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Lies, Damned Lies, And Journalism
Reporters like to quote Washington Post publisher Donald Graham as saying that journalism is the first rough draft of history. But that is nothing to celebrate. For as everyone knows who has ever been involved in a newsworthy event: Journalists always get it wrong.
The truth of that cynical sentiment came home to me yesterday, when I ran across a book review of Randall Smith’s The Prince of Silicon Valley, a biography of Frank Quattrone. As I noted in my blog posting concerning the review, the author (Stephen Wolfe) misstated the one absolutely central fact about the prosecution of Quattrone: It was not Quattrone who sent out the email suggesting that people “clean up those files.” Thus, it is absolutely impossible that Quattrone could have written the email in question so that colleagues would purge documents incriminating to him. When reading Wolfe’s review, I thought his error especially surprising, because the matter is accurately portrayed in the book and because Wolfe says that he attended the summation of Quattrone’s trial.
What, I wondered, could account for such error—on the part of a person who had at least two distinct chances to know the truth first-hand? Could it be that this lie about Quattrone is one of those anti-capitalist lies, promulgated by journalists, that now rest so deeply in the popular mind and historical record that even a first-hand observer will misstate the facts?
To find out how widespread the error might be, among the most highly reputable journalistic publications, I Googled the combination of “Frank Quattrone” and “clean up those files.” Following are some of the highlights, or lowlights, where the allegation is made that Frank Quattrone himself sent out the email in question. I have left out many blogs and Web sites that merely repeat the lie. And I have left out a number of respectable sites in which the story was worded too ambiguously to assess the story’s meaning on this point.