jimsleeper.com » Scoops and Revelations

Scoops and Revelations

To find them, you need a good compass and great receptors. 


The freedom to break “news” energizes journalism and democracy.  But breaking new ideas often matters even more. “Ideas” can be more flexible and dynamic than the dominant ideologies and conventional wisdom. Without new ideas, today’s deluge of new information and “data points” merely scrambles old ways of thinking without improving public “intelligence. It just overwhelms wise reckoning and decision-making.

For most journalists, breaking new ideas is a pretty daunting prospect. Basically, it’s beyond reach. Writing on tight deadlines, often about situations that they’ve been thrown into without much preparation, reporters must work from whatever story lines are already in their heads and the heads of their readers and viewers — in other words, they have to draw from conventional wisdom or, depending on their news outlet, a dominant ideology. Doing so makes their work sensible to readers or viewers who are busy, too, and who often want their preconceptions confirmed. But such writing doesn’t always facilitate useful public give-and-take or, with it, democracy.

Conventional wisdom can be scrambled by events such as the 9/11 attacks, the near-meltdown of the American economy during the 2008 presidential campaign, the Tea Party and Republican capture of Congress, the national debt-ceiling stand-off in 2011, and, of course, the pandemic. The rise of Trump and persistence of Trumpism have underscored much of the media’s own entrapment in conventional ideas. It’s at such times — when the best lose all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity — that journalism is a very rough first draft of history, at best. 

Yet, like Orwell in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, serious reporters and essayists must produce not just “news” but also interpretive lenses that help us to see and explain developments that conventional wisdom would have missed or denied. To accomplish this, a journalist needs historical memory and even intellection to establish the contexts and parameters for reporting that’s rich as well as clear. That’s why the best preparation for journalism is still a strong liberal education.


Here are some of my reports on situations where historical memory and informed judgment benefited me as a reporter or commentator and, I’d like to think, also benefitted some of my readers.


1. Exposing fraud in the election to succeed Shirley Chisholm in Congress.


The first time I understood how to break news came one Saturday morning in 1982, when I walked into the Brooklyn Board of Elections as a Village Voice writer and saw supporters of Brooklyn State Senator Vander Beatty “checking” voter registration cards in a Democratic primary election for the retiring Rep. Shirley Chisholm‘s historic Bedford Stuyvesant congressional seat. Beatty had reportedly just lost that race to a State Senate colleague, Major R. Owens. 

But Beatty, a classic “povertycrat” whose anti-racist rhetoric had given him a “pass” from some elite liberals who were too timid to pay closer attention, as well as a pass from the corrupt, mostly white Brooklyn Democratic Party machine, had been endorsed for the Democratic nomination by the New York Times and by most elected Democrats in Brooklyn.  What his campaign workers were really doing that morning at the Board of Elections was forging signatures on the voter-registration cards which they were supposedly just checking.  Beatty‘s lawyers would then submit the forgeries to a judge as evidence that Owens had rigged the votes on Election Day. Beatty would sue to invalidate Owens’ victory.

I hadn‘t merely stumbled upon these shenanigans. A political operative with whom I’d had many conversations about the election called me to tip me off. A Voice cover story of mine on Beatty‘s long record of corruption had been published shortly before the primary and had played some role in Owens‘ victory. All that my informant needed to say on the phone that morning was, “Get your ass down to the Board of Elections right now, and see what the Beatty people are doing.”

I’d had to defend my Voice expose of Beatty on the local NPR station. One vehement Beatty supporter who’d called in, insisting that my story was little more than white-liberal manipulation, was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who I’d later get to know well. But if I hadn‘t rushed down to the Board that Saturday and known what to expect there, Beatty would have won his suit in Brooklyn‘s compliant (indeed, complicit), machine-dominated judiciary and black politics in Shirley Chisholm‘s district would have taken an emblematically bad turn.

So a lot was at stake in my reporting on what I was seeing. “Look at it this way,” said my tipster; “[Beatty] is either going to jail or he‘s going to Congress.”

The party machine‘s hack judges did rule for Beatty in the local and appellate courts. But my reporting stoked a lot of controversy that packed the courtroom with Owens supporters. New York Times columnist Sydney Schanberg read my Voice account and alerted the rest of the world. The Democratic Party and its judges started to do what they’d supposedly been elected and appointed to do in the first place: a month later, New York‘s highest court overturned the earlier rulings for Beatty.

Owens later said that he’d felt as if he‘d been in Mississippi throughout the long post-election ordeal.  He served honorably in Congress for a decade and a half, retiring in 2006. Beatty was convicted in in federal court of corruption unrelated to his election scheme. In 1990, he was assassinated by a non-political rival. It‘s all in my four stories linked here.  When Owens died in 2014, I attended his funeral, and I wrote this about his courage and my education in that election.

One of the lessons I learned in those long, hard months is that even bona-fide scoops may not interest most people, including most reporters and editors, if they’re come from people on the wrong side of the tracks who lack the right connections, and if the larger implications of a story aren‘t made bluntly clear. Would-be truth-tellers must persist against conventional wisdom and indifference. Sometimes only a very dedicated, passionate, and therefore somewhat biased advocacy journalist will keep at it, but journalism counts on an even deeper commitment to get the truth out against settled odds.

I learned, too, that even persistence can fail if a writer hasn‘t enough historical memory and sound judgment to notice the “story” in a deluge of impressions. Many people resist even incontrovertible evidence if its implications run against their preconceptions and therefore seem to “make no sense”.  So journalism must “break” not only news but also newer and better understandings of it. In the Beatty case, selling the story meant shattering many whites’ (and blacks’) knee-jerk indulgence of black corruption by someone who knew how to play upon their preconceptions. 

If the Beatty/Owens story had unfolded in 2012, might a Twitter strategy by the Owens camp have accomplished what only an investigative reporter like me was able to accomplish in 1982? Maybe, but only if the Owens side were trained and organized to do more than just enter the Board of Elections and get into fights with Beatty operatives who were forging signatures. There would still have been a need for well-informed reporting and for a communications strategy to make clear to voters and the media that, wittingly or not, democracy itself had a stake in the outcome.


2. Blocking a dubious indictment of New York Senator Chuck Schumer.


During the same year that I wrote about the Beatty/Owens race, evidence of serious flaws in a pending indictment of New York Congressman (now Senator) Charles Schumer in 1982 fell into my lap, in this case wholly through a “conflict of interest” of my own that made the story very hard for me to report. I wound up having to do it not as a journalist but as a lonely citizen, writing guest columns for a small Brooklyn weekly, The Prospect Press.

No other journalist seemed engaged or motivated enough to report the story thoroughly, partly because it involved malfeasance by other journalists: The reason I couldn‘t tell the story in the Village Voice, for which I’d been freelancing regularly, as in the Beatty-Owens matter, was that other Voice writers were wrongly involved in trying to gin up an indictment of Schumer, whom they disliked intensely for not being “progressive” enough and for having slighted them publicly one night. It was Voice writers who’d urged and were helping an ambitious and receptive young U.S. Attorney for Brooklyn, Edward Korman — who’d recently brought down Congressman Fred Richmond, as described in one of my Voice essays linked in “A Sleeper Sampler” and here — to make Schumer his next “catch.”

My Voice colleagues were pursuing Schumer for moralistic and personal reasons with scant legal justification, but I knew this only for a reason that weakened my own credibility: My girlfriend was working in Schumer‘s office and was giving me his side of the story. It took me awhile to conclude that Schumer was no Beatty or Richmond, but that was the truth. Not surprisingly, the only people who were inclined to believe it were those who had reasons of their own to distrust Voice muckrakers and/or the U.S. Attorney. To grasp the injustice of the case, one had to shed the righteousness of “white hat” muckrakers and prosecutors — no easy feat, since they were doing plenty of good things. One had to know that the criminal justice system itself is highly susceptible to abuse if its skeleton of laws lacks a “cartilage” of extra-legal trust and integrity among prosecutors, journalists, and the public.

My columns in the small neighborhood weekly, The Prospect Press, played some role in alerting people in the Justice Department and the courts to the flaws in the indictment, which was blocked only after a lot of publicity and controversy. Instigated not only by partisan Republicans but also by leftist muckrakers, the indictment was closed down by senior Reagan Justice Department officials after Schumer’s attorney, Arthur Liman (later the Democratic counsel to the congressional Iran-Contra commission) went to Washington and confronted them with bizarre but incontrovertible truths about the inquiry.

Twenty five years later, in 2007, I had a reason to tell the whole story of the Schumer case again, this time in TPM, as Schumer, by then on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was investigating the Bush Administration‘s efforts to politicize U.S. Attorneys‘ prosecutions of Democrats (such as himself, back in 1982). By 2007, the “cartilage” of trust and professionalism in prosecutions had worn thin, but I may have been the only reporter to willing to recall that Schumer had been a victim of a politicized, prosecutorial investigation. My story is no longer online at TPM, but the site’s founder and editor Josh Marshall promoted it there. I’ve saved the piece, and it’s right here, exactly as it ran at the time.

Schumer has many faults, and his record can be criticized fairly by people to his left as well as his right. But trying to “nail” him — as the Voice reporters crowed that they were doing, through selective prosecution for a minor indiscretion that many of their own ‘heroes’ in politics also committed, was a miscarriage of journalism’s public trust.


3. Exposing a pundit’s primary colors


In 1996, as people puzzled over the identity of the anonymous author of a political sizzler, the novel Primary Colors, which was scathing in its revelations about a fictional stand-in for Bill Clinton, I had an intensely strong hunch that the author was Joe Klein, then a prominent Newsweek columnist and television commentator. So I called Washington Post media columnist William Powers with my hunch that  “Anonymous” was none other than Klein. Powers published my charge in his column, and I kept on reaffirming even though Klein’s vehement denials convinced most in the news media that he hadn’t written the book. (“It wasn‘t me; I didn‘t do it,” he told CBS News flatly. For the same broadcast, CBS taped me insisting it was Klein, but his denial was so firm that CBS never ran my part of its footage.)

So I wrote a column that began, “May I remind Joe ‘I didn‘t do it‘ Klein of O.J. Simpson‘s vow that he will ‘leave no stone unturned‘ until he finds Nicole Brown Simpson‘s killer?…. If Klein didn‘t write Primary Colors, let him devote his far-more-considerable investigative skills to finding the author.”

No one would publish that column, and this was long before blogging, so I had literally no way to make my argument in public unless I could persuade someone else in the media to run with it. Had I been able to post my column online, it might have generated some debate and collaborative investigation, but because I wasn’t able to do that, my arguments lost traction. Only months later, when a reporter discovered the novel’s original paper manuscript with Klein‘s handwriting on it, did he confess that, yes, he’d written the novel and had lied about it.

What had made me so sure of his authorship all along? Again, historical memory and informed judgment played an important part. I had often read and often admired Klein‘s columns in New York magazine, and I remembered his characteristic locutions and obsessions about liberals and race – tropes that popped up in the novel. So when I saw an op-ed column in the Baltimore Sun by David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, voicing a suspicion similar to mine about Klein, I read the novel closely, and, as I did, Klein just kept jumping off the page: In a passage of the novel that presents the maunderings of a feckless, aging hippie-cum-leftie holdover from the 1960s, Klein’s narrator can’t help thinking, “Yikes.” The minute I saw the word in that context, I said, “That’s Joe!” and called Bill Powers, whose Post column introduced the “Kusnet/Sleeper theory” that Klein was the author. (Klein called me immediately and left an exasperated voice-mail message: “Jim, I don‘t have a patent on the word  ̳Yikes‘!”)

As in the Beatty case that I’ve recounted above, most journalists, preconditioned to accept the denials of a famous colleague such as KIein, weren‘t as open as Powers was to Kusnet’s and my literary cross-examinations. I had ventured into a gray area in which I “knew” the truth thanks only to memory, some literary acumen, and political judgment; I couldn’t prove that someone hadn’t done a brilliant job of copying Klein’s style. Only months later, when the discovery of Klein’s notes on his own manuscript forced him to confess his authorship at a press conference, did I have the satisfaction of being there and seeing him look away. In a Wall Street Journal column published soon after that (It’s on the pdf with the Powers column that’s linked above,) I offered my interpretation of why he‘d lied so vigorously and what I thought was at stake for journalism and politics in that kind of fudging.


4. Somewhere over the Rainbow:  What Rudy Giuliani exploited (including me?)


A lot of my work has involved not only breaking news but trying to scope out societal learning curves, a little ahead of their time. How a public’s interpretive frames rise and fall interests me as much as do the events that we recount before we can weave into them those frames. As a Daily News columnist in 1993, I “knew” — not from polls, and not from crime statistics, and not from performances by politicians and protestors but from years of immersion in black and white-ethnic neighborhoods in the city’s outer boroughs — that Rudolph Giuliani would defeat New York‘s first African-American mayor, David Dinkins, in that fall‘s election. The Daily News columns that I wrote about the mayoral campaigns were pretty insistent and combative, sometimes perhaps too much so. They cut against the conventional grain, as did my accounts of developments involving Chuck Schumer and Joe Klein.

Shortly before Giuliani won, I enlarged my analysis by comparing New York‘s electoral upheavals with those in other cities. A cover story in The New Republic was the first instance of my “breaking” a new idea and interpretation, instead of just news, becoming national news in itself. The article set off a long train of columns, reviews, and appearances in which I challenged left-liberal assumptions about politics and race that had made Giuliani’s ascent unthinkable and that, years later, would keep many of the same people from understanding why Donald Trump might well win the 2016 presidential election. I charged that some “progressive” thinking during Giuliani’s 1993 mayoral campaign was unduly racialist, in obsessively defiant or piously doting ways that only reinforced racism itself. Some of it was ideologically rigid and myopic in assigning blacks revolutionary roles that very few had any desire to fulfill.

Most such bad thinking presumes that having a skin color automatically signifies having a particular “culture” and holding certain political views. Little of that is true, and in 1997 I wrote Liberal Racism against such presumptions. The book prompted interviews on NPR and with The Atlantic and many debates, plunging me deeper into arguments and acrimony, sometimes on the PBS News Hour, on the Charlie Rose Show, in my NPR “All Things Considered” commentaries, sometimes in columns, essays, and reviews that are on this site in the section, “Why Skin Color Isn’t Culture or Politics.”

For one of my scoops in this vein I visited the Rockefeller Foundation archives in Tarrytown, NY to look into the background of Prof. Leonard Jeffries of the City College of New York, whose diatribes about Jewish complicity in the slave trade had been fanning a spark of truth into a political conflagration. I read letters and memos written by Jeffries’ early funders and enablers and wrote a not-wholly unsympathetic column for The Daily News on Jeffries’ “Deep Roots of Resentment” in 1993. But in The Nation I admonished some on the left for indulging him in ways that end up strengthening the political prospects of a Giuliani or a Trump.


5. Another side of 9/11 – and of November, 1948.


Bringing memory and judgment to bear on news sometimes yields small discoveries that matter only later. Shortly after the ordeal of New York firefighters on 9/11, I noticed that their department’s emblem, the Maltese Cross, is a relic of medieval battles between the Knights of Malta, who were Christian Crusaders, and Muslim Saracens who were trying to block their way to the Holy Land. That seemed a haunting precedent for George W. Bush‘s brief characterization of the confrontation with Islamicist terrorists as a “crusade.” Perhaps because Bush soon dropped the term and the implicit analogy, no one ever mentioned the fire-fighters’ Maltese Cross. To read about it, scroll down to the third column on this link, from The New York Observer.

Similarly, Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott‘s fateful praise in 2002 of Strom Thurmond‘s racist, Dixiecrat presidential campaign of 1948 against Harry Truman unleashed a deluge of commentary about the implications of Thurmond’s campaign, which had nearly cost Truman the election to Republican Thomas Dewey. But news analysis of the 1948 election in 2002 ever mentioned an important “fourth party” in the 1948 election, this one coming from the left, that had also endangered Truman by drawing away liberal Democrats just as Thurmond was drawing away conservatives.

When the History News Network published my account of the Communist-backed presidential bid of Henry Wallace, who’d been FDR‘s vice-president for a term, nothing happened. No news analyst who‘d been writing about the 1948 campaign noted that another important candidate in that race hadn’t even been mentioned. The silence seemed yet one more instance of conventional wisdom’s inability to accommodate dissonance, because “the story” of the moment was all about nailing the racist Thurmond and Lott. But maybe the silence also reflected a touch of professional embarrassment at having missed the full story of Truman‘s near-defeat.


6. Forebodings about the New York Times


I found myself writing about such flaws in journalism itself in a Daily News column in 1994 that explained why the New York Times’ then-editorial-page editor Howell Raines was bad for the paper. Raines is a talented writer, but I argued that his penitential Southern anti-racism sometimes got him tangled up in misplaced moralism. I argued this again at length in 1997 in Liberal Racism, in a chapter called “Media Myopia.” At the invitation of an editor at the neo-connish (now thankfully defunct) Weekly Standard, I described, scathingly, a memorable instance of liberal racism at the Times.  But my sense of the problem with Raines was confirmed 10 years later, when he was brought down by the scandalously false reporting of Jayson Blair, a young black reporter whom Raines and other editors had indulged a few times too often.

By the time of Raines’ editorial demise I was no longer at the News, but I did indulge myself by writing an “I told you so” column in the Hartford Courant (it follows the Daily News column in the link here). That column was linked at sites such as Slate and reprinted even in the Jerusalem Post, whose editor at the time, one Brett Stephens, had neo-connish reasons (not my reasons) for highlighting a crisis at a liberal newspaper.

Flawed though the Times is, I’ve defended what I once called “the blunder-bus on Eighth Avenue” on several occasions perhaps most memorably in my take-down of Gray Lady Down, a book-length attack on it that was funded by right-wing foundations. Who needs the Times? We all do, still, for the things it does very well.

An ironic twist in the Howell Raines debacle prompts a final observation: Interpretive scoops that break new ideas as well as news are pretty easily stolen. When 18 paragraphs of a Washington Post review that I’d written of Marshall Frady‘s biography of Jesse Jackson wound up under someone else‘s byline a few weeks later in the San Francisco Chronicle, the reasons were instructive, and depressing. Here’s my review, with accounts (by Howard Kurtz, then at The Washington Post and by Dwight Garner, now himself a book reviewer for the New York Times) of how the review was plagiarized. Some years later, in the Hartford Courant column that’s the second of the pdf’s here, I had explained what I think was at stake in this sad experience.


7. Early storm warnings about Rupert Murdoch’s assault on the American Republic


Ever since Rupert Murdoch bought the once-liberal tabloid The New York Post in 1977, displacing its pro-labor, pro-civil-rights editor James Wechsler (a relative of mine) with his own, mostly “Aussie” henchmen to transform the paper into a daily reminder that Australia was founded as a penal colony, I’ve argued that most Murdoch journalism poisons whatever body politic it touches. Beginning in 2007, when Murdoch was about to acquire The Wall Street Journal, I wrote several warnings about him in several venues. I’ve collected them here as “Rupert vs. the Republic.” It’s important that we understand why Murdoch’s destructive engines, which have taught millions of Americans to fear and mistrust one another, are sometimes more powerful than the Constitution whose First Amendment protects what he does. I’ve addressed the First Amendment problems in another section, “The News Media, the Public Sphere, and a Phantom Public.” But I address the Murdoch disease here because, as some of the pieces here show, I saw it, as the redoubtable investigative reporter Dean Starkman did, when too many other journalists did not.


8. Innocents Abroad? Or opportunists? Western liberal educators in illiberal regimes

COLUMNS ON YALE'S VENTURE IN SINGAPORE; ON SINGAPORE'S REGIME; AND ON  LIBERAL EDUCATION IN ILLIBERAL SOCIETIES A visit to the U.S.S. Stennis:  From Yale-National University of Singapore College Facebook page. These  twenty-five ...

One of my most exhausting but eventually vindicated ventures against a tide of institutional incomprehension and resistance was my opposition to Yale University’s joint venture with the National University of Singapore to establish a new, liberal arts Yale-NUS College. In the early 2000’s, Yale administrators, eager to capitalize on Asia’s burgeoning (and Ivy League-besotted) middle-classes, convinced themselves and others that they were bringing liberal enlightenment to the little island city-state’s authoritarian regime and its tightly monitored populace. In truth, as I and other Yale faculty and a few brave Singaporean opposition leaders labored long and hard to show, there were more opportunistic intentions and conflicts of interest than Yale’s leaders comprehended or were willing to face.  All of my work on this is collected here in 36 pieces, some polemical, others rigorously investigative, and still others reflective.

Even if you’re not especially interested in Yale and Singapore, a lot is at stake in that venture as an emblem of others that have compromised American civic-republican premises and practices. I strongly encourage you to read the file’s introductory paragraphs and three other pieces: a) my opening salvo of March, 2012; b) my essay and podcast for the Carnegie Council on Ethics & International Affairs, on liberal education’s premises and dubious prospects in illiberal societies that lack a civic-republican ethos; and c) my Asia Sentinel post-mortem on the Yale-NUS venture when its closing was announced in 2021.    The Carnegie Council essay is being republished in Normative Tensions: Academic Freedom in International Education, an anthology of essays on the subject.


Sometimes, the best way to re-tone one’s receptors and get ready for the next real scoop is to procrastinate!