound immaturity and (deserving) lack of self-confidence doesn't make it at all forgivable. It, rather, reveals him as unprofessional. Smith has no legitimate standing to portray himself as representing "We North American drug reformers." His organization has no membership. He has fewer collaborators in an entire year that a single day of publication here displays. Real "North American drug reformers" have every right to be angry with Smith for misrepresenting himself to people in other lands as some kind of spokesman or arbiter, especially since his style of "diplomacy" exactly mirrors the intimidation tactics of the US Embassies in the region.

The bureaucrats of Smith's small organization engaged in much of this kind of behavior during last year's Drug Legalization Summit in Mexico. Jaws dropped all over Mérida when one staff member of that organization asked for, and received, an "escort" from the U.S. Consul in Mérida (from the very heart of the espionage machine waged against us), out of an irrational fear for his money and safety in Mexico. If anybody has interest, I'm willing to elaborate on the many ways that the DRCNet staff has repeatedly alienated and lost the goodwill of the best reformers all over the hemisphere through that kind of harmful behavior. But, for now, I'll continue analyzing Smith's unethical journalism revealed by these emails.

2. Leading the Witness

Smith wrote, in the email above:

"There have been allegations of corruption against Fabio Mesquita."

Commentary:

This phrase reveals bad journalism. It's not even phrased as a question: He made a statement of "fact" that he sent (albeit by accident) to a public email list. To what "allegations" is he referring? Did he even know? Does he know now?

As every first-year journalist or journalism student soon learns: If you're going to ask a source to answer to allegations you have to be painstakingly specific as to the alleged facts and details of those accusations.

Smith didn't do that. He instead got all overheated about the word "corruption," and seems to have been playing the "gotcha" game against his own purported allies. Did he think this would win him a Pulitzer or impress authentic journalists? Did he think he'd earn what he lacks: a reputation as a serious investigative journalist? When there are "allegations," ethical and serious journalists spell them out, in detail, when asking about them, because authentic journalists are looking to shed light, and to unearth more details, not to simply malign somebody's good name, or to engage in power trips with their sources.

But Smith, clearly, was not looking for the details, or the truth. He had already - this email demonstrates it - drawn his conclusion before he had a single fact to base them on.

And, as the history of recent days has shown, his statement of "fact" was false.

3. More intimidation through a bogus question.

Smith wrote:

"Will RELARD break up now?"

Commentary:

Where does a question like that come from? What if we were to ask, in return, now that DRCNet has engaged in a knowing libel against a great reform leader: "Will DRCNet break up now?" It's a stupid question, patently ridiculous. What was the real intent behind that question? Intimidation, that's what.

4. Lying to the source

Smith wrote, about the story he was preparing:

"…it is mostly about the decriminalization bill in Brazil, but will mention the conference."

Commentary:

As it turned out, the story was not "mostly about the decriminalization bill in Brazil," as Smith claimed. His original published story led with twelve paragraphs about the internal conflicts of a reform organization, and then followed with a lesser number of paragraphs and words of (poor) reporting about the decriminalization bill.

DRCNet has, since being criticized by this pen, changed the text and the order of its report online, but has so far not issued a correction, a clarification, an apology, or an acknowledgement that it committed a wrong to the people on its mailing list who received the original and libelous text.

That phrase reveals that Smith intentionally misled his source. He wanted Batista to think that he was reporting "mostly about" the substantive news from Brazil, and would only "mention the conference." Why did he tell her that? To deceive her: to make her think that he was acting in good faith, to create a false impression that he wasn't really obsessed with the "dirt," but, rather, that he was somehow an trustworthy fellow reformer. But by the time his "story" came out, it was constructed in the exact opposite manner that he told Batista it would be constructed.

As we continue through these emails, it becomes clear that he intentionally sought to deceive her, and others…

Exhibit B:

Wednesday, 5:18 p.m., from a Washington DC organization…

From: "Phillip Smith" <psmith@drcnet.org>
To: <RELARD@yahoogroups.com>
Sent: Wednesday, February 18, 2004 5:18 PM
Subject: Re: [RELARD] Conflict at RELARD?

My apologies to Sandra and RELARD list members. This was supposed to be a private message to Sandra. It was my error.

Phillip Smith

Commentary:

That was an innocent mistake: sending a "private message" to a public email list. But guess what? He made it again, later on, in an email that reveals his absolute malice and unprofessional behavior, and his prior intent to smear Fábio Mesquita.

Exhibit C:

Here is the response to Smith from Relard leader Sandra Batista…

Thursday, 10:48 a.m., from Curitiba, Brazil…

To: psmith
Cc: relard
Sent: Thursday, February 19, 2004 10:48 AM
Subject: [RELARD] your message 20/02/04

Dear Sir

Thank you for your message and interest on our hard work.

First of all, be sure sure there is no harm about asking whatever you want on the open field of the egroup. Be sure that our main pourpuse is to act openly and totally transparent on all matters of interest of such a huge task.

As for your questions, Im glad to inform that:

  1. No, not at all, as it can be confirmed by fully signed documental procedures, open to anyone.
  2. As for Mr Fabio Mesquita, there is no such allegations. For your information, and as far as we know, as soon as a single "information" of administrative irregularity (inobservancy of formal procedure), came to public, Mr Mesquita voluntary steped out of his public duties, till the end of the administrative procedure that is in charge to show any irregularity.
  3. We have no information at all of any kind of actual dispute at RELARD.
  4. We really did not fully undestand your question, why should we brak up now, whem facing so many chalenges ahead?
  5. As for the decriminalization bill, unfortunetely we believe it is a advance, yet timid and inicial, we realy hope it can constitute it self in a open way to a better solution to the citizenship to freely choose e expose their thoughts. More informations about RELARD`s positioning aver that matter, pls contact Mrs ADRIANNA ROSSI (executive secretary of RELARD and coordinating responsable for that question).
Before ending, I would like to thank you very much for such interest in our network, and invite you to full participate in all our discussions.

Best regards

Sandra Batista - President

Commentary:

5. Smith knew the accusations were untrue before he published them.

Batista wrote:

"As for Mr Fabio Mesquita, there is no such allegations."

Did Smith publish that response? He did not.

After receiving it - and the detailed response that accompanied it clarifying the facts - he repeated the untrue "corruption" charge in public and then dishonestly claimed that Batista hadn't had time to respond. As the record shows, she responded many hours, and on that specific charge, before he filed his "story."

6. More Linguistic Unfairness

You can see, kind reader, that by conducting his interview in English, he places the source at a disadvantage. He did not offer her the opportunity to respond in her native Portuguese or even in Spanish, which she speaks very well. So, she did a yeoman's and dignified job responding in the best English she could offer under deadline pressure.

Smith often claims to others that he is able to speak and read Spanish and Portuguese. If that's true, why do the interview in English? And why refrain from giving the source the opportunity to answer - especially in writing - in her native tongue? That's how we do it at Narco News: we believe people speak most clearly, and articulately, in their own languages (except in cases where someone is obviously fully fluent and enjoys speaking in English). To fail to afford somebody that opportunity is unfair, and makes for a less revealing story in the end.

Either Smith really does understand these languages and he's intentionally placing these sources at a disadvantage, or he's lying to people when he says he understands these languages. Which is it?

I know this much: Sandra Batista, for all her other talents, is not a fluent English speaker (you can see that in her email above). When I went to her office last year in Curitiba, I asked my questions in "portuñol" (a combination of Portuguese and Spanish), and she answered mostly in Portuguese with kind efforts to explain to me in Spanish - a better language for her than English - when I said I didn't understand something. My Portuguese was weak and so was her English, so we worked to help each other out. I would never make her answer questions - especially the hostile kinds of trick questions Smith was imposing - in English.

In email, it is even easier to allow someone the opportunity to speak in his or her native tongue: for that we have dictionaries, and translators. It's easier to read a distinct language than to hear it. That Smith conducted the interview via email but in English is part and parcel of the "Gringo intimidation tactics" mentioned above. It's unprofessional and unfair… and it reveals his bad faith.

7. Two DRCNet Lies in One Sentence

In Smith's article on DRCNet, he added this disclaimer:

"In fairness to Batista, Mesquita, and the Simon Bolivar list, we must note that because of deadline pressures, we could offer only a very short time for them to respond to the substantive charges leveled against them, and we had not heard further from them by press time late Thursday night"

There are two intentional lies in that one statement.

The first intentional lie is revealed by the fact that his article was not published until Friday morning. "Press time" was not Thursday night, as he claimed. It was Friday morning. "Press time," as journalists understand, is when you go to press.

The second intentional lie is this: Contrary to the claim that she had not responded in time, Batista did respond - the date and time of this email reveals - long before Thursday night: at 10:48 on Thursday morning (that's 9:48 a.m. in Washington DC).

Smith outright lied to his readers when he claimed she hadn't responded to that charge.

Why deceive the readers in that way? That was not an honest "error." It was the publication of a knowing falsehood (another important term in libel proceedings.)

And Batista had already, specifically, corrected him regarding Smith's false statement of "corruption" by Fábio Mesquita.

And yet Smith claimed to readers that she had not responded to that charge.

That he repeated it anyway, without quoting from the Batista's words that there were "no such allegations," he did with malice and with reckless disregard for the truth.

Exhibit D (Pending):

At 11:21 that same night Mr. Smith received an email from Sylvia Inchaurraga of Argentina, which also was sent, apparently in error, to the Relard email list.

Smith had previously claimed, in his email to Batista, that Inchaurraga was his original source for asking such questions and his "statements of fact" about Mesquita. Given Smith's obvious dishonesty in that email on other matters, that he had lied to Batista about the nature of his article, I'm not so quick to believe his claim that Inchaurraga was the source (others close to the story have suggested that his original source was an aspiring DRCNet employee from Rio de Janeiro, who has the kinds of historic resentments, personal problems, and motives to "stir up the muck" on internecine movement conflicts like this one.)

So I won't publish that email yet, because I am waiting to hear from Sylvia about her experience with DRCNet on this one, and whether Smith told the truth when he wrote that she was his original source of the smear campaign against Fábio Mesquita. Smith had already lied to Batista in that same email, so, unlike Mr. Smith, I would like to hear that movement leader's side of the story before rushing to judgment based on Smith's untrustworthy "reporting."

Anyway, here's the part that is relevant to this stage of the story: Inchaurraga sent her email to Smith at 11:21 p.m. on Thursday night, and hours later - at 4:29 a.m. - Smith replied (this is additional proof that he checked his email after Batista corrected him on the false claims, and that he lied to readers when he claimed that she had not).

Exhibit E:

Friday, 4:29 a.m. from a Washington DC organization…

Sent: Friday, February 20, 2004 4:29 AM
Subject: Re: [RELARD] denunciamos cargos ilegitimos en Relard

Hey Silvia:

Up late, I see.

Well, I have made the changes you suggested, and I have not heard anything more from Sandra, Fabio, or anyone else. Since I didn't give them much time, I inserted an editorial note near the end saying as much.

I'll look at my email in the morning, then I'm turning the damned machine off for a couple of days while I go to Vancouver.

Earlier you asked what I thought "out of the records." I didn't realize you meant "off the record." My response is basically the same: It sounds like there is a real problem with Batista-Mesquita et al. I hope it is resolved in a manner that reduces harm. It seems like some of the differences are political (harm reduction v. antiprohibition), but some are of process, and when people try to manipulate the democratic process for their own ends, that is no good.

Phil

Commentary:

Smith wrote:

"I have made the changes you suggested."

8. It Is Unethical to Show Advance Text to Only One Side of a Conflict

Those words by Smith strongly suggest that he showed Inchaurraga his text prior to publication (the essence of the internal conflicts of that organization is that the Inchaurraga leads one "side" and Batista leads the other).

In other words, how could she "suggest changes" if she had not been shown the draft text that Smith then changed?

Did Smith show his draft text to one side of the conflict prior to publication? That would be in violation of the most basic of journalistic ethics regarding fairness.

Whereas the ethics of showing a text, in advance, to a source are often debated in journalism (some journos do it, others do not) there is consensus that if you are going to show a draft text to one side of a conflict, you have to, ethically, show it to all sides. Otherwise, you're not reporting fairly. When the two "sides" are both drug policy reform leaders in good standing, and Smith's own publication claims to support "reform" in general, it raises deeper questions of sincerity and decency.

In other words, the next time Smith attempts to "report" on any conflict inside the reform movement, smart reform advocates will simply to refuse to cooperate or even answer his emails. He'll be left only with the slow class to abuse. For who knows if he'll be showing his text to the rival camp or if he hasn't already - as he did to Fábio Mesquita and Sandra Batista - determined that he's out to "get" or smear one side.

9. Smith Revealed His Bias to One Side

Smith wrote:

"It sounds like there is a real problem with Batista-Mesquita et al."

A lawyer would have him hours on the witness stand stammering to explain that one.

10. Reckless Disregard for the Truth

I showed these emails to various Latin American members of our team prior to completing this analysis. To some of them, one phrase of Smith's stuck out as especially unfair and revealing of his bad faith.

Smith wrote:

"Since I didn't give them much time..."

As one of our auténticos replied:

"¿quiere esto decir que no quería recibir respuesta? Aunque la recibió, parece que desde un principio no tenía intenciones de publicar nada... eso claramente es antiético, pero su afirmación es muy jodida. Es más que simplemente negar la respuesta, es afirmar prácticamente que no la quería...

Let me translate what this great Latin American journalist just said:

"Is he saying that he didn't want to receive a response? Although he received it, it seeems that from the beginning he had no intention of publishing any of it... That's clearly unethical, but his statement is also very fucked up. Beyond simply denying the response, it practically confirms that he did not want to...

There's no doubt that Mesquita would have a winning libel case against DRCNet. Fortunately for Smith and for DRCNet, Fábio Mesquita, who they maliciously libeled, is a big human being with bigger fish to fry: When Folha de São Paulo first began its smear campaign against Mesquita on January 31st, the article began with this sentence:

"Fabio Mesquita, accused of nepotism, is the strongest candidate of the Minister of Justice to be the next Brazilian Drug Czar in Lula´s Government."

Folha was also wrong. He was not accused or charged with anything, despite the claims of the State Department's favorite rag in Brazil, or its favorite drug policy newsletter in Washington, which through its bad faith and incompetence, served the Embassy agenda here, and not its own purported cause.

That, kind readers, is what this smear was intended to do: to stop Mesquita's appointment as national drug czar, and to tarnish the Drug User Decriminalization Bill moving now toward becoming law.

And that is the source of my indignance. People who claim to be on our side hurt the cause, and hurt it badly, in bad faith, by spreading knowingly false smears with malice.

If it now results that Mesquita, having been dragged through international mud, will not be appointed as Brazil's next drug czar (because now Lula has to look at the international response to such a bold pro-reform move, too), then Phil Smith and DRCNet, through their malicious, incompetent, and knowingly false meddling in Latin American affairs, deserve a big part of the blame, repudiation, and condemnation from all true friends of reform.

And yet they show no remorse for having harmed the cause that they claim to support... while they ask for your money to help them screw it all up again in the future.

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About Al Giordano

Biography

Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.