By Steven Brill
All opinions expressed are his own.
Every year I tell students in a journalism seminar I teach about the junior reporter for The American Lawyer – the magazine I founded and edited –who committed a classic error when he submitted a draft of a profile about some lawyer in the news who had made it big. Midway through the article, the young reporter described a showcase this lawyer had in his office that displayed a bunch of combat medals. The reporter declared, matter-of-factly, that our legal hero had won the medals for his heroics in Vietnam, which was relevant, he added, because the lawyer made his war record and his lock-n-load approach to his work part of his pitch to potential clients.
In the margin next to the statement about the lawyer having won the medals I wrote, “Who says?” When the reporter came to ask me what I had meant, I told him to check with the Pentagon about the supposed medals. Which the reporter did, and which caused a mini-scandal after we reported in our otherwise positive profile that our hero hadn’t won them.
The story has three points. First, that reporters should believe nothing told to them by a biased source, especially when what they are being told is a checkable fact. Second, that while opinions deserve balanced reporting of both sides’ views, facts are facts. They are knowable. The guy either got medals or he didn’t. Third, the best way to test facts that you think you know is to put them in front of the person with the greatest stake in refuting them. In this case when we confronted the lawyer with the Pentagon’s records that he had not won any medals, he produced no evidence to the contrary and, in fact, ultimately confessed his deception. Case closed.
I have thought about the lawyer who didn’t win the medals a lot in the two years since I parachuted into a giant story that I started out knowing little about: the battle raging across the country over education reform. After I had seen a reference to them in the New York Post, I showed up one morning in June 2009 at one of New York City’s “Rubber Rooms.” These were the places that housed hundreds of New York City teachers whom the Department of Education had accused of misconduct or incompetence, but who were protected by union tenure rules and, therefore, remained on the payroll for years pending the outcome of endless arbitration hearings, which typically resulted in them being returned to class by arbitrators whose $1,400-a-day contracts had to be approved every year by the teachers’ union.
The minute I saw these people sleeping, playing board games, chatting, or — in the case of a cheerful, $85,000 a year former middle school teacher — lounging in a beach chair she had brought from home, the story seemed obvious. As schools chancellor Joel Klein and his staff had argued, the Rubber Room was a symbol of a system gone haywire.