Ethical reporters and FBI agents have much in common — and we need them

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When I was an FBI supervisor, reporters would contact me for a statement about FBI matters in the news. With approval, I would provide a carefully crafted, authorized statement speaking on behalf of the FBI. As a regular policy, the FBI neither confirms nor denies the existence of an investigation. FBI agents don’t leak information.

One reporter I dealt with allowed me to review what he drafted from our conversations, for accuracy purposes, before it went to print. This was for good reason. He had an authorized FBI contact who would speak with him on the record about official bureau business. He wanted me to trust him and not terminate the relationship for being misquoted. But there also was a larger, overarching reason: He wanted to get it right — right by me and right by his readers. His credibility was on the line, with me and the public.

In painstaking detail, this reporter would agonize over words and phrases to make sure they captured the essence of my intent and meaning. I did the same when interviewing witnesses, ensuring that I took down facts and details as stated. My interviews are memorialized in an FBI document called an FD-302 in an investigative file. My 302 could be the basis for a search or arrest warrant, or become my testimony to a grand jury, so it must be accurate, devoid of opinions or conclusions.

In this sense, reporters and FBI agents are cut from the same cloth. At heart we are investigators — more precisely, truth seekers. Whether it’s in a newspaper or a statement sworn before a magistrate, our personal and professional ethics compel us to be thorough, accurate and honest.  The public relies on us both to act with integrity.

Law enforcement officers swear to uphold and defend the Constitution and protect the communities they serve. Reporters and journalists, by tradition, strive to inform and educate the public about matters that impact their lives. Indeed, some believe it’s their civic duty to expose misconduct in government, corporations or other entities so those responsible are held to account. 

As the “Fourth Estate,” the news media act independently as a check on the three branches of government. Freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution and prominently featured in the First Amendment. In this role, journalists function as an invaluable tool to the republic by disseminating objective, unbiased news. We depended on the free press to inform us on important issues of the day — specifically, what our government is up to. They are the people’s watchdog.

Regrettably, we do not have this today in some sectors of news media. Today, some reporters massage facts into a “narrative” of their choice. The press remains free, but if it’s not also fair and honest, where can a voter turn to inform himself on an issue, free of political bias? Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”  

The Framers of the Constitution intended the media to operate outside and beyond government control, accountable only to itself. That is its unique virtue. The Framers likely never imagined reporters or media organizations might compromise standards for online clicks or profits, or worse yet, fall into the abyss of petty tribalism. Without a neutral and responsible free press, government no longer is held accountable and voters are ill-equipped to make rational and informed decisions.

Last October, with help from former U.S. intelligence officials, some in the media promoted the false narrative that information about China gleaned from Hunter Biden’s laptop was attributed to Russia because it “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” But “earmarks” do not constitute credible evidence, even if the term was used in a letter signed by five former CIA directors or acting directors to discredit the story reported by the New York Post. Several House Democrats enthusiastically embraced this Russian disinformation account.

The news media, aided by social media companies, worked to bury the story just weeks before the election. That is as irresponsible as, say, the FBI omitting material information in a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application that’s critical to a judge’s decision to authorize the government to spy on a U.S. citizen’s private communications.  

Shortly after the election, Hunter Biden confirmed that federal authorities are investigating him for potential tax violations related to his business activities with China. Additional reporting indicates the investigation began in 2018 as a money laundering investigation.

The media have an obligation to educate and inform, with balance and impartiality, so that people can make their own judgements. Americans value objective, critical thinking over an echo chamber. They want to be informed, not told what to think. Many are fed up with a failing two-party system of government, and the media can empower the people to change it.

The criminal justice system, epitomized by the police and FBI, and the free press are essential establishments serving as a bulwark to the preservation of democracy. When the public’s confidence and trust in these foundational institutions are lost, we risk ceasing to exist as an enlightened and civil democracy.  

Ethical journalists and reporters are like ethical police officers and FBI agents. Both are trustworthy, act with integrity and value truth above all, doing their best to get it right. America needs more of both.

Mark D. Ferbrache was an FBI agent from 1983 to 2011 specializing in white-collar criminal investigations. He later worked in the bureau’s National Security Division and CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and held diplomatic assignments in Prague, London and Bucharest, as well as field office assignments in Seattle, New York and the FBI Headquarters in Washington. He is currently employed as a contractor in the U.S. intelligence community.

Tags FBI government watchdogs Journalism ethics and standards News media

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