Jose Antonio Vargas revealed in a New York Times essay that he is an illegal immigrant and that he used fake and doctored identification to get into and stay in the country. Vargas, a journalist who has worked for the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and other news outlets, also listed some people, including the Washington Post’s Peter Perl and faculty from his high school, who knew that he was here illegally.
Vargas disclosed that “All the people mentioned in this article gave me permission to use their names.”
But, besides the immigration debate and the revelation that various news outlets hired an illegal immigrant, it turns out the Washington Post, Vargas’ former employer, had the story and decided not to publish.
Patrick Pexton, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, wrote about Vargas’ column and explained that Vargas “brought his first-person confessional” to the Washington Post a few months ago but the Post’s executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, recently decided not to publish it, so Vargas took it to the New York Times.
Pexton noted that Perl, who is currently the assistant managing editor for personnel, “knew of Vargas’s illegal status when Vargas was a Post employee from 2004 to 2009. Perl kept it a secret.” Pexton called Perl’s actions “possibly illegal, and perhaps forgivable.”
Pexton reported that Perl has defended his actions and hasn’t been “docked pay, suspended or fired” since telling the Post he knew Vargas was an illegal immigrant.
According to Pexton, the Post “spent many weeks editing and fact-checking and getting Vargas to do additional work.” Pexton added that unnamed “editors described the editing and vetting as unusually thorough and exacting.”
Pexton wrote that he and others at the Post don’t know why the Post axed the “riveting, already edited story.” He quoted Brauchli as saying the story wasn’t published because of judgment. The Root reported Brauchli said “what Jose did was wrong.”
Pexton noted that Vargas’s story still leaves questions that the Post could have answered if it ran the story including how the Post didn’t find out, why Perl didn’t tell anyone, if the Post will be in legal trouble, and how trustworthy Vargas is.
In a separate article, the Washington Post reported that the Post “subjected Vargas’s story to an unusual degree of scrutiny” since the story was about “a reporter’s dishonesty about his personal life.”
During editing, for example, the Post found out that “Vargas hadn’t disclosed that he had replaced his expired Oregon driver’s license with a new one issued by Washington state (the license had enabled Vargas to pass airport security and to travel to distant work assignments). Vargas later conceded that he had withheld the information on the advice of his attorney.”
As a result, the Post reported “The disclosure set off internal discussion about whether the newspaper was getting the full story from its former reporter.”
WaPo Ombudsman Uses Anonymous Sources to Criticize Vargas?
But, Pexton also cited criticisms of Vargas without attribution. According to Pexton, Vargas “left behind a reputation in The Post’s newsroom for being tenacious and talented but also for being a relentless self-promoter whom many colleagues didn’t trust. Editors said that he needed direction, coaching and constant watching.”
Pexton also questioned Vargas’s advocacy role as the head of a nonprofit immigration reform group.
But, Pexton’s column has been criticized as well. NYU professor and journalist Adam Penenberg, for example, tweeted criticism of Pexton’s column. Penenberg wrote that he is “deeply disturbed” by Pexton’s “use of anonymous sources to partly discredit Vargas.”
He tweeted that Pexton “committed two ethical transgressions: Anon-sourced hit on a subject and not including reason for using anonymous sources” highlighting Pexton’s comment that Vargas was “a relentless self-promoter whom many colleagues didn’t trust… needed… constant watching” and included a link to the Post’s “rather sparse and outdated Code of Ethics” which calls for reporters to name sources or identify why the source isn’t named.
iMediaEthics has written to Pexton for comment and will update with any response.
Jose Vargas, Janet Cooke?
Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote that he’s “more disturbed” by Vargas’s lying than his legal status and likened Vargas’s lies to that of the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke, whose fabricated story won a Pulitzer Prize the Post later had to return.
According to Shafer, both Vargas and Cooke were hired by duping the Post about their background information: Vargas lied about his legal status and Cooke lied on her resume that she was “a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar.”
“I know the two lies aren’t exactly analogous,” Shafer wrote.
“Cooke told her lies to inflate her status, Vargas to normalize his….The trouble with habitual liars, and Vargas confesses to having told lie after lie to protect himself from deportation, is that they tend to get too good at it. Lying becomes reflex. And a confessed liar is not somebody you want working on your newspaper.”