By Jonathan Smith, Editor in Chief
As a news reporter, I have always maintained that my job should be about relaying pertinent news to the readers, not becoming part of the news.
Then Monday, this line appeared in a letter posted on a political blog, the Daily Kos:
“I have just received a phone call from a Christian newspaper reporter.”
I was that reporter, and those words were written by Melody Townsel, who was confessing her past with plagiarism before my story could ever go public.
Earlier this month Townsel, now a public relations executive in Dallas, wrote a letter to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that contained allegations against the nominee for U.N. ambassador, John Bolton.
Townsel alleged that in 1994, Bolton chased her through the halls of her hotel in Moscow, banged on her door and was “behaving like a madman.”
As a college newspaper, the Optimist‘s job is to report on important national issues and any local ties to the community.
What better local tie than the fact that Townsel attended ACU in the mid-80s and worked for the Optimist staff? But it would have been irresponsible to ignore the fact that she was removed from the Optimist staff after it was discovered that she plagiarized two columns from the Dallas Morning News.
Townsel’s letter-although its authenticity has not yet been confirmed-blames the Optimist‘s and my political motives for pursuing this story. Townsel said she wanted to announce her past with plagiarism “before the Bush camp works its special brand of magic,” and “the Bush team is working overtime to destroy my life and business, telling and retelling the things I’m writing here.”
If the Optimist is part of the Bush camp, our track record during this past election year betrays us.
Not once did the Optimist editorial board endorse Bush’s re-election. Never have we endorsed John Bolton as U.N. ambassador. We have endorsed a Democrat for the U.S. House of Representatives and tackled some issues that might make the Bush administration cringe.
I chose to pursue the story after discussions with faculty members who saw Townsel’s allegations in the news and remembered her past with the university. Never once did we engage in conversations with anyone in the Bush administration, and to think that Bolton supporters would use a student newspaper in West Texas is paranoid at best.
In her letter, Townsel seems to have forgotten that the Optimist is not a Christian newspaper, but a newspaper operating at a Christian university. There is a difference. To suggest she knows my motives for writing the story based on a two-minute telephone interview-we talked only long enough for me to ask if she would confirm events of plagiarism in her past and for her to say no comment-is unrealistic.
Townsel’s story about her encounter with Bolton in 1994 deserves to be investigated fully. Her allegations certainly call into question Bolton’s temperament, which definitely would be tested as U.N. ambassador.
The Optimist‘s story regarding Townsel’s past record of dishonesty deserves to be considered as well. When a source, even a well-meaning whistle-blower, brings allegations that might or might not be able to be confirmed, that source puts her credibility on the line, and her credibility deserves to be tested.
In researching this article, I have read both sides of the case on Bolton and opinions on Townsel’s allegations. I have read Townsel’s plagiarized columns in the Optimist, her resignation letter and the letter she just recently wrote to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Through all of that, an excerpt from one of the letters I’ve read sticks out in my mind above all else:
“My ‘easy out’ cost me my job, and seriously damaged my reputation, my Christian influence, and possibly my future career. Not very ‘easy,’ was it? Remember this when you’re dealing with your own problems.”
Remember those words, Melody. You should-you wrote them in your resignation letter to the editor in the Optimist on Oct. 5, 1984. I offer them to you now as your “easy out” again threatens your reputation.
And in the end, when all the mud has been slung and all sides have been heard, we both should want the same thing: the truth.