In bed with Justice

In bed with Justice

With the holidays on and media mentions down to year-end wrap-ups (“it was a tough year for convicted felon and soon to be inmate Conrad Black blah blah blah”), one of the more intriguing threads left dangling in the Conrad Black affair is the recent revelation by Rick Westhead in the Star concerning Wall Street Journal reporter Elena Cherney’s cozy reportorial relationship with lead prosecutor Eric Sussman:

“Some weeks after government lawyers filed the original indictment against Black, Wall Street Journal reporter Elena Cherney was working the phones. Now an editor with The Globe and Mail, Cherney asked assistant U.S. attorney Eric Sussman why prosecutors hadn’t charged Black for removing boxes from his Toronto office, violating a court order. Cherney’s question would spark Sussman into action and lead to Black’s most severe conviction, on obstruction.”

I ran into Cherney at one of those fabulous Christmas parties packed wall to wall with mutually suspicious journos. I couldn’t help myself. I asked, in effect, whether in her new job editing at The Globe she missed the brighter lights of Manhattan and the attendant opportunities to help put peers of the realm behind bars. Her eyes narrowed considerably before she replied with a certain haughtiness that she couldn’t “understand” why Sussman was going “on the record” with this stuff.

“You should call me about this,” she said. I did. And I’m waiting for an answer.

Still, her response at the party speaks volumes. First, Cherney is incredulous that Sussman would bank so much of his worth as a source with a reporter at the Toronto Star—a paper she would probably rank just ahead of the Sudbury Star in terms of clout. Second, Sussman, to some degree, violated the opaque journalistic code that governs the relationship between source and reporter. In this case, my guess is Cherney didn’t just “ask” a question; she prompted and prodded in an effort as much to make news as ask about it. In short: she did what any good reporter writing for a paper with sufficient clout would do.

Here’s my problem: a reporter helping the DOJ do their job, especially these days, ought to be an anathema. Conrad Black isn’t exactly a poster child for the ACLU, but several civil rights lawyers that I spoke to in Chicago said that any high profile DOJ prosecution (particularly those driven by a DOJ “task force” like white collar crime, terrorism or drugs) is arguably rife with civil rights abuses. My conclusion? Rick Westhead, Elena Cherney and other reporters who bed down with DOJ sources shouldn’t be surprised if they end up with fleas (i.e. me).

Bungles that helped topple Black: Source [Toronto Star]