From Woodward and Bernstein to data-crunching geeks: Lessons of the explosive Paradise Papers

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Worldwide revelations on tax havens

"You think about investigative journalism and you think about Woodward and Bernstein and you think about meeting Deep Throat in the car park at 2 in the morning. We've gone from Woodward and Bernstein to geeks looking at vast data sets ... It's the age of the leak."

That's Luke Harding, a great reporter for The Guardian, as he sits at his very austere desk in the paper's London newsroom during a Vice documentary on HBO. It's a truly inside look at the Guardian and media colleagues worldwide who are continuing to break amazing stories about "The Paradise Papers." The documentary itself was part and parcel of extraordinary discretion shown from the start of the project on March 27 in Munich to its unveiling Sunday on multiple platforms.

This is the result of a giant leak of documents, related to a Bermuda law firm, that have been de facto tax avoidance fixers in a saga that follows "The Panama Papers." Many famous people and companies are snared, including Apple, the Queen of England, Madonna, Bono and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, among dozens of others. The Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists again oversaw the effort, this time involving 13.4 million records and 380 journalists from 96 news organizations working on six continents in 30 languages.

Harding's comments prompted me to give him a call Wednesday and he opened by making very clear that he didn't meant to denigrate Woodward and Bernstein in the slightest but, for sure, "much of what I have been sucked into involves this mega data sets" and how a new sort of expertise must be included. The amounts of information found in Edward Snowden's leaks, the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers are so huge — and sometimes so initially incomprehensible — that altogether new systems of collating, filing and analyzing must be used, or even created.

"Data is a starting point, a springboard into more traditional Woodward and Bernstein-like meetings on park benches, and shoving mobile phones behind counters of coffee bars," says Harding, an award-winning reporter who's covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is an expert on Russia. He's written books on Putin's mob-like governance and Snowden, with his latest, "Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win" due out next week via Penguin Random House.

And the data crunchers are generally a good deal younger than Harding, who is 49 and doesn't consider himself a data geek. "The data only takes you as far as it takes you. You have to ultimately turn to human sources. And that was certainly the case with this one (the Paradise Papers)."

It's a reason why the involvement of reporters like him was important. Says Mike Hudson, senior editor of the international consortium: "He was a good person to have on the team, as an aggressive digger, an experienced and informed reporter on Russia, and journalist who's not afraid to make powerful people angry." Indeed, he was expelled from Russia as a result of his work, apparently the first British journalist shown the door since the end of the Cold War.

The revelations about billionaire Russian Yuri Milner and America's Ross necessitated intimate understanding of Russia and its corruption, which is up his alley. You need intellectual and journalistic capital — namely a track record — to get real people to talk. You can't sit and stare at a computer screen.

The documents were leaked to two reporters at the Suddeutsche Zeiting in Munich. That's why the first massive meeting of reporters and editors from around the world, including the Guardian and New York Times, was held at its offices. The amount of subsequent discretion is rather amazing, especially since, as Harding notes, all you usually need to do to draw out a reporter is buy him or her a couple of drinks.

Software architects were needed, as well as a closed and encrypted Facebook group where reporters from around the globe shared ideas. The data was crunched into a searchable database. "To be the perfect journalist," says Harding, the paper's senior international correspondent, "you need the skill of a top forensic accountant charging $1,000 an hour, the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes and the reporting skills of Woodward and Bernstein."

Since few possess that variety, it was relevant to have a group of about 400 who included the financially literate and those just good at working phones and chasing down government officials. The multiplier effect meant that the ultimate product "was not just twice as good but 20 times as good. I think this is clearly the way to go."

To this day, nobody except two Germans knows the source of the leaks. Talk about discretion! It was the same with the Panama Papers. Once again, as Harding notes, "Nobody blabbed, no one tweeted" in advance of the Nov. 5 publication date agreed upon (after mulling alternative proposals made by organizations such as The New York Times). So they'd gone all those months swapping ideas, showing one another the outline of different stories and corresponding in encrypted chat rooms. They even shared nasty letters from individuals (including lawyers) who didn't want them to publish a thing.

But they did, with that potpourri of skills melded in a collaborative way. Together, Harding concluded, it was a powerful organization. Now, he believes, "If you have dodged taxes and get a letter from the consortium, you might know the game is up. Which is good. In that case, we are in the right business."

Oh, this is really a stunning bit of work. Here's the consortium's website on the work so far. And if you missed the effort on Apple by the duo of The New York Times' Jesse Drucker and the consortium's Simon Bowers, which was in The Times, check it out

The morning Babel from Beijing and Pyongyang

CNN's "New Day" was stronger than morning rivals in covering President Trump overseas since it spent ample time away from sitting in a studio and was actually reporting. The others tended to spend chunks of time either (a) bashing Sen. Mitch McConnell for being an impediment to tax reform, as did "Trump & Friends" (though the anti-McConnell line peddled by Steve Bannon was not regurgitated by a dubious co-host Brian Kilmeade) or (b) heralding lousy Trump approval ratings one year into his tenure, as did "Morning Joe."

CNN's Jeff Zeleny in Beijing noted that Trump "became the first president since George H.W Bush not to insist that a Chinese president take questions from the press at a joint news conference." This was as Trump conspicuously did not blame the Chinese for our trade deficit, which was a mantra of his election campaign. 

Will Ripley, who again was one of the few Western journalists in Pyongyang, North Korea, informed us of the limits of American media rhetoric when it comes to assessing Trump. Editorial page editors and prime time cable TV hosts, just try to top this from the North Korean state newspaper on Trump in Beijing: His remarks about North Korea are "Filthy rhetoric spewing out of his snout like garbage that reeks of gun powder to ignite war."

Chuck Todd on Trump and having a 'target' on one's back

The host of "Meet the Press" was born as the show celebrated its 25th anniversary. Now he helps celebrate its 70th. In a chat with Poynter, he's expansive, insightful, humble and also anxious about the current media state of play in which just a single phrase can prompt an unfair Twitter barrage. And be informed that no shortage of prospective Republican guests and analysts take a pass on coming on as guests precisely because they're scared of Trump retribution for being perceived to have crossed him even in the slightest. 

A non-Biden story

An Axios newsletter by the estimable whirling dervish Mike Allen heralded its interview with Joe Biden: "Axios PM: Biden rips Trump's 'phony nationalism.'"

It was quickly picked up by many, including The Hill and Newsweek. The only problem is that it's not that new. He'd just used virtually the same construction in a Salt Lake City appearance, citing “half-baked nationalism and phony populism,” and did very much the same two weeks ago in in a speech in Thousands Oaks, California. John McCain has used the " “half-baked, spurious nationalism” phrasing before, too.

Greta van Susteren's app

As TechCrunch notes, "Former cable news anchor Greta Van Susteren is ready to jump into the app market with an apology app, according to a Facebook post she put up. Van Susteren says in the post she’ll be releasing her first app, “Sorry,” which she’s spent more than a year on already, to let people send apologies to one another.

“SNAPCHAT AND INSTAGRAM are about to get some competition! You will get to ‘accept or reject’ apologies from a friend (kept private between you and your friend) or ‘accept or reject’ apologies of public figures which we ALL get to see and vote to accept or reject.”

Hey, anybody still alive who remembers the catchphrase, "Love means never having to say you're sorry" from the Erich Segal novel, "Love Story," turned into the 1970 movie with Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw? Clearly not fit for the age of the app. 

Duke reporters need not apply

Inside Higher Ed reports, "For Duke University students interested in learning about hedge funds and the economic forces that drive them, Economics 381S — Inside Hedge Funds, taught by Linsey Lebowitz Hughes, a lecturing fellow of economics — is probably a good place to start."

"There’s just one small catch, found six bullet points down on the front page of the course syllabus. 'Anyone who is on the staff of The Chronicle is not permitted to take this class.'"

"Upon coming across this stipulation, staffers at The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, naturally wrote an article about it. Economics department officials have remained tight-lipped since."

Imitation is InfoWars' sincerest form of flattery

Notes BuzzFeed: "Over the past three years, conspiracy site InfoWars has copied more than 1,000 articles produced by Russian state-sponsored broadcaster RT to its website — all without the permission of RT."

"According to data from social sharing tracking website BuzzSumo, there were at least 1,014 RT articles republished on InfoWars since May of 2014. The articles appeared on InfoWars with a byline credit to RT, but a spokesperson for the Russian broadcaster told BuzzFeed News that InfoWars did not have permission to re-publish its content."

Understated headline of the day

"Wrestling legend Ric Flair had 15 drinks a day, slept with 10,000 women, documentary reveals"

Yes, Foxnews.com, but ESPN's "Nature Boy," which is part of its "30 on 30" series, is a terrific documentary about the pro wrestler and curious cultural icon. It's a compelling portrait of a self-made and complicated man. Here's the trailer. Inadvertently, it's a reminder to journalists of the power, and fallacy, of caricature in reporting on people. And maybe, in thinking of Trump, the power and limits of showmanship, as a U.S. News & World Report piece suggests.

Lead of the day

From Columbia Journalism Review: "Professor Carl T. Bergstrom began his first lecture for INFO198 at the University of Washington with a declaration about America. 'There is so much bullshit,' he said, looking up at 160 students last spring. 'We are drowning in it.' Bergstrom’s audience didn’t seem surprised or outraged by his phraseology. They had surely heard that word before, but they no doubt also recognized it from the title in the course catalog: 'Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.'"

The pieces centers on how "At least a dozen universities around the country have launched or are planning similar classes, using 'Calling Bullshit' and curriculum from Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy as templates. There has been a burst of interest in secondary education as well, with legislators in at least 15 states introducing or recently passing laws mandating digitally focused media literacy instruction in public schools."

Why Harvey Weinstein and Peter Thiel may deserve one another

The unsavory fights the unsavory. Reports Deadline, "After getting what it calls a 'high number' of responses to its initial offer of a $100,000 'bounty' to fund claims against Harvey Weinstein, the Peter Thiel-backed startup Legalist has now launched #MeToo Tales. The confidential telephone hotline and online forum offers legal support for victims of sexual harassment."

"The move has a business angle. Companies like Legalist often seek to take advantage of headline-making cases (the data breach at Equifax is another recent example) to peddle their services. What’s more, the creation of Legalist and other litigation finance outfits, which fund their operations with shares of winning plaintiffs’ verdicts, has unnerved some journalists in the wake of the Gawker case."

And if you missed it, here's Vanity Fair on Thiel's counseling of Trump and his being in consideration for an intelligence post. 

Line of the night

"Anderson, let me be very honest and not self-serving," said Bernie Sanders to Anderson Cooper on CNN.

One day, wouldn't you like somebody to say, "Anderson, let me be totally duplicitous and grotesquely self-serving."

Insight from Down Under

Australian reader Glenn Dyer saw Wednesday's item on Washington bureau chiefs noting Trump's craving to be liked by the press and writes, "Down Under a politician (a ‘pollie’) who courts the media (or anyone else in authority, such as a business person or a TV or film star or singer ) is known as a ‘media tart’ or a ‘a bit of a tart.'"

The Donna Brazile onslaught

On the way to drop my kids at school, I planned to check out the local 7-Eleven to see if Brazile was there, too, hawking her book. Last night she was dueling, and largely disarming, a fumbling Tucker Carlson on Fox, who did not get the liberal scalp he desired. She's everywhere, holding up the book to the nearest camera often.

Alas, as of this morning she'd dropped a tad on Amazon's best-seller list, though still at a formidable No. 6. Those she trails include former Chicago Tribune photographer Pete Souza, whose book on his years as President Obama's official photographer was No. 2.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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