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Poisoned at the Source

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On December 23, O'Brien sent Zeltser a long fax full of detailed questions about his past and present alleged misdeeds. Then O'Brien took his kids to Virginia for Christmas. When he returned, he found that Zeltser had ridiculed the fax on his Web page. When O'Brien asked about Oxana Berkounova, Zeltser wrote, "Go for it, Tiger!" adding, "Try flowers -- they really go for that stuff."

And Zeltser had added something new to his Web page, a note that ended, "I hope you had a nice vacation in Virginia." Later, he posted directions to O'Brien's home in New Jersey -- albeit a home he had recently vacated. Was this a threat to him and his family? Again, O'Brien told the Times editors about his fears. They decided the best response was to publish the story.

So, with his editor Stephen Engelberg's help, O'Brien prepared a draft. They worried the story would seem personal -- O'Brien was writing a story in which he'd become a player -- so they stuck to what they thought were the most salient issues: that Zeltser may have faked the insider-trading memo; that the Journal and other papers had gullibly relied on his information; and that the validity of Zeltser's license to practice law was in dispute. O'Brien also quoted Andrei Bugrov, Grigoriev's former boss at the World Bank, saying the insider-trading memo was probably fake. And he recounted some of Zeltser's efforts to harass him off the story.

Together, they called other news organizations for comment. Engelberg called the Journal's spokesman, Richard Tofel, sparing O'Brien from interviewing his former employer. Tofel stood behind his paper's report: "We were convinced and remain convinced that the story was fair and accurate."

Zeltser had his say, too. "Is Timothy O'Brien of the New York Times an aggressive reporter -- or simply aggressive?" began the lead item in Post's "Page Six" on the day O'Brien's own story appeared. "Emanuel Zeltser, a lawyer and board member of the American Russian Law Institute, charges O'Brien went 'out of control' last August when he learned that Zeltser, one of his best sources, was talking to the Wall Street Journal and other papers."

Tofel later clarified to me the paper's position: Although the memo's authenticity was open to question, the World Bank deemed it credible enough to launch an investigation, which remains open. That essentially amounts to sidestepping the paper's making its own assessment of the memo. But Tofel had stern words for O'Brien. "We were both surprised and disappointed that Tim O'Brien would be writing about us and himself," Tofel said. "It is rarely a good idea in a news story for the subject and the reporter to be the same person."

O'Brien, though, is unrepentant. "I didn't get any joy out of embarrassing the Journal," he says. "What I care about is journalists so beholden to a dirty source that they are willing to carry water for them. If our job necessitates from time to time exposing people who are polluting the reporting process, then so be it. Given everything that has happened. I would do it again."

Actually, this time it may be my turn. Last week, Zeltser sent a letter to the corporate offices of Primedia Inc., which owns New York. "I respectfully bring to your attention a situation which in my view may result in grossly inaccurate and hostile reporting by New York Magazine's David Kirkpatrick," the letter began. "The material which David relies on consists of fallacious allegations of Russian launderers. . . . Mr. Kirkpatrick's reporting may become a de facto parroting of absurd and long-rebutted allegations of the Russian mob 'spin doctors.'. . ."


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