Can an investigative report be deemed credible if based on an unreliable or single source? Should any reputed newspaper publish a story without verifying the credibility of the people quoted in it? Will any so-called exposé carry weight if it is primarily based on anonymous sources — cited as ‘former employees’? And can hurling unsubstantiated allegations be described as factual, fair and balanced journalism?
These are some relevant questions about The New York Times’ May 17, 2015 — and subsequent report, which accused Axact — Pakistan’s leading IT company — of running a racket of “fake diplomas”.
“Will the NYT treat an American company the same way — sending its CEO a questionnaire on a weekend and demanding immediate answers?”
The report, denied by Axact, created a storm in Pakistan and local channels and newspapers echoed its fabricated content, lacing it with their own set of allegations to tarnish the name and image of a legitimate business. The hostility and frenzy of the local media against Axact’s owners was understandable. Some old media tycoons felt threatened by plans and efforts being made by the owners of Axact to launch a media house’ this media house was to include news and entertainment channels under the banner of the BOL Media Group.
These channels can proudly boast of having Pakistan’s biggest media infrastructure, state-of-the-art facilities and a galaxy of professionals.
NYT reporter Declan Walsh — known for his closeness to some of these media owners — filed this controversial report from abroad as he was black-listed and expelled from Pakistan in 2013 for ‘undesirable activities’, false journalism and inaccurate propaganda stories against Pakistan. Living up to his reputation of being a biased journalist, Walsh wrote another propaganda piece, accusing Axact of “selling fake academic degree on a global scale”.
Ironically the entire report has been based on a single source — Yasir Jamshaid — introduced in the 12th paragraph. Jamshaid, a disgruntled junior-level employee at Axact, stole data when he left the company and sold it to a rival media owner, who introduced him to the NYT reporter. The authenticity of Jamshaid’s claims can be gauged from the fact that even the alleged victims of the scam have to date remained anonymous rather than come forward and seek justice. The year-long crackdown on Axact has failed to inspire confidence among the victims mentioned by the NYT.
The other named source is a retired FBI agent Allen Ezell, who calls Axact a “breathtaking scam”. But he has nothing to add to the story besides making generalised remarks and allegations.
The NYT reporter claims that, barring Jamshaid, he spoke to five other former Axact employees, but he keeps them all anonymous. The excuse the reporter gives for concealing their identity is the fear of “legal action” against them by the company. But the question that comes to mind is: why would a former employee fear legal action if he is providing facts and authentic information?
Did the NYT editors make sure that Walsh wasn’t cooking up quotes in the name of anonymous sources — as some unethical reporters are known to do? The story did not mention whether the reporter met these so-called anonymous sources in person or interviewed them on the phone. If he spoke to them on the phone, how did he verify that the interviewed person was really a former Axact employee?
The reporter not just concealed the identity of those ‘former’ Axact employees, but also did so of the ‘victims’ — allegedly duped or ‘forced’ to buy fake educational degrees and diplomas from the online universities supposedly run by Axact, as claimed in the NYT story.
Other characters quoted in the NYT story include a Abu-Dhabi-based Indian national, Mohan — identified only with this one name — who was allegedly forced to dish out more than $30,000 to an online university, which the reporter claims was owned by Axact.
The fact is that Axact only provides online education platforms and back-end services, which doesn’t mean owning a university. The NYT story, after slinging mud on Axact, towards the end admits — but not before giving a few twists to the tale — that this junior-level Indian accountant got his money refunded. This hardly happens when an institution is bogus or aims to cheat people.
The NYT report mentioned cases of a few other anonymous victims of the online scam, including a bizarre story of an Abu Dhabi-based nurse (again unidentified), who admitted paying $60,000 for a medical degree to secure a promotion. The reporter did not identify her nationality, earnings or raise the issue of how a nurse could pay such a huge amount for an online degree.
Two other alleged victims of the online scam were only identified as a Saudi and an Egyptian. The source of this shady information is Jamshaid, who according to NYT’s dramatic version “fled” the country. But the paper did not elaborate who the person was fear of whom forced Jamshaid to flee the country? Finding nothing concrete and new to back its claims, the NYT report mentions a 2006 case of an online education scam, in which a bakery worker Elizabeth Lauber from Bay City, Michigan paid $249 for an online diploma. The story implies that the online school was run by Axact without giving evidence.
The entire report is full of loopholes, which the NYT editors did not fit to check, highlighting either weak editorial judgment or mala fide intentions.
The reporter claims that Axact gave no response to his “repeated requests for interviews over the past week” and to a list of questions submitted on Thursday (which was Friday in Pakistan). Instead, he complains that Axact lawyers in a letter issued a “blanket denial” to the list of allegations and accused him of coming up “with half-cooked stories and conspiracy theories.”
The fact is that the reporter demanded a response to his allegations, giving only a 20-hour deadline. The reporter also interviewed Axact’s CEO in November 2013, but never ran the story. (Excerpts from that interview
were used in this defamatory report 18 months after, underlining the reporter’s ill-intentions).
Would any CEO or business leader give another interview to a reporter if he/she had failed to run the first one? Why did the NYT not question its reporter for using old quotes? Why did the reporter sleep on the interview for 18 months?
And why the sudden rush to run the story – so much so that the accused company was not even given time for a proper interview? Will the NYT treat an American company the same way — sending its CEO a questionnaire on a weekend and demanding immediate answers?
Why was a proper interview request not made? The ill-intentions of the reporter, his unprofessional conduct and strong bias against a Pakistani company are manifested in the way he tried to deal with the Axact management.
The reporter claims that 370 websites were analysed “including school sites, but also a supporting body of search portals, fake accreditation bodies, recruitment agencies, language schools and even a law firm — that bear Axact’s digital fingerprints.”
“The story did not mention whether the reporter met these so-called anonymous sources in person or interviewed them on the phone. If he spoke to them on the phone, how did he verify that the interviewed person was really a former Axact employee?”
In journalism, assumptions has always been considered a negative. Writing that those websites bore “Axact’s digital fingerprints” is the weakest and most bizarre allegation. Is the reporter saying that Axact designed those websites for its clients? If so, then the company committed no crime. But before this, how can the reporter even say that Axact designed them, let alone claiming that Axact operated and owned such sites?
Axact provides education platforms and back-end services for its clients. One of its departments – the best in the world — also designed websites and logos. But these businesses or services are legal. According to Axact management, the company was not in the business of giving any fake or genuine degrees and diplomas.
The reporter, by design or default, failed to understand the difference between education management solution providers and those who use it. Sadly, the NYT’s editing desk did the same. The reporter writes in the story that “degrees have no true accreditation”. This reveals how he tried to distort facts and stick to half-truths. In the US, for instance, there is no centralised accreditation body and online education remains a legal service — with or without accreditation.
The report alleges that Axact staff members threatened clients into buying something — that too in the UAE and the US. Maybe not for the NYT reporter, but for anyone else simple common sense says that is not possible especially when online credit-card transactions are subject to tough regulatory rules and any complaint means the closure of the service provider’s account.
Former employee Jamshaid’s claim that a Saudi man spent a massive $400,000 on fake degrees and associated certificates can’t be taken as serious information.
The NYT claims that “Axact’s role in the diploma mill industry was nearly exposed in 2009 when an American woman in Michigan, angry that her online high school diploma had proved useless, sued two (alleged) Axact-owned websites, Belford High School and Belford University.”
The NYT alleged that “instead of Axact, the defendant who stepped forward was Saleem Kureshi, a Pakistani who claimed to be running the websites from his apartment. But how Kureshi was linked to Axact by the NYT is a question the reporter failed to answer.
This false story exposes the bias, unethical standards and lack of professionalism of the NYT and its editorial team — known for publishing propaganda stories against various countries, including Pakistan, and businesses in other parts of the world.