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August 24, 2006

Digging on Diggs

It took close to 24 hours to verify this story to TNS editorial criteria. That's because when I started reviewing the source material provided by Judicial Watch to back up their story, I started finding holes.

For instance, Judicial Watch’s press release said the Community Foundation had made two "recent grants" to the ACLU. But on closer inspection of the document provided by Judicial Watch, I realized that it listed all the grants EVER given through a specific program, which through further research, I found has been going since the early ’90s. That meant that Judicial Watch really didn’t know when the money was given so they couldn’t be sure that it was granted during Judge Anna Diggs Taylor’s tenure on the board of the foundation.

I also had trouble verifying when Diggs Taylor joined the board. That seemed like a pretty crucial detail to me, and all Judicial Watch knew was that she had been on the board since 2003. They couldn’t answer whether she had been there before, which surprised me, given that they also didn’t know when the grants had been given. It became clear to me that they put out their press release without doing all their homework and that if they were right, it would be by luck, not from solid research.

The New York Times beat me to finding out when the grants were given, but didn’t seem to figure out when Diggs Taylor joined the board. The ACLU of Michigan told a Times reporter that the chapter had received two grants in 2002, and had received several since 1999.

But since the Community Foundation did not return my phone calls, I had to rely on their website documents to figure out how long Diggs Taylor has been involved with the Foundation. I still don’t know when she joined the board, but I did find record of her being on the board since 2002, and that corresponds to at least the most recent grants. So I finally had the story verified.

We find pretty regularly that public-interest groups of all stripes and other reporters, as much as bloggers or anyone else, tend to find some initial hint of a story and run with it, rarely tracing the facts to their roots. And, yeah, if you do that, you're going to get lucky most of the time, and it will turn out you were right, even if you can't prove it or answer hard questions to back up your claims.


msszczep: Digging on Diggs

Call me dunderheaded, when I first read this headline, I thought that you were going to talk about the social news collecting website

Actually, amid the current TNS fundraising drive, this would be a GREAT thing to have on every TNS article -- putting each new TNS article in Digg, and having the option to TNS readers to Digg articles. That can certainaly help with TNS visibility.

barfield: Digging on Diggs

It doesn't seem to me that there is a conflict of interest. The judge might be a "supporter of the plaintiff in the case," although that has not been proven, but even if so, how is that a conflict of interest? A conflict of interest to me implies that she could get some benefit from ruling for one side - what is that supposed to be in this case?

Rojan: Digging on Diggs

Foundations get money based, at least in theory, on the impact of the grants they offer. So if Foundation X gives $ to Nonprofit Y, the better nonprofit Y does, the better it reflects on Foundation X, and the more credibility X gets.

The criteria for conflict of interest for judges is "the appearance of a conflict of interest." That's when they're supposed to step down. That's why TNS rightly hounded then-Judge John Roberts during his Supreme Court nomination process. It shouldn't matter whether the judge is liberal or conservative. Good journalism dictates hounding them all, and TNS was right to raise these questions, because the appearance is there.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.