Sam Alito's Fish Story
Photo credit: Jon Richards / WhoWhatWhy

The 'Wall Street Journal' goes above and beyond (journalistic norms) to help yet another ethically challenged Supreme Court justice.

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While there isn’t a written code of conduct for journalists, there is still a set of rules most of them abide by. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal completely disregarded these standard practices in an attempt to protect Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito from an embarrassing revelation.

Here is what happened: ProPublica was working on a story about an unreported, billionaire-sponsored fishing trip to Alaska that Alito took in 2008. What made matters worse is that the private plane the justice arrived on had been chartered by Paul Singer, a hedge fund manager with business before the Supreme Court.

As is common practice, the reporters working on the story asked Alito for comment last week and gave him until yesterday at noon to respond. Instead of doing so, the Supreme Court’s main spokeswoman informed them that the justice would not comment.

Now, Alito is no dummy, and, based on the questions he received, he must have known that this was not going to look good for him.

The high court’s ethics rules (or lack thereof) have come under scrutiny in recent months following revelations, also primarily based on ProPublica’s reporting, that fellow Justice Clarence Thomas has been the beneficiary of the largesse of another conservative billionaire, Harlan Crow. That’s a nice way of saying that Thomas never revealed that he was the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts and other shady arrangements that benefited him and his family.

So, what does an ethically challenged Supreme Court justice do when asked for comment on a story that is going to make him look bad?

Alito, knowing that he would find a sympathetic ear there, chose to go running to the Wall Street Journal to preempt ProPublica’s article with an editorial excusing his questionable decision-making.

Now, that may be understandable. After all, if you get caught doing something bad, you want to put a good spin on things.

What is less understandable is that the Journal complied, especially in light of the flimsy excuses Alito offered in his guest editorial.

Specifically, he argued that flying on a private jet (and not reporting it) is totally acceptable if that seat otherwise would have been empty. Try going to a Taylor Swift concert and telling the bouncers that you didn’t pay for a ticket but want to sit in a luxury box because there is still room.

Alito’s reason for not disclosing the trip is equally dumb.

“I followed what I understood to be standard practice,” he wrote.

Well, Samuel, that’s really not worth much if that standard practice follows the example of Clarence “Please Bribe Me” Thomas, is it?

The Journal, for its part, definitely did not follow standard journalistic practice in deciding to run this editorial before ProPublica had even published its article.

That’s more like malpractice.

Without knowing exactly what would be in the ProPublica story, the Journal allowed Alito to claim that “ProPublica Misleads Its Readers.”

In addition, professional courtesy also dictates that journalists cite the work of others. In this piece, for example, we linked to Alito’s editorial even though it is stupid. That’s because readers should have all the information they need to form their own opinions.

There was no article the Journal could have cited, of course, because it was an accessory to Alito’s preemptive attack on ProPublica. However, the editors of the editorial pages also neglected to provide their readers with relevant information, for example that the justice was not responding to a published story.

We reached out to Emma Moody, the paper’s Standards & Ethics Editor, to get an explanation of what the thinking was behind preemptively publishing the editorial, choosing this headline, and depriving readers of relevant information.

When we hear back from the Journal, we will update this article with that response, no matter how dumb it is.

Because that’s how journalism is supposed to work.

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