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Ten of the Many Things I’ve Learned Since Abscam

Oringally appeared in the “Survival Guide For Women Editors” by The American Press Institute.

As a federal court reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, I got a
tip one Friday that something big was going to happen that would “involve the Halls of Congress.”

I couldn’t nail the story that day. But the next day I broke what came to be known as the Abscam story.

Nabbed taking bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks were three
Philadelphia city councilmen, a U.S. congressman and a U.S. senator from New Jersey.

To this day, there are a lot of journalism case studies about the Abscam story. At issue:Who were my sources? Did the prosecutors leak the sting to the press to “stampede” a grand jury into returning an indictment?

Little did I expect that this experience would impart some life lessons.

In a defense motion to dismiss the case, Judge John P. Fullam sentenced me to six months in jail for declining to reveal my sources. I never had to serve my time because it quickly became clear the prosecutors were making their case with videotapes, not leaks. Nevertheless, I fielded several early-morning calls from anguished suspected sources, urging me to clear them of culpability. As those criminal justice types sweated out their own careers, my newsroom colleagues voiced notable envy at the turn in my career. 

Such is the stuff of media law textbooks. Over the years, I have been amused as various students have called the chapters about Abscam to my attention. 

While I can’t disclose the truth, I can say that much of what has been written is based on a wrong premise, on wrong assumptions. 

It was one of my first experiences with “having journalism done to me.” Little did I know the experience would prove invaluable in later years. 

As a leader in the civic journalism movement, I coined a term for the sloppy reporting that surrounded a lot of civic journalism efforts. I called these stories “drive-by shootings.” It was journalism based on what the reporters thought was conventional wisdom, not tested with original legwork. Journalism that gave a platform to the critics but seldom interviewed the practitioners.

And so, I use this anecdote to lead my list of life’s lessons learned from the news business:

  1. Beware of easy assumptions — about people or about stories. The truth is always more complex, and it always makes for better stories, better relationships.
  2. Anger is seldom productive; humor works better.
  3. Being a “good girl” is seldom good enough. No matter how terrific an outcome you deliver, the connections you made getting there will always be more important.
  4. You’ll always learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. Don’t beat yourself up second-guessing your decisions.
  5. For every one person who hates you, 10 others will love you. Do what you can to make peace with your adversaries, then move on. They will probably never love you.
  6. Know that the very tasks you found most distasteful will become, in good time, effortless strengths.
  7. If you feel like a victim and act like a victim, you will become a victim.
  8. When you suffer from oxygen deprivation, move into a better environment.
  9. Jobs come and go. Relationships endure.
  10. Reach for the sky; you might just land on a mountaintop.

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