Reporting on the DOMA Brief, Part 1

One of the never-ending debates in the current media landscape is how journalism in the new media is different (and better) than the old media. The one caveat to that, however, is the viral nature of information and even news and the difficulty in correcting misinformation once it goes viral.

That issue was highlighted in the coverage of the Justice Department’s Defense of Marriage Act  brief and one specific piece of information: the background of one of the brief’s authors. The story began when Andrew Sullivan described one of the brief’s authors–DOJ attorney W. Scott Simpson–as a “Bush-administration holdover” and a Mormon.

That depiction was picked up by a number of other bloggers, including John Aravosis (the go-to blogger on the DOMA brief), Dan Savage, Daily Kos, Citizen Crain, and others.  The problem is that Sullivan’s information wasn’t correct.

Sullivan later published a dissent to his blogging, pointing out the mistakes, but the damage was already done.  Commenters all over the blogosphere were describing the attorney as a Bush-holdover and Mormon, despite Sullivan’s semi-correction.

As the dissenter points out–and online search confirms–the lawyer is a career DOJ lawyer who has been with the government almost 20 years.  His name appears on decisions dating back to 1989, which means he wasn’t a political appointee from the Bush era, instead a career employee who may have been hired during Bush I and has written briefs on behalf of the government on tons of mundane issues. An editor, or reporter, familiar with the Justice Department would know just by reading the lawyer’s title that he wasn’t a political appointee and probably not even a new hire.

One of the tenets of the “old” media is that facts are checked and double-checked, with editors looking over the reporter’s shoulder. While that system invariably has failures, it is also a system which has worked effectively in American-styled journalism. But what happens when facts aren’t double-checked? What happens when there is no editor looking over your shoulder? Suddenly an anonymous lawyer at the Justice Department becomes part of a right-wing conspiracy involving political-appointee Mormons doing Obama’s dirty work.

And how do you correct information that’s already gone viral? Do bloggers have an obligation to correct mistaken information they’ve posted about, as Towleroad did recently when it reported that Newsom had contacted the California Supreme Court to delay release of the Prop 8 decision, a story that seemed highly suspect on its face and was later denied by Newsom’s office?  And how should blogger’s issue corrections?

UPDATED:  For more coverage of the DOMA brief.

6 Responses

  1. Nice work, Mike. Absolutely dead on. Keep it up.

  2. That W. Scott Simpson might have been a Bush père appointee rather than a Bush fils appointee is of little comfort. Greater factual accuracy would not have significantly changed the implication of his potential personal “right-wing” motivations.

    Second, you don’t dispute the apparent fact that Simpson IS a “devout Mormon’ and fail to explain why their is anything wrong with including that in references to him.

    If the Website originally refered to is, in fact, that of this W. Scott Simpson, he waxes at length about his Mormon ancestors and personal devotion to the denomination, adding, “I dislike the violence, bad language, and sexual depictions in so many more recent movies. (To block most of the foul language in movies, my family and I have been very pleased with a product called “TV Guardian.”)

    Is it unreasonable to infer that he is NOT one of those few Mormons who believe they can be both devout AND support gay civil rights?

    If you meant to assert, as others have across the Net, that it is “unfair” or “irrelevant” to identify someone’s religious affiliation in a discussion of his/her participation in an effort to deny or take away someone’s CIVIL rights, I submit that such “unfairness” or “irrelevancy” ENDED the moment that affiliation started violating the separation of Church and State by trying to enact CIVIL laws that enforce their religious beliefs on others or defeat CIVIL laws that disagree with their religious beliefs—again, most indefensibly and worthy of public derision and scorn when they would deny or take away the CIVIL rights of others.

    It would be just as fair to reference someone in a similar context who was a “devout Catholic” or “devout Southern Baptist” or “member of Fred Phelps Westboro Baptist Church [or Maggie Gallager's, fill in the blank].”

    It’s unfortunate that Andrew Sullivan did not stop at correcting the slight error in his description of Simpson’s employment history but additionally was intimidated by the Theocracy Police into removing the reference to Simpson’s Mormon ecstasy and all it reasonably implies.

    Thank you.

    • I’m not sure if he’s a “devout Mormon” or not. I don’t think there is a good journalistic reason to include that fact, but opinion-bloggers have their own goals. I notice Sullivan removed the reference to his religion, but the information was already viral by that point.

      From a pure journalism point of view, there would be no legitimate reason to include a mention of his religion except to infer some sort of animus or bias.

      • Oh, spare us, Brother Triplett.

        You won. Stop whining about it already.

        And as far as W. Scott Simpson is concerned, oh please … it\’s a little too soon after your little Prop 8 victory for the rest of us not to sit up and wonder why there\’s a Mormon lawyer writing motions to dismiss for this DOJ.

        It\’s not \”animus\” or \”bias\” … it\’s merely surprise and bewilderment.

        Dear Mormon readers, please take a moment and consider this explanation from one of the LDS Prop 8 grassroots leaders:

        \”I will concede that Prop 8 would not have passed without Mormon grass-roots and fund-raising support. To use political science terminology, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a potent force in elections in those rare cases when it gets involved, because the Church is both vertically-organized (i.e., central command and control, so to speak) and geographically distributed throughout California (i.e., because the Church’s congregations are based on geography, it has organized units of members everywhere). As such, the Church is a perfect political grass-roots organization when it wants to be, and its members are relatively affluent.\”

        There are legitimate reasons for folks to be concerned about LDS influence that have nothing to do with anti-Mormon bigotry.

    • Right on! No one refutes he is a devout Mormon. It’s reaching the point when you almost expect to find a Morman in the woodpile, when it comes to homophobic attacks, isn’t it?

  3. [...] Defense of the DOMA Defense UPDATE: It turns out that upon further research Scott Simpson has been with the Justice department for over 20 years and is not a Bush II [...]

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