The Narratology of Leaking: Risen and Sterling

You know, I very much want Jeffrey Sterling to defeat the government’s attempt to criminalize whistleblowing. I very much want James Risen to succeed in avoiding expansive testimony in the Sterling case.

But this is bullshit.

Sterling’s lawyers plan to call Professor Mark Feldstein to make silly claims about a tie between the narrative voice an author uses and the sources he may or may not have relied on.

Mr. Feldstein wil testify that he has read Chapter 9 of State of War, authored by James Risen, and that based on his training, education, and experience as a working journalist and an academic studying journalism, will opine that it is written in the third person omniscient, a narrative style in which the reader ís presented the story by a narrator with an overarching perspective, seeing and knowing everything that happens within the world of the story, regardless of the presence of certain characters, including imputing to the characters’ internal voices what they are thinking and feeling. This style has become increasingly popular with mainstream journalists in recent years, as exemplified by books authored by Bob Woodward. One effect of the third-person omniscient narrative style is that it tends to mask the identity of a story’s sources, protecting both the anonymity of sources and disguising the number of sources. It is not uncommon using this style for an author to ascribe thoughts or motivations to particular “characters,” whether or not the author has actually spoken directly to the individual to whom thoughts and motivations are being ascribed. Indeed, it is not an uncommon practice to ascribe thoughts and motives to an individual to whom the author has not spoken intentionally to obscure who the actual source(s) for a story were.

I have a number of problems with this.

First, the narrative voice is, in places, more nuanced than a simple “third person omniscient” voice–as when Risen interjects the direct speech (in this case, thought) of the Russian scientist without quotations:

The Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wasn’t the easiest office in Vienna to find.

They could have at least given me good directions.

As he stumbled along into Vienna’s north end, in the unglamorous neighborhood surrounding the Parterstern U-Bahn station, the same question pounded in his brain again and again, but he couldn’t find an answer.

What was the CIA thinking?

That doesn’t negate the larger point–that Risen intersperses “characters'” thoughts with omniscient narrative. But it sort of makes the point seem amateur from a narratological standpoint.

Then there’s the invocation of Woodward, that magic journalist’s name, to obscure the point. Woodward made this style of reporting popular, the filing suggests, so it must be acceptable journalism.

But that suggests two things that are not in evidence. Woodward never really hides his sources. Why bother, when there is an unwritten “Woodward rule” that says he, and perhaps only he, will never be prosecuted for reporting top secret information? Thus we–at least I–am safe assuming Woodward spoke with precisely whom it appears he spoke with, not just because we know he is systematically accorded that kind of access, but because we know sanction for participation in his semi-official histories comes straight from the top.

Woodward uses this style to make it clear (or at least suggest) that these top officials are his sources, not to obscure the kind of top-level access everyone knows he has. It’s his brand.

The filing goes on to suggest that because Risen used this same technique he succeeded in hiding his sources.

Chapter 9 of State of War attributes thoughts and motivations hoth the “the Russian scientist” and to “the CIA case offcer.” It is not possible to infer from this attribution whether Mr. Risen spoke directly to both of these individuals, one of them or neither of them, in gathering the information contained in Chapter 9, much less what information, if any, either individual provided Mr. Risen.

Now, in the literary world, scholars are cautious about making definitive statements about the intentionality of the author (particularly as with books like this, which have clearly been edited to make the book a good read). But I’ll grant that a good investigative journalist might be (though might not be) a lot more cautious about the legal implications of the narrative voice used than a fiction writer.

But there’s another problem. The filing later suggests a reader can draw conclusions from the narrative presentation of evidence.

Taken at face value, Mr. llsen had multiple sources for the portion of Chapter 9 of State of War that discusses a CIA operation to provide flawed information to Iran’s nuclear program. These sources include multiple human sources as well as documentary sources, which may have been  provided to Mr. Risen by persons who also gave oral information to Mr. Risen or by others in addition to those who gave him oral information. Mr. Feldstein bases this opinion, in part, on the following examples: 1) page 197 of the book attributes information to a “secret CIA report”; 2) the material quoted at pages 204-05 of the book appears to have been quoted from a documentary source; 3) page 208 attributes views to unnamed “offcials”: 4) page 211 cites “several former CIA offcials”; and 5) page 211 indicates that the Senate Selcct Committee on Intellgence received information about the program from the “CIA case offcer,” but states the Committee took no action.

Sterling’s team is trying to have it both ways, drawing on Feldstein’s amateurish identification of narrative voice to suggest one cannot draw conclusions about sources, then showing Feldstein doing just that based on the clear indications given in the narrative.

And there’s one more problem with the filing (that may not be problematic for Sterling’s lawyers, per se, but should be for Feldstein).

The filing suggests that the profession of journalism tolerates when reporters use omniscience to hide their sources.

But the profession does not approve when journalists use omniscience to invent details they have no way of knowing. Witness the criticism of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin for doing just that in Game Change. One of the most prominent critiques–from the NYT–specifically took Heilemann and Halperin to task for not doing what Woodward does–showing some of his work.

They proceed in these pages to serve up a spicy smorgasbord of observations, revelations and allegations — some that are based on impressive legwork and access, some that simply crystallize rumors and whispers from the campaign trail, and some that it’s hard to verify independently as more than spin or speculation on the part of unnamed sources. The authors mix savvy political analysis in these pages with detailed reconstructions of scenes and conversations they did not witness firsthand (like an exchange that Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton had on a beach in Anguilla). They employ the same sort of technique Bob Woodward has pioneered in his best-selling books: relying heavily on “deep background” interviews, along with e-mail messages, memorandums and other forms of documentation to create a novelistic narrative that often reflects the views of the authors’ most cooperative or voluble sources. Unlike Mr. Woodward’s last two books this volume has no source notes at the end.

To succeed, this defense effort has to basically argue that either Risen or his sources may have simply invented what the Russian scientist and the case officer said. It has to argue that Risen is the same kind of hackish reporter that Heilemann and Halperin are, evidence to contrary notwithstanding.

Now, suggesting Risen engaged in bad journalism is totally within the right of Sterling’s lawyers as they mount a defense. And if it keeps him off the stand, I’m sure Risen won’t be that bothered by the suggestion he either made shit up or allowed his sources to.

But the entire effort seems legally pointless, given that they’re trying to use Feldstein both to point to other possible sources for Risen while at the same time claiming that Risen’s narrative voice makes it impossible to do just that.

15 replies
  1. blueskybigstar says:

    This is a great article. If you won’t come out and say it, I will. What the criminals are doing is trying to make bad journalism the standard where it makes it easier to make false narratives the standard. The lying to the public by the major media in the United States is the greatest threat to our country. I am constantly bothered and threatened by journalism that tries an omniscient narrative without giving any facts as to how they came up with the story. They pretend as if they are protecting their sources, but these claims are highly dubious because they cannot explain in a convincing manner how they got the vast majority of their details. This style of writing naturally causes suspicion in those who read it who know anything about the subject of which they are writing. This narrative style that ignites suspicion by its very poor explanations is perfectly exemplified in the false narrative written in the 911 Commission report. How, indeed, did they learn all of that information when they were not allowed to interview any of the accused?

  2. pdaly says:

    in reply to blueskybigstar@1:

    Perhaps you could clarify your comment. Emptywheel is not saying that Risen or Sterling are criminals, and she is not saying that Risen is a bad reporter.

    However, Sterling’s lawyers are trying out this argument about ‘omniscent narrative’ as a defense for Sterling.

  3. rugger9 says:

    Good policy can stand the light of day, bad policy must skulk in the corners. bsbs is on point here, in that the position laid out will pave the way for more egregious MSU [making s(*^t up] journalism, and there will be no accountability, legal slander or otherwise.

    Does anyone really want to immunize Faux “News” that way?

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Narratology as a defense in a criminal action? A bit thin, a highly questionable distraction, a defense argument that you characterize as inherently contradictory. While the form is acceptable at trial, this example of it is not very strong.

    The prosecution usually tries to hew to a simple narrative; the defense often benefits when the waters are muddy, but I don’t think this argument helps Sterling.

    I should think it would be remarkably unpersuasive to a jury, the court and the prosecution. If that’s the best they’ve got, Mr. Sterling should buy his own orange jump suits. I assume it’s not and that their arguments about the legitimacy of whistleblowing are more persuasive. Mr. Sterling should ask to see them ahead of time and perhaps obtain a second opinion.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @bmaz: I buy that. Mr. Obama’s Dept. of InJustice wouldn’t want to actually test its legal claims in a court of law any more than did Mr. Bush’s. Nor does it want the defendant’s to create a documentary record that would expose the government’s actions, criminal, predatory or merely stupid and wasteful. I wonder when Mr. O will announce that his new Attorney General is Tom Hagen.

  6. bmaz says:


    Well, I was referring to Feldstein and his narratology or whatever. But, frankly, I am not convinced the Sterling case in chief will either; but at lest there are odds on that, Feldstein not so much.

  7. MadDog says:

    I know EW’s post’s focus was on Sterling’s defense team’s strategy, but I’d be remiss in not commenting on this tidbit from Steven Aftergood’s post:

    “…In addition, a former intelligence official now tells prosecutors that portions of his testimony before a grand jury concerning certain conversations with Mr. Risen about Mr. Sterling were “a mistake on his part.” As a result, prosecutors said (8 page PDF), Mr. Risen himself is “the only source for the information the government seeks to present to the jury.”…”

    I wondered just what this paragraph meant. Did it mean, as I assumed, that one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, a former intelligence official, had in fact recanted the former intelligence official’s grand jury testimony?

    Here is just what the prosecution blithely said on the matter from page 5 of their supplement (8 page PDF):

    “…Fifth, the testimony of the “former intelligence official” referenced in the Court’s Opinion has changed. The former official will now only say that on one occasion, Mr. Risen spoke with him about the defendant and stated that the defendant had complained about not being sufficiently recognized for his role in Classified Program No. 1 and in his recruitment of a human asset relating to Classified Program No. 1, and that on a separate occasion, Mr. Risen asked him generic questions about whether the CIA would engage in general activity similar to Classified Program No. 1. This former official, however, cannot say that Mr. Risen linked the second conversation with the defendant, although both conversations occurred within several months of each other. The former official termed his grand jury testimony, which linked the two conversations together, as a mistake on his part. In addition, the former official further modified his testimony to say that although Mr. Risen had acknowledged visiting the defendant in his hometown, Mr. Risen’s trip to see the defendant was not the main purpose of his travel, but rather a side trip.

    The testimony of this former official had been cited by the Court as providing “exactly what the government seeks to obtain from its subpoena [to Mr. Risen]: an admission that Sterling was Risen’s source for the classified information in Chapter Nine.” Memorandum Opinion (Dkt.
    148) at 24. The former official’s testimony will not now provide such a direct admission, further underscoring the government’s contention that for the reasons discuss in its Motion, Mr. Risen is the only source for the information the government seeks to present to the jury…”

    Let me see if I understand the prosecution’s now blithely put “claim” about the former intelligence official’s testimony:

    1. It has “changed”.
    2. It has been “modified”.
    3. The former intelligence official says his testimony was “a mistake on his part”.
    4. It has been “further modified”.
    5. It no longer is a “direct admission”.

    Given all the prosecution’s hemming and hawing here, one might come to the conclusion that without this former intelligene official’s previous grand jury testimony now “recanted”, the prosecution doesn’t have a case, or am I imagining the prosecution’s “discomfort”?

  8. MadDog says:

    @bmaz: Going to be buried where all other embarrassing DOJ “mistakes” get buried?

    Call my cynical, but it seems to me that all the previous points in the proscution’s supplement were mere window-dressing.

    The fifth and last item was the central point of their Motion to Reconsider. In it the prosecution seems to be saying that without Risen’s testimony, they are up Shit Creek without the proverbial paddle and have no case.

    Looks like William Welch might be still batting 0 for infinity.

  9. blueskybigstar says:

    I’m the one who said it. Certainly this man was forced to do this to not run afoul with the CIA. Personally, I think that most state secrets are there to cover up criminality and state secrets are fundamentally counter to any idea of democracy that depends on access of relevant information to make decisions. However, Bob Woodward is allowed to report on the things he does because he is the Military Industrial Complex’s Public Relations man. He does not even write his own books. What concerns me is that these trials are often just theater in order to drive new activist judge decisions to take our protections and rights away like the Citizens United decision. His lawyer may even be working against him.

  10. blueskybigstar says:

    @pdaly: The criminals are the people who are encouraging bad journalism, the criminals are the people on the Supreme Court who ruled that Fox can lie about the news, the criminals are the CIA, the criminals are the people who cry “national security” whenever they are caught in compromising positions, the criminals are the corporatists and chamber of commerce who own our politicians and have rigged our system of justice system and are trying to rig it even more in their favor today to further their control of media sources and the narrative presented so they can repeat their false stories again and again in order to mind control the public.

  11. Bob Schacht says:

    “Does anyone really want to immunize Faux ‘News’ that way? ”

    Precisely. A theme crossing EW’s themes is the way journalistic standards have been crossed by Rupert Murdoch’s love of gossip fit only for tabloids– or Fox News. Which also fits his philosophy as seeing news as a branch of entertainment rather than serving truth and accuracy, which are the bane of gossip. I am not saying that Risen resorts to gossip. But with omniscient narrative, how can you tell? And sometimes, when gossip is all you’ve got, you may have to run with it, when the stakes are high.

    Bob in AZ

  12. blueskybigstar says:

    @Bob Schacht: It is documented that the Nixon Administration Official who first conceived of it was the concept that it would be a network for pure propagandistic purposes.

Comments are closed.