Huffington Post senior media reporter Michael Calderone is raising questions about a Washington Post report that named and implicated a White House volunteer in the 2012 Secret Service prostitution scandal based largely on an unnamed “eyewitness,” without substantial corroborating evidence. The White House volunteer had been investigated and cleared of wrongdoing, as other media outlets had noted in 2012 reports that protected his anonymity.
The Washington Post reported on October 8 that in addition to several Secret Service agents and members of the military who were punished for hiring prostitutes during a 2012 presidential visit to Columbia, then-White House volunteer Jonathan Dach may have engaged in similar activity. The Post's evidence was a single anonymous Secret Service agent who “said he saw Dach with a woman he believed was a prostitute,” and a hotel record that stated Dach had registered a woman into his room. The White House had investigated in 2012 and cleared him after determining that Dach denied any wrongdoing, that Dach's fellow White House travel aides reported no wrongdoing, and that the hotel records were inaccurate and had previously triggered the erroneous allegation that an innocent Secret Service agent had brought a prostitute to his room.
So why then did the Post decide to name him now, two and a half years after it broke the news of the scandal and 9 months since reporters began communicating with his attorney? Letters obtained by The Huffington Post show the attorney, Richard Sauber, rebutted the claims and offered countervailing evidence in letters sent to top Post editors. The decision to publish Dach's identity regardless raises questions about the threshold news organizations must meet when revealing the name of someone accused of lurid activity without independently confirming the claims.
Though The Post did not conclude that Dach hired a prostitute, it nevertheless crafted its story in a way that could give the impression of guilt or impropriety. ... Sauber denied the allegations and expressed concern that the inclusion of Dach's name in a story on the prostitution scandal could significantly damage his professional future. Sauber wrote on Jan. 16 that the publication of the charge “will be devastating to this young man just as he embarks on his career after law school.”
Calderone also criticized the Post's reliance on a single anonymous “eyewitness,” despite the paper's inability to conclusively corroborate the account with evidence that might prove anyone had seen Dach with a woman that night, or even if the woman in question was a prostitute:
The Post reported that an agent told the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general's office that “he saw Dach with a woman he believed was a prostitute.”
Dach's attorney has long objected to the Post's willingness to cite an anonymous agent, arguing in his January letter that the account “is particularly flimsy unless corroborating evidence exists.” Sauber said that “it seems as if the Secret Service source isn't saying that he has any proof that the person he saw was an escort -- only that the person looked like one.”
Calderone noted that evidence such as security footage could have been used “to confirm whether Dach was with a woman that night,” which raises the question of what attempts the Post made to corroborate their anonymous account -- and if they did, what the evidence revealed.
More broadly, the Washington Post's story raises serious questions about the media's use of anonymous sources in stories that allege wrongdoing by an individual, criminally or otherwise.