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More Questions for ProPublica
Its officials say they will 'have no further comment' on their gravely flawed Lab Leak article. Here is what I would ask them, if I could.
I have long-standing, deep admiration for ProPublica as a civic and journalistic institution. Many of my friends and colleagues work there. I wish them only the best.
I did not admire or even respect a splashy ProPublica / Vanity Fair project back in October, which was based on leads from unnamed Republican Senate staffers and purported to have insights into the “secret language” of Chinese Communist Party schemes. I laid out the reasons for skepticism in this previous post, based largely on an interview with the longtime Chinese translator Brendan O’Kane.
As I noted in that piece, I requested an interview about the story with Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief. I was told that he was “not available this week.”
I’ve written to request an interview with Mr. Engelberg next week—or failing that, with anyone who could speak on-the-record about the editorial process for this article and the follow-up Editor’s Note.
Alexis Stephens, the head of communications for ProPublica, wrote back this afternoon to say:
We don’t plan to comment beyond the editor’s note to readers, which was a comprehensive explanation of our process and findings.
OK. I think this is a huge mistake, for an organization dedicated to transparency and accountability. ProPublica has a great reputation, which it is eroding with its handling of this article. For instance: the next person who is visited by a ProPublica reporter with inconvenient questions can say, “As your boss would put it, I don’t plan to comment.”
Instead I’ll provide, without elaboration, a list of the questions I would have asked Stephen Engelberg or his colleagues, if they had consented to talk.
(Not to rub this in, but … to rub it in: Let’s remember that ProPublica is a journalistic institution based on the assumption that officials of other institutions should and will answer questions about their decisions. But now it won’t entertain questions about its own decisions. This is not a good call.)
Questions someone at ProPublica should answer, some day.
Part one, questions about the story itself:
How did ProPublica get interested in the story to begin with? It was originally a venture by a Senate Republican staff team. At what point did this become a legitimate journalistic project for ProPublica?
Why was Vanity Fair involved as a partner in the project? Had they already developed a story in this vein? Why was this a collaboration with ProPublica? Did Vanity Fair have any significant role in the original vetting of the story, or the follow-up? Which organization was responsible for editors’ checking and sign-off?
What was the “additional material” that ProPublica and Vanity Fair worked from? The story mentions documents from the Republican staff, and then said there was extra material PP and VF worked from. Was this also material from “minority staff” members that didn’t make it into the committee report? Was it original reporting? What were the standards for finding it significant?
How did ProPublica verify the claims of Toy Reid to be uniquely expert in Chinese Communist Party language? The story depends heavily on the claims of one person, Toy Reid, to be a uniquely insightful interpreter of official Chinese language. Did you check his claims with any outside sources? How, specifically, did you do that? Did you send the text of the article, or did you ask for a yes-or-no response to summaries of his claims? Were outside authorities asked just whether the things being claimed were "plausible," or did you ask for more specific evaluations? Did you ask any experienced China-world figures about his claim that official Chinese discourse was a “secret language,” which only he understood?
Funding factors. It’s a matter of public record that Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced crypto-tycoon, funded this and other investigative projects at ProPublica on “pandemic preparedness” themes, for $5 million. Is there anything relevant about how this funding affected the project and its approach?
Part two, questions about the Editor’s Note:
Who conducted the review that led to the Editor’s Note? Was it the same people who had made the original decisions about the story? (So they were conducting oversight of their own choices?) Or was there any “outside” view — from another part of ProPublica, or from outside the organization?
Why were the translators not named? ProPublica said it had referred the translation to three other authorities, who found the ProPublica version “plausible.” Why were none of them named? Would they agree to be named now?
Why did you not give the specific translations these other sources had offered? Given the emphasis on translation details, would that not have been an important step toward transparency?
What were the standards for considering translations “plausible,” as the Editor’s Note said? And what were the criteria for saying that one of your later experts produced a translation “in line with” the one you relied on? Why not provide the actual transcripts, so outsiders can judge?
Why did you not mention the translation issue of “three No’s, three Yes’es” This is a small-sounding but very consequential issue about the original article, and the editor’s note. The critics’ claim is that the original translation cut off a Chinese quote, misleadingly, in mid-sentence. The Editor’s Note does not mention that. Why not?
Why did you dismiss the issue of virtually identical language found in a Communist Party document many months before the alleged “lab leak”? Did this issue come up in the editing process? How was it resolved?
Part three, questions about transparency:
There’s just one in this category:
How can a journalistic organization dedicated to transparency and accountability refuse to answer any questions about its handling of what it presented as a hugely consequential story?
Those are the questions. I hope someone gets a chance to ask them, or hear the answers.
Here are two free-advice points from me, Jim Fallows:
ProPublica could wrap up this controversy in half-an-hour by saying: we made a mistake, we doubled-down, we recognize the error and will try to understand what went wrong.
Until it takes that step, ProPublica’s otherwise-outstanding reputation will be stained by its misjudgment on this story, and—more importantly—by its stonewalling refusal to acknowledge any error.
“It’s never the crime, it’s the cover-up…” This is an error in a realm that matters, both for U.S.-China stakes and as an example of journalistic accountability.