Brian Ross turns fabulist again.
ABC News President David Westin is resigning and plans to leave the company before the end of the year, reportedly because of friction between him and executives at parent Walt Disney Company over the network’s poor profits. But poor profits won’t be the only problem that confronts Westin’s successor. Whoever it is will also have to deal with some of the loose cannons rattling around ABC News’ decks.
One of them is a Westin favorite, investigative reporter Brian Ross, who has established a fabulist record that extends over nine years, most of Westin’s tenure. In his latest report, Ross has cobbled together information from irrelevant or financially interested sources to condemn an Army contractor for committing fraud against the government. And not just any fraud: one that could endanger the lives of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
That report — Ross’s latest, entitled “Lost in Translation” — is an example of the problem Ross poses for the network. The report is centered on an accusation that a company called Mission Essential Personnel (“MEP”) committed fraud in providing U.S. forces in Afghanistan with translators who can’t speak the languages troops need to communicate with Afghans.
This report is editorially contrived, built misleadingly around the allegations of a former MEP employee who has a financial interest in accusing MEP of fraud.
Ross’s story begins with a video made by a British journalist’s film crew following U.S. Army troops in 2008. It shows a U.S. patrol sergeant trying to communicate with a local elder. The elder says there’s no security in the village but the translator tells the sergeant that there are no problems, and the translator’s ineptitude leads from miscommunication to hostility between the troops and the elder who wants their help.
The report then switches to an interview with decorated Afghanistan veteran SSgt. Genevieve Chase. Chase says that there were many times she was working with an interpreter and — because of her own training — knew “instantly that he wasn’t communicating what I had just said.”
The next scene begins at the front of the MEP offices in Columbus, Ohio, and then shifts to an MEP ad recruiting translators and to congressional testimony given by MEP’s CEO saying MEP had filled 97% of the Army’s needs. Ross says that the more translators MEP provides, the more money it makes, implying a motive for fraud.
Then Ross gets to the protagonist of the story, a “whistleblower” named Paul Funk. Funk is the plaintiff in a “qui tam” lawsuit against MEP, alleging that it committed fraud by providing the Army with interpreters that MEP knew were unqualified.
(“Qui tam” lawsuits are created by the Civil False Claims Act, which dates back to the Civil War. It enables private citizens to sue in the government’s name and keep part of whatever damages may be recovered.)
In a written ABCnews.com story the day before the report aired, Ross and two co-authors lead with the statement that according to Funk more than one quarter of the MEP translators failed language proficiency exams but were sent to the battlefield anyway. Funk repeats that charge in the broadcast report.
Ross’s broadcast finishes with the end of the British-filmed segment from 2008 in which the translator apparently makes up an answer that the village elder hadn’t given, incorrectly telling the U.S. sergeant that the elder said he hadn’t seen the Taliban for one year, though the elder had said he wanted to cooperate with U.S. forces.
But the translator in the British film wasn’t an MEP employee. SSgt. Chase wasn’t in Afghanistan after 2006 and MEP didn’t arrive until 2007. And Ross didn’t report that qui tam plaintiff Paul Funk has a major financial interest in the lawsuit.
MY CALL AND E-MAIL TO ABC seeking an interview with Ross resulted in a conversation with one of the report’s two producers, Matthew Mosk (who is also one of Ross’s co-authors in the ABCnews.com story).
Mosk insisted that the report wasn’t about MEP but about a bigger issue: the question of mistranslation in Afghanistan. He told me MEP was just one element of the broader story. But the story begins and ends with allegations against MEP, and about one-third of the eight-minute report focuses specifically on it.
Ross’s report — after beginning with the British film — mentions briefly, about two and a half minutes into the report, that the translator in the film isn’t an MEP employee. But after Funk’s allegations are aired, it goes back to the British film, effectively tying it again to MEP. (Ross does mention that MEP uses the British film in its instructional materials as a bad example.)
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