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What's it like to get spun by your sources?

Earl Caldwell

You said that [the Panthers] were aware of the value of public relations and that they wanted to get information to the Times. Did you ever worry that you were being spun by the Panthers or that they were using you?

Oh, there was no question. Everybody uses a reporter. That's what happens. The police want to use you; the people want to use you. ... Of course the Panthers wanted to use me. But the things that they wanted to use me [for] were part of the stories that I wanted to tell. ... I'd meet them maybe 2:00 in the morning. We'd go off to some church, and there would be guys and women -- they'd be in there preparing this breakfast for these guys. ... To see what they were doing and to get to know these people was an awesome story to tell. I was into it with all that I had in me. ...

Nicholas Kristof

Columnist, The New York Times

Nicholas Kristof

How do you avoid being spun by a source?

It's very difficult to avoid getting spun, and at times you do. I look back at things that I've written, and there are times when I had been used. When I lived in China, I remember one intelligence person who used to meet with me periodically over lunch, and he basically wanted my information. I didn't particularly want to give it, but I wanted to find out what he knew. There's a very awkward system of, to some degree, trading information. You don't want to do too much of that because you don't want to become a source for a spy, basically. But on the other hand, if somebody's giving you information, then you kind of feel you need to make it worth their while a little bit by sharing some of what you know. It turned out that this spy was fabricating information just to have something good to give me, and then I was giving him some genuine tidbits. It took me about a year to figure this out, but he was just concocting lies to tell me.

Any time you're reporting some kind of government program, you'll get people trying to spin you from both directions. You can sort of understand where each is coming from. What's more difficult is when you get information from somebody and you don't really know their vantage point in a debate, and it is harder to account for the spin they're providing.

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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