Last week, Nightly News' investigative unit broke the story of e-mails that revealed a divergence between the warnings of a FEMA deputy stationed at the Superdome during Katrina, and the responses he got from the inner circle of former director Michael Brown. The testimony of the FEMA insider, Marty Bahamonde, was a focal point of Senate hearings the next day. His criticism of FEMA is especially significant because of his reputation: he is highly praised by both Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
The report prompted a skeptical response from one viewer, who wrote:
"… Initially, I thought it was a terrific report. However, I think you owe it to your viewers to give some indication as to who tipped off your reporter and who provided you with the e-mails. If someone in Washington is continuing to make Michael Brown the scapegoat for the disaster in New Orleans in order to protect others, you missed the real story; namely, who is doing the leaking and whom are they trying to protect?"
His first point is a topical one. We are adherents of journalism's transparency movement (the silver lining in the storm over confidential sources), and we try, when appropriate, to share details about how we got the stories we report to you. (Obviously, it's not always possible to identify sources.) Here, we missed a chance to share some background information. NBC News obtained the e-mails from a FEMA critic.
As for the viewer's second point – whether these e-mails were made available to make Brown a "scapegoat" – it's speculative. Our investigative team says there's no evidence that politics were at work here, especially given the bipartisan nature of the Senate hearings (chaired by a Republican) and Bahamonde's stature as a respected source. (For a sense of how his testimony was received, see this Washington Post story.) To me, the skepticism expressed by this viewer is a (not unwelcome) sign of the journalism times. I hope he understands that we take his concerns to heart, and think carefully about our sources, their agendas (if any) and what constitutes everything you need to know about the information we report.