“Washington Gadfly” blogger Evan Gahr caught Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman in an ethical dance over accepting a “civil liberties” award from the ACLU at their “Bill of Rights Award Dinner.” Gellman recently shared the Pulitzer Prize with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras for revealing Edward Snowden's leaks about U.S. anti-terrorist surveillance programs. Four years ago, TIME sent Gellman on the road for six months to report a cover story on the "Secret World of Extreme Militias" a month before the midterm elections.
Should a journalist accept an award from an advocacy group he covers? Gellman was listed as attending the fundraiser for the ACLU of the National Capital Area....until Gahr started asking questions.
In an April 4 email blast to supporters the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital said Gellman along with Glenn Greenwald and film maker Laura Poitras, co-author of Gellman’s story that divulged the NSA’s internet data mining program would get an award named for the late Henry Edgerton, a liberal federal appeals court judge.
In one of his best known decisions Edgerton joined a Washington, DC appellate court ruling that upheld the decision by a district court judge to dismiss the perjury conviction of China “scholar” Owen Lattimore, a notorious Communist propagandist.
“The program for our dinner includes videotaped remarks from Rio de Janeiro by courageous journalist Glenn Greenwald, who will be accepting our Henry W. Edgerton Civil Liberties Award on behalf of Barton Gellman, Laura Poitras and himself,” the ACLU announced triumphantly....
As for Gellman, when contacted for this article he steadfastly denied any sort of ethical problem. Curiously, just hours after the ACLU had announced it was giving him an award Gellman insisted he was not really getting an award from the ACLU.
“I don't go around accepting or rejecting awards,” Gellman contended. “I'm not in the business of denouncing people.”
Gellman claimed that “nothing says I'm accepting the award.” Reminded that the ACLU email, which Gellman said he had read, declared that Greenwald would accept the award for him and Poitras the investigative journalist insisted that was a “mistake.”
Pressed further Gellman ended the phone call. “I think we’re done,” he said. “Goodbye.”
Gellman then emailed a few minutes later to say he just told the ACLU to correct its supposed error about Greenwald accepting the award for him.
The Washington Post veteran, who wrote an entire book complaining that Dick Cheney is overly secretive, refused to answer follow-up questions.
But Art Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, told this reporter that Gellman knew full well he was getting the award. Gellman “initially agreed to be one of the recipients of our award, and we included his name on the invitations” to its shindig at the National Press Club,” Spitzer explained.
The day after Gellman bagged on them the ACLU sheepishly announced that although they “wanted to give the Henry W. Edgerton Civil Liberties Award to courageous journalist Bart Gellman, he stated that he wants to maintain his professional distance from organizations he covers. He respectfully declines to accept the award.”
Spitzer said for this article that Gellman “had second thoughts about accepting an award from an organization that's an advocate on many of the issues he covers. We respect his decision.”
Should these “second thoughts” have been first thoughts?
Asked about the matter Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron tried to pretend that Gellman never agreed to receive the award. Baron said that “Bart didn’t seek the award and is not accepting it.” Uh, actually, “Bart” was prepared to accept it until I raised the issue. Saying Gellman “didn’t seek the award” is a distinction without a difference.
Baron sounded like someone caught with his hand in the cookie jar who sheepishly says, “I didn’t seek these cookies and am not taking them.”
Other reporters have been less skittish about associating with the ACLU. See NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who co-wrote a book with ACLU executive director Anthony Romero on "the dangerous erosion of the Bill of Rights in the age of terror."
Gahr also asked some media ethics experts about accepting an ACLU award:
Former New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane said that it would be foolhardy for a journalist to accept an award from an advocacy group he covers. “If the award is coming from an organization you are covering it’s a mistake to accept it. You’re not demonstrating sufficient independence.”
Like a polished diplomat Brisbane emphasized that he was talking about the issue in general and did not know the specifics of the Gellman matter. Was his reticence due to the fact that Brisbane had worked at the Washington Post with Gellman?
Left-leaning NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen also closed ranks behind Gellman. Rosen, who worked briefly as a journalist in 1978 but has spent the ensuing decades explaining to reporters how they can be as morally upright as him, declined comment.
Before abruptly hanging up, however, Rosen explained that he would not talk to me because I write for conservative publications.
Three cheers for guilt by association.
But Dick Wald, who was in charge of broadcast standards for ABC News, told this reporter that he saw nothing wrong with journalists getting awards from advocacy organizations. "All organizations are advocacy organizations," he said.
Asked if that included the Pulitzer Prize Committee he said emphatically, "Yes."