The Art of Leaking

It’s the nature of organizations and bureaucracies to close ranks, just as it’s in the DNA of reporters to want more and more information.  Add to that mix the factors of self-interest and idealism. When reporters pry, officials withhold, and secrets are leaked, the result can be high drama{{1}}.  But are these supposed  ‘secrets’ true, half-true, or false? What are the leaker’s motives–to settle a score{{2}}, advance his/her own career, or see justice done?  It’s up to the reporter to answer those questions before publishing anything.  In short, there is an art to leaking and to using leaks in developing a story.

This column is addressed to the three (or perhaps four) people who are now trying to send me information without compromising or revealing their identities.  Here’s the gist: your leaks so far have been overly cryptic, incomplete or just baffling, which means they aren’t helping me report the story.  The piece ends with a suggestion for more effective communication.

Leaking well is essential, while leaking poorly can have unintended consequences. I learned this lesson in 2012 while investigating Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC, for the PBS series “Frontline.”  We were especially curious about the widespread ‘wrong to right’ erasures on the District’s standardized test.  Had her school principals done the erasing in order to give the new Chancellor the great gains that she had made them promise to deliver?  If that were the case, then her ‘miracle’ would be exposed as a fraud.  And if she had good reason to suspect misbehavior by adults and did nothing about it, then she herself would be exposed.

We knew that an outside expert had prepared a confidential report about the widespread erasures during Ms. Rhee’s first year.  Obviously we needed to see that if that report answered two vital questions: “How much did Ms. Rhee know, and when did she know it?”  Our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were denied by the District and the U.S. Department of Education. (DC said the report did not exist; while the US Department of Education acknowledged that it had the report but wouldn’t give us a copy{{3}}.)

Enter the leaker. One day the mail brought a plain envelope containing a few tantalizing paragraphs apparently clipped from the mysterious report, along with a note telling us that we should be asking for ‘a memo,’ not ‘a report.’  More FOIAs, and more denials.

With the air date looming, we still did not have the full report and, therefore, could not mention it, or even allude to it, in our Frontline program, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” that aired in January 2013.

A few weeks AFTER the broadcast, the full 4-page memo appeared on my desk. Perhaps the leaker, no doubt the same person, realized his/her error.  After independently confirming from two sources that it was genuine, I reported on my blog just how much Michelle Rhee actually knew about the widespread erasures–a lot. One source confirmed that Ms. Rhee and Kaya Henderson, then her deputy and now Chancellor, discussed the memo at a meeting.{{4}}

Please don’t misunderstand me: It took real courage for the leaker to do what he/she did, because I know the high level of fear that Ms. Rhee and her inner circle inspired across the public school system during her 3+ years in Washington.  One confidential informant told me, “I would never work again if she suspected me of talking to you,” and another insisted on being filmed in shadow.

But the truth must be acknowledged: ineffective leaking allowed Ms. Rhee to dodge a bullet.  The memo shows that she looked the other way when presented with clear evidence that adults, not students, were responsible for the widespread ‘wrong to right’ erasures.  She simply didn’t want to know the truth, but we were unable to tell that to the Frontline audience of about 1.1 million people.  Not even one-tenth that number read my blog, and so many in the national media continue to portray her as a fearless reformer who ‘turned around’ the DC schools.

Dribbling out partial information is not the way to go, not if getting at the truth is the purpose of the leak.  Time is important as well, because reporters must independently confirm the validity of the material.

If you are concerned about your calls or texts being intercepted, you may enroll in silent circle (silentcircle.com){{5}}. After you enroll, reach out to me (‘johnggmerrow’ is my user name) by phone or text, knowing that your communications are scrambled and otherwise protected.

If you want the truth to come out, you have to trust that, if you do reveal your identity to me, it will remain secret. I’ve shielded people throughout my career and am not about to betray anyone now.

Plain envelopes may still be sent to me at Learning Matters, 127 W. 26th Street, NY NY 10001.

[[1]]1. Think Edward Snowden and the NSA, for the most recent example.[[1]]
[[2]]2. Several people volunteered stories about the Chancellor’s alleged misdeeds that turned out to be false, leading us to conclude that their goal was to ‘get’ Ms. Rhee. One former teacher claimed to have a principal on tape confessing to participating in an ‘erasure party’ but never produced the tape.[[2]]
[[3]]3. We learned the name of the report’s author, Dr. Fay G. “Sandy” Sanford, and contacted him, but he told us that it wasn’t his to release.[[3]]
[[4]]4. Henderson subsequently swore under oath that she first learned of the Sanford memo from my blog.[[4]]
[[5]] 5. $9.95 for one month.[[5]]

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