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Rachel Maddow: Thanks for doing show about my story. You still suck. Photo credit: WikiCommons.
In order to provide readers with more top quality content and make life as easy as possible for me, I’ve decided to start publishing an assortment of letters to the editor. Some of these are actual letters, or emails anyway, and some are things posted on social media about me and Washington Babylon.
But these aren’t just letters of praise, there’s really interesting information here. Note that these letters may have been lightly edited for clarity and length. The names of the writers have been omitted to protect the innocent, unless otherwise noted.
Here we go:
Letter 1 (JoAnn Wypijewski, legendary U.S. journalist)
Congratulations on the Trump/Panama report. But why does everything I read elsewhere about it say it was a ‘joint investigation of NBC and Reuters’ and barely mentions Global Witness and doesn’t mention you at all?
I read your interesting posts in Washington Babylon — especially the one about how journalism works. But I don’t understand how your year of work gets virtually erased in reports that seem to suggest (to the unknowing reader) that NBC/Reuters did all that work.
This probably sounds really naive, but back in the day (Alexander Cockburn’s Beat the Devil time) when we were drawing heavily on someone else’s reporting it was always heavily credited — and the lead investigator usually interviewed. Even the Times etc., when relying on, say, an Amnesty report or Human Rights Watch report, would not make it seem as if Times reporters had done all the work.
There always was, of course, a technique to highlight one’s own work even while giving credit, and certainly Beat the Devil did that, as did Washington Babylon the book, but still. More recently, when the Marshall Project funds investigations into criminal justice, prisons, etc. and then makes those available to the Times or Washington Post, it is very clear who did the main footwork.
So this seems weird, and wrong.
Richard Engel’s report for MSNBC, on the Rachel Maddow show, is pretty outrageous. He says ‘a team’ from Global Witness spent months on an investigation. When saying that the camera shows a small conference table in a sterile office with Patrick and three or four young white people who look like interns.

But the whole report, with Engel walking through archives in Panama or through the empty Trump building, interviewing Monte Friesner. etc., is couched in the ‘we’, ‘we’, ‘we’ of NBC/Reuters ‘exclusive investigation,’ and suggests that Engel is the real gumshoe here.

The whole thing — the contained shock of Engel and Patrick of Global Witness — is pretty funny (separate from the misrepresentations of who did the work), given that they act as if money laundering or corruption and real estate haven’t always gone hand in hand, as if there’s something special about drug dealers or oligarchs looking for ways to park and transform their ill gotten gains, as if ill gotten gain weren’t the essence of multinational capitalism.
I like Monte. I hate Richard Engel.

It really does reek of rip-off culture, and it’s not as if MSNBC  doesn’t know better because Rachel Maddow, who always lavishes praise on the brilliant reporting of Richard Engel, also lavishes praise on the reporting she draws from, often from the Washington Post, which she frequently calls one of the wonders of the modern world.

All other disagreement with Maddow aside, she does operate out of that old journalistic model, where, sure, you’re doing your pirouettes and adding value, but you’re also generous with crediting the original reporting, and making it crystal clear who did the long, hard investigation.

How many times did Alex refer to “an excellent report” from such and such at some often-obscure research shop, and one of us was on the phone with the “excellent investigator”, who was also credited? I remember trying to plug in synonyms for ‘excellent’ in the manuscript but often just letting it ride.

Letter 2 (From a reader in Panama)

Wow! Amazing report. Another huge accomplishment. The article has caused a firestorm here in Panama. Unlike offshore corps business, which is dominated by less than 10 law firms and employ less than 5,000 people, real estate is the biggest industry in Panama and has a huge impact in the economy. It was about time it cleaned up like the banks were forced to do.

How is the reaction so far?

Me: Thank you! Great reaction so far, NBC getting most of credit but I don’t care. Estoy feliz, hablamos luego.

Letter writer: You did the work, and that’s what matters

Letter 3, from my pal Ricky Martínez Benoit in Panama, via Facebook.

Yeah yeah yeah, now that’s on mainstream media, everyone’s sharing the story about Trump and Panama. But it was Mr. Ken Silverstein who did the whole work, and it’s him who deserves all the credit.

Oh, and he’s my bro. And I’m a very proud friend. Congratulations!!!!