Fact Checking Malpractice at NPR – Bias Infects an Investigation Before it Starts

Fact-Checking Malpractice at NPR

Bias Infects an Investigation Before it Starts

Published Thursday, May 30, 2019, 8:43 pm EDT   (Updated June 15, 2019)                                                                                   

Toby Groves, Ph.D.

In an age of rampant misinformation, we need to trust editors and fact-checkers similar to the way we trust auditors – to be gatekeepers that protect us from false and misleading content.  The case described below diminishes this trust, where fact-checkers at a major news organization relied on misinformation to ‘correct’ a news story.  This article is based on  an NPR story titled “Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things”  and the corrections explained by NPR’s public editor in an article titled “Fact Checking a Fraud:  The ‘First Lie’ Wasn’t Really the First”   

Update June 15, 2019, 10:40 am EDT:  As of June 15, 2019, the author of the blog essay that was relied upon by NPR’s public editor for the corrections has taken the essay down in response to requests to remove false and defamatory content.   The links from the public editor’s article to the supporting blog are now either dead or link to different content, but NPR maintains the links, has not yet acknowledged the fact-checking failures and still quotes the blog content extensively.  

First call

          Alix Spiegel first reached out to me in the Fall of 2011.  Spiegel, a veteran reporter covering psychology for NPR’s science desk, is now co-host of the program Invisibilia.  She had heard a story about me being on the wrong side of a fraud investigation years earlier and asked if I would be willing to talk about it.  I was working towards my Ph.D. in psychology at the time, preparing to conduct my own research.  I am now a researcher, writer, speaker, and transparency advocate.  I couldn’t ask people to participate in research that I wasn’t willing to participate in myself.  Spiegel and I talked about details behind how the fraud had unfolded, and the contrast between what wound up in the court records and everything that had happened in the real world.  “It’s a complicated story,” I told her.  That’s OK, Spiegel explained, taking complicated stories and making them understandable is what NPR is good at.

          After a few phone conversations, Spiegel wanted to schedule an in-person interview conducted in tandem with reporter Chana Joffe-Walt.   Joffe-Walt was on the Planet Money team at the time and is now part of the program This American Life.  Both have won multiple awards for their work.  Spiegel said she would be focusing on the psychology side of the interview, and Joffe-Walt would concentrate on the business elements.

          The journalists reviewed public records showing I had pleaded guilty for lying on a loan application and the tax returns associated with it.  Then they saw non-public documents that revealed the story they were really interested in.  It was the story of everything that led up to those final court records.  They could see that what showed in the public record had been the outcome of a complex combination of plea negotiations, administrative rules, and a proffer agreement. The story behind the public record was worse than what the court documents indicated.  Reporting a story that reveals legal details not publicly known comes with unique ethical considerations for the journalists.  Sources might be opening themselves to legal risks or could be vulnerable to harassment or intimidation.  As they prepare for their interviews, reporters would want to avoid putting innocent parties under legal scrutiny and may need to make decisions about protecting the anonymity of sources or others not wishing to be identified.

          The in-person portion of the interview lasted two days, as the reporters alternated asking questions, examining documents, asking follow-up questions, then re-examining documents.  Follow-up continued through phone calls and emails for several months.  Spiegel and Joffe-Walt interviewed former employees, the company’s external auditor, and many others.  They reviewed hundreds of documents including information related to plea agreements, a proffer agreement, court records, data from the prosecutor and agents, audit reports, loan files, attorney-client communications, and reports from forensic accountants.

The story airs

         The co-written story, titled “Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People do Bad Things” aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, May 1, 2012.  It was also published in a Planet Money podcast during April 2012 and rebroadcast on July 3, 2015.  The journalists presented provocative, new science on ethical decision-making from researchers and used me as a case study to examine how people could commit unethical acts without necessarily realizing it at the time. Planet money called it “one of our favorite episodes we’ve ever done.”

          The story has also been popular among professionals and academics studying auditing and ethics.  I’ve presented a more detailed examination of the same case on which NPR based their story at more than 200 professional conferences and seminars for experts in behavioral science, investigations, forensics, and auditing as well as lectures at top business schools.  The audiences have included psychologists, CPAs, federal investigators, Certified Internal Auditors, Chief Audit Executives, and Certified Fraud Examiners from around the United States.  It has also been frequently used in academia by professors teaching accounting, auditing, and ethics, and used in case studies, articles, professional journals, and dissertations.  One reason for so much interest is the transparency of details not typically available in such cases.

          NPR’s story challenged black and white thinking and asserted that the traditional assumptions about fraud and ethical decision-making were flawed.  The new research shows, “people like you and me,” as Spiegel said in the report, might commit unethical acts without realizing it.  The story told listeners that the purpose is not to excuse bad behavior, but rather to offer a more thorough understanding so we might develop better answers for how to address it.  The journalists laid background context by describing an impactful event in my life that had occurred 25 years earlier, they called ‘the promise’ then they fast-forwarded to a timeline of the fraud story.  The timeline started with what was called the ‘first lie’ and continued to my facing a judge.

          A significant part of the research used in the story came from Ann Tenbrunsel, a Professor of Business Ethics in the College of Business Administration at Notre Dame University, whose interview was used on air (I later presented at an ethics conference with Tenbrunsel in 2015).  The research was based in part on the concept of ‘bounded ethicality’ which refers to predictable ways people could engage in unethical behavior without full consciousness that what they are doing is wrong.  Tenbrunsel’s research is found in her book ‘Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It’, co-authored with Max Bazerman, a professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School (I was also a guest along with Bazerman on the program Talk of The Nation in July 2012).  If people commit unethical acts without being aware of them, the authors say, then we should reevaluate ethics training which traditionally focuses on intentional acts.

          In the NPR story, Tenbrunsel talked about research showing that the frame in which decisions are made influences whether the decision-maker is aware of the ethical components within those decisions.  The decision in the story about lying on the loan application, Tenbrunsel suggested, was made from a business frame instead of an ethical frame, which may have taken the focus off of the ethical components of the decision.

          Lamar Pierce, Professor of Organization and Strategy who researches fraud, corruption, and ethics at Olin Business School, Washington University, and Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration who researches decision-making and negotiation at the Harvard Business School offered further insight from their research.  Pierce reports that people often make two false assumptions when observing someone else’s unethical behavior.  First, they assume there must be a character flaw in the individual (related to what is known in behavioral science literature as attribution error), and second, that we would never behave that way ourselves.  Pierce says that 80-90% of us, and maybe more, are wrong in those assumptions.

          The researchers also say that while many people assume financial incentives are behind fraud, it’s an incomplete explanation and doesn’t adequately describe people’s motivations.  Their research found that people sometimes commit unethical or even fraudulent acts to help others get out of a problem.  People have empathy for others and identify with them, and this may help the unethical decision feel ok, the researchers suggested.  In the story, they used the example from their research showing that auto emissions inspectors are more likely to pass a Honda Civic that was polluting the air, where the owner may not have the money for repairs, than a BMW or Ferrari.  Pierce and Gino said that people from my company faced a similar type of decision. Those employees could consider “future, abstract consequences, or help out the very real person in front of them.”

Corrections are published

          NPR’s Public Editor, Elizabeth Jensen, published corrections to story on February 14, 2018.  The online and recorded versions now direct readers and listeners to an editor’s note with corrections which further directs them to a 23-page, 13,000-word blog written by Paul Vanderveen that Jensen relied upon as a basis for the corrections.  Vanderveen’s blog, Jensen’s editor’s note, and an article Jensen published the following day titled “Fact Checking a Fraud:  The ‘First Lie’ Wasn’t Really the First” all have reciprocal relationships, quoting and linking to each other so all of the content is available through the original story.

          Jensen’s article quotes Vanderveen from phone conversations and emails and also provides several links back to Vanderveen’s content including a separate copyrighted PDF compilation of all the blog chapters titled “The Art of Fraud Detection” which Vanderveen had been working on for nearly six years.  Jensen quoted Vanderveen saying that he “knew the tale of Toby’s first fraud was fiction” even “before [he] finished listening to and reading the news story.”  Vanderveen said “I began working on my critique right away” and “After I retired, I made better progress researching and assembling my critique.”  A time investment that Jensen called an “oddity.”

          The fact-checking process that led to Jensen’s corrections of what she called the “embarrassing” errors of the journalists was, however, nothing short of fact-checking malpractice.  The conclusions are false, and Jensen’s repeated promotion of Vanderveen’s blog through NPR’s platform put sources from the story at risk because Vanderveen falsely accused them of committing crimes they didn’t commit.  Jensen also betrayed promises of anonymity made by NPR’s journalists during the writing of the story.  Vanderveen’s essay sought to reveal the identities of those who didn’t wish for their names to be revealed because as Spiegel put it in the podcast, “they didn’t want to expose themselves to legal problems.”

          Additionally, Jensen’s editor’s note and article were not offered with the objectivity that readers should be able to rely on, with Jensen telling me that her work was not subject to news division standards.  While Jensen has every right to assert her opinion, corrections should be objective, and she should have provided a fair and balanced assessment of the facts so readers could reach their own conclusions.  I will frequently refer to Jensen and Vanderveen jointly because Jensen often intertwines their arguments so thoroughly that they can’t reasonably be disentangled.

          The corrections were the unfortunate result of a biased process, a reckless disregard for the truth, a failure to conduct basic investigatory procedures, and an intentional disregard for NPR’s policies that Jensen oversees.  A valid fact-checking process would have required re-interviewing at least one of the original sources from the story and reexamining at least some of the non-public documents that the journalists relied upon for their reporting. But none of this happened. Jensen, Vanderveen, and Mark Memmott – NPR’s supervising senior editor for standards and practices who Jensen says conducted the investigation of Vanderveen’s claims, didn’t conduct necessary investigational procedures, but instead relied on Vanderveen’s statements and performed a superficial review of court records, news reports, and a fraction of the evidence the journalists had relied upon.

The art of misinformation

          Jensen quotes Vanderveen in her article:

 “The act of fraud the journalists presented…as Toby Groves’ ‘first bad act,’ ‘first lie’ and ‘very first unethical act’ was none of these… There was no understood or plausible context in which that key statement was true.”

          Continuing in the article and blog:

“It wasn’t his first act of fraud…It wasn’t the fraud which ‘opened the door’…The door was already wide open following other bad things Toby had done earlier in life.”  “If they [the journalists] had divulged Toby’s previous fraudulent activities, showing him to be a habitual offender, not a first time one, most of us would have had difficulty relating to what he did.”  “We might easily surmise…that Toby had prior experience committing fraud.”   We “needed only five minutes to find news reports and a court decision confirming…[it] wasn’t actually Toby’s first fraud at all.”  “The journalists told us a fraudulent story.”

          Ironically, the court records used by Jensen and Vanderveen to claim that I am not a first-time offender are the same records that assign me a first-time offender.  I have never been named as the target in another investigation or charged with, let alone convicted of any type of crime in my life other than the one related to the story that was reported.  A criminal background check could have confirmed to Jensen and Memmott that the claims of previous fraud were false.  The audit reports, which the journalists reviewed, had been conducted by an independent, external auditor since 1996, and were required to disclose fraud cases.  I could not have acquired a CPA license (in 1992) nor maintained it with a fraud conviction.  Multiple criminal convictions would also have been an obstacle to my Ph.D.

          The term “habitual offender” is a legal term referring to a career criminal who faces enhanced punishment because they have been repeatedly convicted of crimes.  Vanderveen makes numerous false claims in his blog, such as “a business associate had gone to prison for helping Toby commit a series of frauds before…”   The journalists reported someone going to prison as part of the same case, but there is no “before.”  Vanderveen also says “…the journalists had referred to the legal ‘cases’ (plural)…[and] they knew that Toby had been convicted of earlier tax fraud.”  This is also false.  There was only one criminal case, and it was the case reported in the story. Vanderveen proceeds to repeatedly accuse me of committing fraud without offering details about what the other crimes were or when they occurred, never providing details about the ambiguous claims of “bad things” I had done earlier in life.  This lack of specificity should have been an alarm for Jensen, who offers no details to back up Vanderveen’s claims as she repeats them.

          The editor’s note attached to the story says:

“In this story, we refer to Toby Groves’ lie in 2004 on his mortgage loan application as “his first bad act.” We should have noted that according to court records, Groves admitted that he began the “scheme” to defraud banks “on or about June 30, 2003.”  In addition, court records show he admitted to owing the federal Internal Revenue Service $299,997 for claims made about the tax years 2001-2003.”

          These statements mislead readers by suggesting there were other criminal cases prior to the case reported in the story, or that previous fraud was known to exist in the same case which contradicted the timing of the ‘first bad act’ as it was reported.  Neither is true.   Jensen misleads readers by omitting vital facts that could allow her corrections to be interpreted in the context of the story the journalists originally reported.  Readers are unaware of how the court records developed, and of the non-public records were relied upon for the story.  Both would be required for readers to understand the corrections.

          In his blog article “The Art of Fraud Detection,” Vanderveen used repetition as a tool to create the illusion that there was an overwhelming amount of evidence to validate his claims.  He repeatedly pointed to ‘cases’ he falsely characterized as previous frauds. Vanderveen fictitiously supported his claims by saying the journalists “could easily have determined” these events through a “simple online query” and “court records.”  When in reality, the reporters and editors had already considered that evidence and more.  Vanderveen consistently characterized his claims as “easy,” “simple,” and “obvious,” which introduces the idea that one would have to be unintelligent not to accept his points.   However, every ‘case’ Vanderveen identifies ends up circling back to the same case from the story (the only criminal case in existence) or being entirely fabricated. Since Jensen and Vanderveen say their arguments were based on court records, both knew or should have known that no previous criminal cases existed.

          Vanderveen characterized the 2001-2003 taxes as being a previous case saying, “Toby had been convicted of earlier tax fraud.”  The statement is false, there “had been” no other cases before (or since) the case covered in the story.  He also asserts that a 2003 purchase transaction was an “elaborate prior fraud…carried out over an extended time.” This statement is again, false. The transaction he refers to was not a prior fraud, nor was it carried out over an extended time.  In the process of making his claims, Vanderveen falsely accuses another individual of committing crimes they did not commit. (see details in the footnote).

Taking time to understanding the evidence behind the original story

          The original 2012 story reported on details that were not in the public record, including all of the events that led up to the court filings.  Jensen and Vanderveen, however, use public records to create fictitious contradictions from incidents in the story that was not in the court records.  In a review of the court records, Jensen and Vanderveen also knew or should have known they were the result of plea negotiations.  It is common knowledge that plea negotiations do not result in full disclosure of the facts in the case because the outcome is by definition, negotiated.  The court records thus represent real-world events only to varying degrees of accuracy depending on many complex factors, but it is certain that they are at best, incomplete.

          Although Jensen relies on public records to discredit non-public information in the story, she starts her article using non-public information from the story by saying “The subject of the story was Toby Groves, an Ohio man who committed multi-million-dollar bank fraud.”  She doesn’t inform readers that the multi-million-dollar bank fraud she’s using to begin her argument against the story is part of the story and not part of the criminal court records.  Jensen should also have told readers that the dates in the story and the dates in court records appear different for valid reasons and that it’s misleading to cause them to appear to contradict one another, especially without an explanation of the underlying facts.  Vanderveen also relied on court records to discredit the story but cherry-picks what he wants to believe or not believe from the story saying, “what Toby did in his air loan scheme was never seriously in doubt” although these details reported in the story were not available in court records.

          The journalists relied on non-public evidence to establish the 2004 date as the ‘first lie.’  The claim Jensen and Vanderveen make about what they call ‘incorrect timing’ of the ‘first lie’ is both contrived and disingenuous.  First, while the evidence led the reporters to a logical starting point –  if it had pointed to a different ‘first lie,’ they easily could have started there without compromising the story.  Second, Jensen and Vanderveen’s own statements make it unlikely that any starting point at all would have been acceptable.

          Jensen quotes Vanderveen saying “…before I finished listening…I knew the tale of Toby’s first fraud was fiction” and “There was no understood or plausible context in which that key statement [the first lie] was true.” Jensen and Vanderveen used circular and confirmatory reasoning, saying they ‘knew’ there had to be previous lies even before a review of evidence they later point to.  Vanderveen continues, saying, “I also thought I could find confirming evidence of that on the internet.  And indeed, it took me about 5 minutes…”.  This is classic confirmation bias and shows that Jensen relied on information from Vanderveen in direct opposition to NPR’s standards she is charged with upholding in a guideline titled “Give preference to original sources”:

“For years, NPR journalists have been cautioned by their editors that an all-too-common pitfall of fact-checking is verifying “facts” through second sources, such as other news media outlets, that do not have “direct” knowledge about what they supposedly know. The problem has only gotten more serious as the Internet has made it ever easier to find what others have reported as “fact.” That’s why we value primary sources for our facts, and we check them before broadcast or publication.”

          Based on their writing,’ it’s unlikely that any point, including 2001-2003, would have been acceptable to Jensen or Vanderveen for the journalists to identify as the ‘first lie.’   It’s also hard to imagine that just about anyone the journalists could have chosen to feature as a case study in the story would not have been vulnerable to a similar character attack.  Vanderveen claims that the journalists withheld or intentionally concealed the public record information from readers in order for the journalists to tell their ‘fraudulent’ story.  Jensen stops short of that simply saying she couldn’t find proof of that.  The premise of this argument is illogical, suggesting that the journalists withheld information that was public knowledge to report a worse story that was not.

          The evidence available to the journalists in determining the timing of the ‘first lie’ included a chain of attorney-client communications showing the first contact with federal agents occurred in mid-2006.  The agents had first targeted the 2004 loan application, unaware that it had been the first step in a ‘multi-million-dollar bank fraud.’  The fraud was disclosed to agents and prosecutors under a proffer agreement, the details were secret and never became part of the public record.  The tax returns for years 2001-2003 had not been under scrutiny prior to the 2004 loan application but were implicated since they would have been relied upon for the income which was fraudulently misstated on the form. Reports from forensic accountants suggested it was very improbable that the tax returns would have been targeted independently of the loan application.  It was determined then, in the context of this legal action, the 2001-2003 tax returns were part of, and inseparable from the 2004 loan application, and any issues related to those returns could not reasonably have been known about before that application.

          The plea negotiation process arrived at a guilty plea for the 2004 loan application and the associated 2001-2003 tax returns.  During the process of completing standardized legal documents, discussions took place about what to disclose as the timing for the beginning of the ‘scheme to defraud banks.’  This timing does not necessarily match an exact date or the date of some recognized event.  The involvement of the tax returns created an ex post facto disclosure issue for a 2003 loan application I had completed for the original purchase of the same property. Although the 2003 loan application had not previously been in question, it was dated after the tax returns, and it would need to be disclosed retroactively.  The decision was eventually reached to say the scheme began “on or about June 30, 2003.”  It is commonly known that the way these details end up being disclosed in court records relies on many different complex facets, including prosecutorial discretion, plea negations, and procedural rules.

Fact-checking the fact-checkers

          Jensen asked the reporters and editors of the story to detail how they determined the timing of the ‘first lie.’  Anne Gudenkauf, an editor who oversaw the audio pieces, told Jensen, “All of the information was in hand…the question is not whether the team knew about it, but more why did we label this point in 2004” as the first lie.  Alix Spiegel told Jensen that the story evolved from a “complicated writing and editing process” and said, “I don’t know that I have the information” [to detail how we had determined the date]. Joffe-Walt told Jensen she did not recall either but was “certain we did not exclude facts we had on hand in order to intentionally mislead readers” as Vanderveen had claimed.

          Jensen said she understood when the journalists couldn’t reproduce their decision processes after being asked to reconstruct it almost six years later, but still found their answers “unsatisfying.”  Instead of conducting a proper investigation, including interviewing original sources, and reexamining non-public evidence, Jensen corrected the story based on Vanderveen’s claims.  Jensen offered nothing to readers regarding Vanderveen’s credentials to speak on fraud investigations, behavioral science, or ethics other than he was a “retired Bellingham, Wash., resident” who was “keenly interested in how we learn to think about our minds.”

The editor’s note to the story continues:

“Also, in this story, Groves discusses what he sees as a key moment in his life — his brother’s 1986 bank fraud conviction.  Groves describes what he says was his father’s anguish over a front-page newspaper story.  Our web coverage includes illustrations that make it appear as if a photo of Groves’ brother was on the front page and that the family’s name was in the headline. But archives show that the Cincinnati Enquirer’s coverage did not include a front-page image of Groves’ brother. The family’s name was not in the headline.  Instead, the brother’s name appeared inside the newspaper.”

          This portion of the correction addressed a personal account I provided to the journalists about an interaction between my father and me from the summer of 1986 that the journalists titled ‘The Promise.’ Jensen said this issue was less important but proceeded to suggest, along with Vanderveen, that the account should not be believed.  Vanderveen points out that my father was not alive “to corroborate Toby’s account” so “dubious Toby was the journalists’ only source for the promise-to-his-dad vignette.”  This is not accurate, the journalists not only interviewed someone on-site at the time and aware of the event but also uncovered newspaper archives that supported the account.  It seems disingenuous of Vanderveen while asserting everyone involved in the story was part of a conspiracy to defraud readers, to suggest he might have believed the account if only my father had been alive to corroborate it.

          In her editor’s note, Jensen mischaracterizes the spirit of the story, focusing the attention of my father’s anguish as being about a ‘front-page newspaper story.’  The real subject of my father’s anguish was, of course, over his eldest son’s involvement in fraud, not the location of an article within a newspaper. Jensen says while the “anecdote made for dramatic storytelling… [Groves] either exaggerated or misremembered family lore.”    Jensen points out that NPR’s illustrations in the web version of the story reflected a photo of my brother on the front page and the family’s name in the headline, noting that the newspaper archives did not explicitly show those things. She ignored the very same error when later illustrations made it appear that my own name was on the front page and in the headlines when it wasn’t and fails to inform readers that I did not give these specific details to the reporters.

          Jensen could have chosen to provide a clarifying correction, noting that the details provided in a spontaneous discussion recalling details from an article on a Sunday morning 25 years earlier proved to be substantively accurate.  Instead, Jensen exploited the ‘front page’ idea to discredit the entire account. She said “…healthy skepticism about what Groves told them [the journalists] (including comments about his father that the journalists could not verify because the father was dead) could easily have led them to a different end point.”   Jensen then added, “the reporters should have caught it…”

Last call

          On the afternoon of Friday, February 9, 2018, I received the only call from NPR before the corrections would be published and since the story had run in 2012.  As of that date, unknowingly to me, Vanderveen had been working on his content for almost six years, there was one day left in the two-month investigation Jensen said had occurred, and it was just 3 business days before Jensen’s editor’s note corrections, and a link to Vanderveen’s blog was attached to the story. The contact came via a phone call from Mark Memmott.  Memmott introduced himself, asking if we could talk about a couple of details in the story that had run back in 2012.  I was surprised but welcomed the conversation.

          Memmott asked about the court records and the guilty plea, which included the 2001-2003 tax returns.  I explained that the court records had been the result of a complicated plea and proffer process.  Memmott also said the story had reported on a newspaper article about my brother’s involvement in fraud back in 1986.  The story indicated my brother’s name was on the front page, and while the article may have started on the front page, Memmott asked if I was aware that the part that mentioned my brother was actually inside the paper.  No, I didn’t remember that.  I was curious.  I remembered seeing quite a few articles written about it, and also remembered that my father frequently creased the paper open to whatever he wanted us to read. With that in mind it’s possible in the 25 years between that 1986 article and the interview with the journalists, I thought I remembered it having been on the front page when it was actually inside the paper.  My phone records show Memmott, and I talked for a total of 17 minutes.

          After I read the corrections, saw the link to Vanderveen’s blog, and then read Jensen’s article, I felt deceived by Memmott’s phone call and abused as someone who felt they had been entirely transparent with NPR’s journalists. Memmott had given me no impression of what was to come and no opportunity to offer comments on the numerous claims Jensen and Vanderveen had made.  While news organizations don’t typically allow sources to review stories before they are released (and didn’t in the case of the original story), the fact-checking of that story is very different.  Fact-checking is about doing the proper research to verify facts and assess the validity, accuracy, and fairness of those corrections before you publish them.  Fact-Checkers assume a position of trust, not unlike auditors.  It’s about providing context so the corrections can be fully understood, and an honest analysis of the facts.  It’s also about a goal to practice a ’no surprises’ type of journalism that reputable news organizations follow.

          I reached out to Jensen through Mark Memmott and spoke with her about the corrections.  I told Jensen I believed the corrections and statements made by her and Vanderveen to be false and misleading.  NPR’s publication of Vanderveen’s defamatory material on their platform made it necessary that I reach out to him as well.  I sent a message through a form on his blog, unable to find any information at all about him outside of that.  I was perplexed why someone would perform six years of research about another person without ever attempting to contact them, and I offered to have a conversation.  I received a two-sentence response from Vanderveen six days later:

“You were the primary subject of NPR’s story, but not of my article, which was primarily about NPR’s reporting and how we use our own minds.  I needed to stick with public information available to NPR back then.”

          The response didn’t make a lot of sense.  How could you correct information about a primary source in the story without attempting to communicate with that source?  I asked Jensen if she would be willing to add a paragraph or two of context so readers could have a better understanding of the underlying facts. The answer was a flat “no.”  Surprised, I told Jensen since she had linked to and quoted an overwhelming amount of material from only one source who was clearly hostile towards and biased against the piece.  For balance, readers should be exposed to another perspective.  I asked if she would be willing to link to a few paragraphs of clarifying context from me? Again, an unequivocal “no.”

          Jensen’s actions seemed contrary to NPR’s journalistic standards.  She explained to me that she reported directly to the CEO, was “separate from the news division,” and was not subject to newsroom standards.   When I asked her about standards of objectivity and impartiality Jensen said her article was “clearly marked as an opinion piece.”  I took this to mean it wasn’t intended to be impartial.  If you correct a news story, shouldn’t your work be held to the same standards as the story you correct?  “That’s not how it works,” Jensen replied.  However, in the “Who is Covered” section of NPR’s standards handbook., which Jensen and Memmott help to oversee, it says:

“All NPR journalists should read and follow the guidance in this handbook. Those who work for shows, podcasts, and programming that are not part of the news division should understand that these principles also apply to them.”

Getting the facts straight

          Lamar Pierce reported that people often make two false assumptions when they observe someone else’s unethical behavior.  They assume the person must have a character flaw that led to the behavior, and they are confident that they would never behave the same way themselves.  These false assumptions became the overarching themes in Vanderveen’s blog article. Vanderveen launched a character attack on the journalists, researchers, sources, and me and then wrote, “…we would never do what Toby did…”

          Vanderveen offered a blizzard of false hypotheses about “bad things” the journalists, researchers, and I had done.  He wrote that the journalists “duped many people” in their “unethical journalism.”  Vanderveen’s reasoning was inconsistent, on one hand suggesting that I had deceived the journalists, saying “…we have ample reason to be cautious about [Toby’s] honesty with the journalists…” but then suggesting the journalists “…coached Toby, in a preliminary discussion, about what they needed“ adding, “the journalists could have made up or embellished the material…fictionalizing it to suit their purposes.”  People interviewed on air were also targeted by Vanderveen: “…[the] former manager and the loan officer” that had “provided testimonials… for all, we knew…these two former employees had been in league with Toby…these men weren’t trustworthy either…”

          The blog article attacked the journalists individually, commenting that “We may also have surmised, [SIC] when Joffe-Walt said she could see where Toby was coming from, that she herself had done some ‘fudging’ in the past and might still be willing to tell an instrumental lie…”  Vanderveen suggested researchers Tenbrunsel and Bazerman “…gave Web visitors no hint that the NPR story was itself fraudulent”.  He also made a strange assertion that the journalists were “feeling love” for “…people committing this unethical behavior…”.

          Vanderveen vehemently objected to the idea of examining one’s own behavior in relation to our assumptions about the behavior of others.  “People will try to get us to focus on our own personal experiences…just to incapacitate us”, he wrote. Emphatically renouncing the idea of identifying with others, he made more than 50 references to its harmful effects.  Vanderveen said, “Normally, we have no call or reason to identify with others” adding “It’s a fearsome thing, perceiving how much identifying goes on…”.   “The journalists encouraged us to identify with Toby…to look at the bad things we have done, to look away from the bad things they were doing right in front of us and to us.”  Vanderveen said we could have ‘broken the spell’ just by stopping to identify with others, and then we could ”avoid becoming victims…of such trickery in the future.”

          The blog article concludes by contending that “Identifying with others is an interpersonal cognitive error…”.   A claim that is beyond absurd.  Empathy is, of course, not a cognitive error, but fundamental to the human experience.  Jensen, speaking for Vanderveen, said: “what it boils down to, in his opinion, is that the journalists could have avoided the errors had they stayed focused on the inconsistencies in Groves’ story, instead of seeking out the ways in which his story was relatable to the listener.” 

          This leads to a disturbing question of how Elizabeth Jensen, a public editor of a major news outlet that deals with serious national and international issues, could have determined the content in Vanderveen’s blog article to be credible, to begin with.  While Jensen didn’t display skepticism in regard to Vanderveen, she concluded with some advice for the journalists – “If there’s a moral to the story here, it’s that age-old foundational concept drilled into every journalist from day one: Be skeptical. If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

       Jensen quotes Mark Memmott: “There’s a very good case to make that [Groves]…believes things started to go bad in 2004.”  The reporters “did not make that part up but what they should have done is challenge it or explain it” he said.  The story could have offered a more thorough explanation, I’ll agree.  But as Memmott chides the reporters for not properly explaining the complications, he certainly knew it was his duty as well as Jensen’s as fact-checkers to add clarity for readers.  It’s what NPR is supposed to be good at.

         Transparency is central to the public editor’s stated purpose.  The assault levied against this story is antithetical to transparency.  It breeds a culture of silence.  It squelches learning.  It pushes others who might open up and share difficult experiences which could be enlightening and educational, to instead retreat to the safety of defensive positions. 

          Vanderveen has continued to attack the article after the ‘corrections’ ran, and into 2019.  He has demanded that NPR “correct the corrections” because they did not adequately represent his complaints about researchers Tenbrunsel, Pierce and Gino.  As to why Vanderveen hadn’t contacted NPR six years earlier when he discovered the errors,  Jensen provided a final quote from him – “ I wanted to get my facts straight…”.

 

Toby Groves, Ph.D.

toby@tobygroves.com

 

The original story “Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things” is available here: https://www.npr.org/2012/05/01/151764534/psychology-of-fraud-why-good-people-do-bad-things 

Jensen’s article “Fact Checking a Fraud:  The ‘First Lie’ Wasn’t Really the First” is available here: https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2018/02/15/585178503/fact-checking-a-fraud-the-first-lie-wasnt-really-the-first

 

Footnote:

Vanderveen, later in his blog, labels the 2003 purchase transaction an “elaborate prior fraud…carried out over an extended time.”  Vanderveen claims one of the managers at the company acted “fraudulently as a straw buyer” to purchase the property, then transferred it to me “two and a half months later at a fictitious price…with a phony 168,236 down payment.”  Vanderveen and Jensen knew or should have known that no court records had existed to show the manager, nor I were charged with the wrongdoing Vanderveen asserts.  Proper fact checking would have reviewed the county auditors and recorders records, and the loan documents for the transaction.  These records would have shown the original property purchase by a general contractor, then valid receipts totaling $168,236 paid for construction and renovation, which served as a legitimate down payment for a transfer that occurred two and a half months later.  To produce this false characterization, Vanderveen had conflated yet another version of the same events, this time pointing to records that were an extrapolation from plea negotiations of the attorney that had been mentioned in the story.


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