Splashed across the front page of last Wednesday’s Burlington Free Press, a menacing headline proclaimed: “Councilor: ‘Grave mistakes’ in ranking Burlington for F-35.” Pictured on the cover was a pensive Rosanne Greco — retired Air Force colonel and chairwoman of the South Burlington City Council — gazing through a chain-link fence at the Burlington International Airport runway.
The story, penned by veteran Freeps reporter John Briggs, details a sensational charge: that the Air Force botched its assessment of whether the Vermont Air National Guard was fit to play host to a squadron of controversial new fighter jets. Worse yet, the article suggests, the scoring process may have been intentionally “rigged” to put Burlington on top — possibly for political reasons.
Who detailed to Briggs this vast conspiracy to force F-35 warplanes down the throats of unsuspecting, peace-loving denizens of the Green Mountain State? “A highly placed source” in the Air Force “familiar with the data considered by the Air Force and with the scoring model for such decisions.”
Except not really.
You see, Briggs never actually spoke to the “highly placed source” in question — nor was the Air Force official’s identity ever revealed to him. Rather, Briggs spoke with Greco — the city council chairwoman — who related a conversation she had with an anonymous Air Force source whose identity she declined to disclose. Greco provided no evidence supporting the charge, nor did Briggs obtain any.
What Greco did provide, however, was a pretty probing question: “Was it rigged?” she said of the scoring. “Or is this a simple mistake?”
Of the three other sources quoted in the story, two were municipal officials who declined to comment without further information. A third, Vermont Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow, vociferously denied the allegation and questioned the responsibility of giving credence to the accusations of a secondhand anonymous source.
“I have been working with the news media since 1987,” Goodrow lectured Briggs, “and I have never given credibility to an unnamed source. It would be irresponsible for me as a spokesman to come to the news media with information provided by an unnamed source and expect you to consider me a credible spokesperson. That burden is on Greco.”
Goodrow wasn’t the only one to question the story’s veracity. Asked about Greco’s allegation at a press conference the day the story was published, Gov. Peter Shumlin said, “I don’t take allegations into consideration that are unsubstantiated.” Until the anonymous source comes forward, the gov said, “it’s not a credible conversation in my judgment.”
Greco’s story didn’t end there. That very night, the South Burlington city council chairwoman appeared on WPTZ-TV and explained that her anonymous source called her “out of the blue” to leak the information. Looking mighty skeptical, anchor Bridget Shanahan said, “There’s been a lot of questions raised about your allegations because they do come from an unnamed source. Why should we trust this information and, quite frankly, why do you?”
“Well, I went with my gut,” Greco responded. “And an individual was risking their job by telling me this. We don’t have to take this person’s word for it … If we get the 30 questions that were asked and each score that went with each of these questions, we won’t have to take anybody’s word for this.”
Indeed. But absent some sort of corroborating evidence, the reader — or the television viewer — actually kind of does have to take Greco’s word for it. Or, more accurately, we have to take Briggs’ word that Greco’s word that her anonymous source’s word is good.
It’s like sourcing three times removed.
Asked by WCAX-TV’s Roger Garrity what might have motivated her source to spill the beans, Greco said on Friday night: “I think the source did it because it was the right thing to do. I can’t see any other motivation for this individual to come forward and just point out they discovered a mistake. I think this person felt it was the right thing to do.”
That may well be true. The problem is we have no way of knowing what this source’s motivation really is, nor whether he or she is qualified to know whether the scoring was flubbed — or rigged — in the first place.
Far more problematic is that Briggs himself doesn’t know. Greco tells Fair Game that she did not reveal her source’s identity to the reporter. In an email, Briggs did not say whether he had independently tracked down the source, but wrote, “We were and are comfortable with the story.”
Let’s be honest: Anonymous sources are the bread and butter of good journalism. Reporters get tips all the time from those who, for benevolent or malevolent reasons, want to give the goods without getting their hands dirty. Once a tip comes in, however, the burden is on the reporter to track the story down and corroborate it before publication.
Occasionally, a tip is so good — and the sourcing so solid — you just have to go with it. The Burlington Free Press’ sister paper in the Gannett empire, USA Today, has guidelines for such instances: “The identity of an unnamed source must be shared with and approved by a managing editor,” who “must be confident that the information presented to the reader is accurate, not just that someone said it.”
“When a single confidential source is cited without further support in the story, the editor must be confident that information presented is based on first-hand knowledge and is authoritative,” the policy says. “Anonymous sources may only be used to report facts. Anonymous accusations and speculation are not acceptable.”
Is a secondhand anonymous charge more compelling — and newsworthy — if it’s uttered by a public official? The Free Press seems to think so.
“When the top elected official in one of the largest community [sic] in the state makes a public accusation, her words carry weight,” Freeps editorial page editor Aki Soga wrote in the Sunday paper. “By shielding her source, Greco assumes full responsibility for the soundness of her charge.”
Does she? What about a newspaper that prints the unsubstantiated charge?
Goodrow, the Vermont Guard spokesman, says he was “kind of surprised” that the Freeps ran with the story, calling his exchange with Briggs “one of the hardest interviews I’ve ever done.”
“It was very interesting. I was really taken aback to be asked those questions,” he says. “I don’t live in that world. That’s a world of speculation — a world of who done its. I don’t live in that world. I have to represent facts that are backed up by data. That’s the world I have to live in.”
Is there merit to Greco’s charge? Certainly the chairwoman herself is highly credible. Her 30-year career in the Air Force has made her one of the more compelling voices against basing the F-35s in Burlington. It’s certainly possible that “grave mistakes” were made and that Greco’s source — who she now says works for Air Combat Command’s installations and missions support directorate — is a genuine whistleblower.
But on Friday, Greco herself said, “You should not take my word for it. You should not take my source’s word for it. Look for the data.”
Greco herself set about trying to obtain the data: the 30-question, 100-point scoring model she said would prove that Burlington was given an additional, unmerited six points. After querying the state’s congressional delegation, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ staff sent her a copy of Burlington’s original base score sheet, which had not previously been made public. On Tuesday, the delegation provided the documents to Seven Days.
What does the score sheet say? It says South Burlington did, indeed, score a perfect six points in an environmental categories pertaining to noise levels in the immediate vicinity of the airport.
What does that mean? To the Air Force, it means that, using the 2008 data available during the initial site screening process in 2009, basing the F-35s in Burlington would not violate the Air Force’s own noise restrictions. In other words, the military maintains, the scoring was accurate after all.
On Tuesday afternoon, Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary Kathleen Ferguson sent Greco a letter and also called her to say that she had reviewed the city councilor’s allegations and disagreed with them.
“I want to assure you that Burlington ANGS was scored correctly in 2009 and that the Air Force’s Strategic Basing Process is working as designed,” Ferguson wrote. “I have carefully reviewed your concerns on the environmental scoring at Burlington and want to assure you that I believe no scoring error was made.”
Soon after Ferguson’s call, the Vermont Guard zapped out a press release saying the Air Force’s review confirmed what it’s said all along: The process was not, in fact, rigged.
“We are pleased that the United States Air Force has today provided a 100 percent validation of the process that led to Burlington’s selection as a preferred location for the F-35,” Goodrow wrote.
Is Greco backing down? Not in the slightest.
“She’s not going to admit they made a mistake,” Greco said of Deputy Assistant Secretary Ferguson after their phone call Tuesday. “She and I totally agree they used the correct process. They went with the best information available. No doubt about that. They did that the right way. The problem is the data was wrong.”
According to Greco, the original 2008 data upon which the screening process was based simply did not accurately reflect noise levels in the area. She maintains that more recent data proves the noise impact is far greater.
Now that she says the Air Force “used the correct process,” has she changed her mind that the process was “rigged?”
“I never used those words,” she says. “I don’t believe I ever said the word ‘rigged,’ but, you know, I don’t remember. The truth is I do not believe it was rigged. I never thought it was rigged. I know some citizens think it was rigged.”
As for her source, Greco is standing by him or her: “I have no hesitation at all. This person saw the data.”
So we’ve read.