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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How to take a leak

Trump's administration resembles a sieve.  It has so many  leaks.  The media abound with accounts of leaks streaming out of the White House. And there are accusations of leaks from the intelligence community.   As an old news dog,  I dealt with leaking in the past.

First, when an official tells a reporter something on the condition of anonymity,  that is not a leak.  That is a contact which can be attributed to someone who is in a position to know something.  Nevertheless,  when an anonymous source is quoted,  the news medium still has the responsibility to verify the information with other sources.   In the story on the resignation of Michael Flynn and the revelation that Trump's campaign had regular contact with Russian officials,  The Washington Post took pains to show how the story broke and was verified by major media.  

My assigned duties as a journalist did not cover government primarily, although in covering agriculture, the USDA and the extension services and colleges of agriculture were a major part of the  coverage.  There wasn't much occasion for leaking coming from those quarters.  The biggest outpouring of leaks came from my coverage of business.  And that included the coverage of government agencies such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other agencies that regulate business.

As the news accounts of leaks flowing from Trump point out,  there are many motives.  One is that in a highly competitive contest for gaining attention and power,  people will piss on each other.  Another is resentment toward the people in charge, in which case the pissing is on the bosses.  A reporter has to learn how to identify those kinds of leakers because their information is not reliable.  

Another kind of leak is that of people who are genuinely concerned that something is wrong with the situation in which they are working.  That seems to be the case in many of the Trump leaks.  People around him are finding that he is not all there.  He is not capable of perceiving and understanding real situations.  He lives in self-delusion.  And he is a dedicated liar.  

As a business editor, I had many such  leaks that came from a major farm equipment corporation for which I once worked.  The people who leaked to me were ones I had worked with.  At the time I worked for the company, it was a large global corporation headquartered in Chicago.  When I worked there, many employees used to meet a bar nearby on Friday nights to cash their paychecks and transition into the weekend with a brew or two.  The conversations often involved dumb things that the management did.  On many occasions, some of the bosses joined us to show that they knew when bad decisions were being made.  The conversations tended toward predicting how the company would fail.  It eventually did,  much in the way predicted by those disgruntled Friday night commentaries.

When I was a business editor and received calls or had conversations with former fellow-employees,  it was because people in the company were worrying about the future of their jobs and witnessed the company doing things that jeopardized its future.  The company's response to consumer complaints was a constant source of information that I kept getting from employees.  Executives were getting reports of problems with the equipment and denied that there could be problems with the products. At one time while working for the company, I was assigned to a team that investigated customer and dealer complaints.   We found that the company produced a good product,  but that manufacturing flaws were getting past the inspection department.  Those flaws could easily have been eliminated by adjustments in the manufacturing process.  But the company's response was to take the investigative team out of the field.  

As an editor, I received constant updates from my friends in the company,  but they were seldom the kind of thing that could be used in reporting business news.  They were the personal observations of people seeing mistakes being made up  close.  They were informing but could not be used in a journalistic context.  One evening, I encountered one of my former bosses in a restaurant.  He was one who joined those Friday night sessions in which company mistakes were discussed.  I commented that I was in touch with some employees who kept me posted on what was going on with the company, but that the personal anecdotes were not useful for news coverage.  My former boss suggested that I look more deeply into sources that covered stock shares,  markets, engineering developments, and product news--specialty publications that only people involved in highly technical aspects of business are familiar with.  Some of these publications did comparisons of the products and services delivered, while others tracked personnel decisions.  I found that the company decided to farm out engineering to research and development organizations rather than hire engineers.  This policy was the opposite of the company's main competitor,  which recruited engineers from Big Ten universities, givng them summer jobs and internships to help them through school.  This information was verified by my sources within the company, who supplied me with stories about the problems being caused by the lack of in-house engineers to address issues as they came up.    I was able to use the leaks to illustrate the general news reported in the technical press. 

Eventually, the company got sued when it was discovered that a main component of its corn harvesting machines infringed on a patent held by its major competitor.  It was the killing blow after the company had been brought to the edge of bankruptcy by a grandstanding CEO who  took an anti-union stance  in cost-cutting that resulted in the longest strike against the company in its history.  When the company failed and closed down,  all its local plants were shuttered   More than 12,000 people lost their jobs.  The employees of the company saw the failure coming long before shareholders, executives, and the business press did.  

One of the incidents related to me involved a man who ran a huge dealership for the company.  This dealer also flew his own airplane.  He had sold a machine that failed in the field and he gave a farmer a new machine off his sales floor so that the harvest could be finished.  The dealer and his mechanics tore apart the failed machine and found the cause to be a matter of hasty assembly in the factory.  In reducing costs, an order had been put out to speed up the assembly  line and to "provide a greater tolerance"  in the inspection department that examined finished machines for problems.  The company personnel did not respond to the dealer's telephone calls satisfactorily, so the dealer wrapped the failed parts in a greasy gunny sack,  put it in his airplane, and flew them up to the town where the plant was located.  He strode into the plant offices, barged into the plant manager's office, and dumped the greasy sack with the parts on the manager's desk.  

This was a great story, but the company, of course, would not acknowledge it and the dealer did not want to jeopardize his relationship with the company by commenting on the incident. So, the story remained a matter of a leak circulated among employees.  However, the story was a rather precise illustration of management practices and company attitudes that eventually brought the company down.  The leak identified and explained a problem within the company, but that information never reached the people who could make use of it--stockholders, customers, or the general public.  That leak was more prescient about the company's future than anything that could be verified, given attribution, and printed.  

Leaks are often the important news.  They do have to be analyzed to see if they are motivated by people using them as competitive weapons  to gain advantage or as vengeful weapons against disliked bosses.  But leaks that are motivated by the need to tell someone what is really going on are important.  In states such as South Dakota where there is a network of laws that give officials the power to withhold information,  leaks are often the only accurate and genuine news about how government is performing.  Leaks have to be taken seriously.   They are often the closest thing to truth that you'll ever get.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States