February 7, 2019

Behind the scenes of CNN’s explosive report

CNN veteran reporter Nima Elbagir eluded gunfire. She journeyed into marketplaces where guns were being bought and sold illegally. She interviewed parents as they held their infants dying of starvation.

All in the name of what was an explosive CNN exclusive about how weapons manufactured in the United States have wound up in the hands of bad guys on the other side of the world.

Here’s my conversation with her about her latest story from Yemen.

Elbagir and her team found that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have transferred American-made weapons to al Qaeda-linked fighters and others waging war in Yemen. That’s a direct violation of their agreements with the United States.

I had a chance to speak ot Elbagir by telephone from her home in London to find out the details of this shocking story that took 18 months to produce. These weapons that are being sold and bartered with enemy forces are not just guns and grenades. We’re talking about heavy-duty vehicles that not only cause damage, but reveal U.S. technology. The U.S. government has launched an investigation and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn) called the CNN report “infuriating but not surprising.’’

“I think that was what really was startling for all of us on this — just how brazen and out in the open this was,’’ Elbagir said.

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Elbagir has won numerous awards since joining CNN in 2011. Perhaps no story was more somber than in the fall of 2017 when Elbagir traveled to Libya to report on African migrants being sold at slave auctions. She witnessed a dozen auctioned off for as little as $400 in less than 10 minutes.

Abramson accused of plagiarism

Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times, is being charged with one of journalism’s biggest sins: plagiarism. Her book, “Merchants of Truth,’’ was released Tuesday and Michael Moynihan, a correspondent for “Vice News Tonight,’’ took to Twitter Wednesday evening to accuse Abramson of lifting several passages in her book from various sources.

In a series of tweets, Moynihan laid out a pretty compelling case that Abramson had taken previously published material and passed it off as her own with no attribution. When asked about it Wednesday night on Fox News, Abramson said, “All I can tell you is I certainly didn’t plagiarize my book.”

Could it be that Abramson merely forgot to include the passages in question in her footnotes? When asked that specifically on Fox News, Abramson said, “No, I don’t think it’s an issue at all.’’

Then late Wednesday night, Abramson sent out two tweets addressing the allegations. The first one said:

“I endeavored to accurately and properly give attribution to the hundreds of sources that were part of my research.’’

A minute later, Abramson tweeted:

“I take seriously the issues raised and will review the passages in question.”

Shortly after that, the book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, put out the following statement:

“Jill Abramson’s MERCHANTS OF TRUTH is an important, exhaustively researched and meticulously sourced book about the media business in a critical moment of transition. It has been published with an extraordinary degree of transparency toward its subjects; each of the four news organizations covered in the book was given ample time and opportunity to comment on the content, and where appropriate the author made changes and corrections. If upon further examination changes or attributions are deemed necessary we stand ready to work with the author in making those revisions.”

This is just the latest, although the most serious, issue with Abramson’s book. When review copies were sent out to the media last month, several journalists accused Abramson of factual errors. Then, after an interview this week with The Cut, Abramson was criticized for her note-taking methods.

“I do not record,’’ she told The Cut. “I’ve never recorded. I’m a very fast note-taker. When someone kind of says the ‘it’ thing that I have really wanted, I don’t start scribbling right away. I have an almost photographic memory and so I wait a beat or two while they’re onto something else, and then I write down the previous thing they said. Because you don’t want your subject to get nervous about what they just said.”

New York Times thriving

It’s good to be the New York Times these days. In an industry that’s struggling pretty much everywhere in the United States, the Times is riding high. Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds writes that the Times company reported super strong financial results for the last quarter of 2018. It added 265,000 subscribers to its news, crosswords and cooking sites in the quarter. Most significantly, it increased journalism positions by 120 last year with a newsroom total of 1,600, its highest ever.

ESPN ripped over firing

Nobody outside of ESPN knows more about what’s going on inside at ESPN than James Andrew Miller, who wrote the definitive book on the network called “Those Guys Have All the Fun.’’ Miller, on the sports media podcast hosted by The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch, unloaded on ESPN for the recent firing of popular anchor Adnan Virk. According to the New York Post, Virk was fired for leaking ESPN info to Awful Announcing, a website that covers sports media.

“It made me carsick,’’ Miller said on Deitsch’s latest podcast. “This is a guy who had worked there for nine years. He bled ESPN. He’s got four young boys. He’s got a moral compass despite the fact that some people now are saying otherwise.’’

What Miller said he found particularly galling is that someone inside ESPN apparently leaked that Virk was fired for leaking information. Kind of ironic, eh?

“How the (expletive) did that get leaked?’’ Miller said. “We’re talking about a situation where somebody is fired — fired, not suspended, fired — for talking on background, which is basically confirming something … and then somebody from inside ESPN leaks it to the press. And so it’s not even like this guy, this loyal employee, doesn’t even get a graceful exit.  No, no, no. Somebody inside has to, in the most pernicious, vituperative, amoral way take this guy’s professional career and put a bullet hole thought it.’’

Three thoughts. First, Miller’s opinions are typically reasoned and worth listening to. Second, Deitsch’s podcast is a must-listen for everyone, but especially those interested in sports media. And, third, Virk’s firing feels like an overreaction, but is an obvious warning to all of ESPN employes that the network is sick of leaks. (ESPN has not commented on the firing other than to confirm it.)

Credit to The Big Lead for transcribing Miller’s quotes. You can go there to hear Miller’s comments for yourself.

Food for thought

These appear to be salad days for the Los Angeles Times — quite literally. The Times has announced the return of a standalone Food section, seven years after it was folded into the Saturday features pages. It’s is a big deal when you consider a lot of papers are whacking standalone special-interest sections such as food.

This is just the latest move on what looks to be a promising resurgence for the L.A. Times. It has made several high-profile hires recently. That includes sports/culture columnist LZ Granderson, which I wrote about last month. The Times also has postings for at least a couple of dozen other openings right now. Not only is the Times hiring, but it’s trying new things, both in the paper and digitally. Different beats, podcasts, more opinion, video. It’s encouraging for the outlet and its audience.

To write or not to write

I’m not sure quite what to make of this story in the Washington Post that shoots down conspiracy theories that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead. Even addressing such wild speculation seems needless. Then again, interesting that the Post thought the rumors were strong enough to address. For sure, it’s an entertaining read.

Oh, speaking of the Post, here’s a story involving Post owner Jeff Bezos trying to find out how the National Enquirer got ahold of some steamy texts he sent to his alleged mistress. This, I suppose, answers the question of whether or not the Post is going to write about Bezos’ personal life and divorce.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

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