Accuracy in Media

Recently a jury sent a chilling message to journalists who might be thinking of collaborating with whistleblowers. The jury found journalist and author James Sanders and his wife, Liz, guilty of conspiring with Capt. Terrell Stacey, a TWA pilot assigned to assist in the investigation of the cause of the crash of TWA Flight 800. Stacey gave Sanders evidence that the FBI was trying to cover up the real cause of the crash.

The FBI dismissed the reports of scores of eyewitnesses who had seen what appeared to be a missile streaking toward the plane and exploding. It was keeping parts of the wreckage from the investigators. And it refused to give the investigators the reports of its analysis of a mysterious red residue that was found on three rows of seats in the plane. Capt. Stacey thought the residue might be evidence that a missile had penetrated the plane.

He told Sanders about his suspicions and gave him documents that provided evidence supporting the missile theory. Later, he sent two small pieces of foam rubber impregnated with the red residue to Sanders with the understanding that Sanders would have it analyzed. The analysis showed that it could have come from solid rocket fuel exhaust. Sanders published that in a newspaper and then in his book, The Downing of TWA Flight 800.

The FBI then said the residue was glue, but they refused to release test results to support that claim. Sanders, through a court-ordered discovery, found that they had never made the tests that would be necessary to prove that the results of his tests were wrong. Nevertheless, the FBI pursued Sanders and his wife as though they were bank robbers. Stacey, threatened with the loss of his job as an airline pilot, was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in return for agreeing to testify against them. The Sanders had rejected the plea bargain they were offered if they would testify against Stacey.

The Justice Department invoked a law passed to discourage pilferage from airplane crash sites to punish a whistleblower and a journalist for revealing evidence of a massive cover-up by the government. For conspiring with Stacey to have the residue tested, they were charged with a felony carrying maximum sentence of ten years. The prosecutor insisted that this had nothing to do with the first amendment rights of journalists or the duty of citizens to expose wrongdoing. He also insisted that it had nothing to do with evidence that the cause of the plane crash was being covered up. It was only about two pieces of foam rubber.

The defense was not allowed to show that the government wanted a conviction to intimidate other whistleblowers and journalists who might help them. That case should have been made by the media, but like the jury, they saw this only as a case about “stolen” evidence. Actually, it is a threat to investigative reporting and whistleblowers. To learn how you can help Jim and Liz appeal this unjust verdict call toll free 1-800-787-4567. Ask for Roger. Again, the number to call is 1-800-787-4567.

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