Special Report

ProPublica’s Weaponization of Journalism: The Bad

ProPublica: How Investigative Journalism Can Be Weaponized (full series)
The Good | The Bad | The Ugly Truth

The Bad

While ProPublica’s broad-scope investigative reporting and extensive data journalism have earned it praise and a good reputation, the more narrowly focused coverage coming from the organization of late has diminished the group. Since April 2023, more than 20 stories have been published by ProPublica as part of a myopic series on the supposedly nefarious relationships between conservative Supreme Court justices and wealthy conservative donors and activist groups. The series came, rather conveniently for the Left, after a wave of Supreme Court decisions handed conservatives legal victories. Already, the Left was beginning to come up with reasons to adopt the once-fringe concept of court packing as the mainstream party line.

Enter, ProPublica.

Desperate to unearth something untoward, the reporters dug up decades old stories about alleged ethics violations related to vacations, school tuition, and houses. The first of the reports, titled “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire” featured flashy graphics and animations and told the story of Justice Thomas and his wife taking vacation on the yacht of billionaire Harlan Crowe.[1] “The extent of Crow’s largesse has never been revealed. Until now,” ProPublica declared.

But it had been declared, quite officially, both in the New York Times and in front of the Judicial Conference Committee on Financial Disclosure all the way back in 2011. As Mark Paoletta, a friend of Justice Thomas pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, the story had already been thoroughly reported and taken before the nation’s leading judicial ethics arbiter which found that Justice Thomas had not “willfully or improperly failed to disclose information concerning travel reimbursements.”[2] ProPublica acknowledged in their article that the story had already been reported but declined to mention the fact that Justice Thomas had already been cleared entirely.

Nonetheless, by 8:00 P.M. that very day, ProPublica already had a laundry list of Democratic politicians lining up to use their “ground breaking” research.[3]

A week later, perfectly timed to keep public sentiment against the Supreme Court building, ProPublica released “Billionaire Harlan Crow Bought Property From Clarence Thomas. The Justice Didn’t Disclose the Deal.” This time, the story told how Harlan Crow had purchased Justice Thomas’s childhood home from Justice Thomas, his mother, and his late brother’s family, and how Justice Thomas had never disclosed the sale. ProPublica brought in “ethics experts,” including, laughably, a representative of the wildly left-wing Citizens for Reform and Ethics in Washington (CREW), to say that Justice Thomas had committed a major transgression.[4] The house was purchased at the market rate for $133,363 (split between three co-owners) and the purpose, as Crow readily told ProPublica, was to turn the home into a museum, but that didn’t stop the “expert” ProPublica brought in from CREW from saying “Given the role Crow has played in subsidizing the lifestyle of Thomas and his wife, you have to wonder if this was an effort to put cash in their pockets.”

Next up, just as anti-Supreme Court sentiment was starting to fade, came “Clarence Thomas Had A Child in Private School. Harlan Crow Paid the Tuition.[5] This time, the story attempted to make a scandal out of Harlan Crow paying for one year of Justice Thomas’s nephew’s tuition at a school where Crow had been paying for scholarships for disadvantaged students since the 1980s.[6] Then came “Clarence Thomas’ 38 Vacations: The Other Billionaires Who Have Treated the Supreme Court Justice to Luxury Travel” which got the basic facts so egregiously wrong that a 30-minute tour of a yacht engine room was made out to be a full luxury vacation and a $65 ticket to a Nebraska Football game was represented as a $40,000 luxury year-round suite.[7]

ProPublica next targeted Justice Samuel Alito, whom ProPublica tried to smear with “Justice Samuel Alito Took Luxury Fishing Vacation With GOP Billionaire Who Later Had Cases Before the Court.[8] ProPublica again brought in “ethics experts” who claimed that Alito ought to have reported a fishing trip with businessmen Robin Arkley and Paul Singer in 2005 because he flew on Singer’s private jet for part of the trip. ProPublica was thoroughly humiliated for this “scoop.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board published a lengthy piece dissecting every element of the article.[9] The Judicial Conference was consulted and did not require disclosure, Justice Alito had talked about the trip in public in front of a full audience, Alito did not need to recuse himself from cases that were at most tangentially linked to Singer. The whole article was debunked, start to finish. Alito himself even made a rare public statement, telling readers that “ProPublica Misleads Its Readers” and fully explaining the non-scandal that so much was about to be made of.[10]

When that too failed to yield results, ProPublica returned to its favorite target. “A ‘Delicate Matter’: Clarence Thomas’ Private Complaints About Money Sparked Fears He Would Resign” told readers, at least in the headline, that Clarence Thomas had threatened to resign over gripes about his salary.[11] This time, the whole article was rebutted in record time. As Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review explained the day after ProPublica published the smear, “The four reporters on the story unearth not a solitary soul who claimed, even off the record, that Thomas had ever said he would resign without additional income.”[12] Ponnuru cleverly dubbed the piece “Journalism by Insinuation” while the Washington Examiner called it “overhyped and underwhelming” and pointed out that its publication coincided rather conveniently with the build-up of speculation about high-profile court cases that will no doubt make their way up to the Supreme Court.[13]

With the wind very much removed from its sails, the ProPublica series on the Supreme Court continues to fade from relevance as it focuses on more and more specious “scandals,” but a look underneath the hood suggests that ProPublica’s bad journalism might be uglier than it seems.

In the next installment, by cherry-picking facts and basing reports on insinuations ProPublica has crafted an egregiously one-sided narrative.


[1] Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski, “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire,” ProPublica, April 6, 2023, https://www.propublica.org/article/clarence-thomas-scotus-undisclosed-luxury-travel-gifts-crow.

[2] Mark Paoletta, “ProPublica Recycles Old Clarence Thomas News,” Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/propublica-recycles-old-clarence-thomas-news-trips-crow-judicial-conference-investigation-b9d23640.

[3] Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski, “Lawmakers Call for Investigation and Ethics Reforms in Response to ProPublica Report on Clarence Thomas,” ProPublica, April 6, 2023, https://www.propublica.org/article/clarence-thomas-scotus-harlan-crow-durbin-ethics-investigation.

[4] InfluenceWatch, “Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW),” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/citizens-for-responsibility-and-ethics-in-washington/.

[5] Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski, “Clarence Thomas Had a Child in Private School. Harlan Crow Paid the Tuition,” ProPublica, May 4, 2023, https://www.propublica.org/article/clarence-thomas-harlan-crow-private-school-tuition-scotus.

[6] Brianna Herlihy, “Friend Rips Media’s ‘Despicable’ Effort to ‘Smear’ Clarence Thomas for GOP Donors’ Payment to School,” Fox News, May 4, 2023, https://www.foxnews.com/politics/clarence-thomas-friend-speaks-against-despicable-story-revealing-gop-donor-paid-relatives-tuition.

[7] Brett Murphy and Alex Mierjeski, “Clarence Thomas’ 38 Vacations: The Other Billionaires Who Have Treated the Supreme Court Justice to Luxury Travel,” ProPublica, August 10, 2023, https://www.propublica.org/article/clarence-thomas-other-billionaires-sokol-huizenga-novelly-supreme-court; and Mark Paoletta, “What ProPublica’s Latest Hit Piece Gets Wrong,” Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-propublicas-latest-hit-piece-gets-wrong-justice-clarence-thomas-supreme-court-accusation-misinformation-truth-yacht-70292e84.

[8] Justin Elliott, Joshua Kaplan, and Alex Mierjeski, “Justice Samuel Alito Took Luxury Fishing Vacation with GOP Billionaire Who Later Had Cases Before the Court,” ProPublica, June 20, 2023, https://www.propublica.org/article/samuel-alito-luxury-fishing-trip-paul-singer-scotus-supreme-court.

[9] Editorial Board, “ProPublica’s Fishing Expedition for Justice Alito,” Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/justice-samuel-alito-propublica-fishing-trip-alaska-paul-singer-supreme-court-5f4bd925.

[10] Samuel A. Alito, “Justice Samuel Alito: ProPublica Misleads Its Readers,” Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/propublica-misleads-its-readers-alito-gifts-disclosure-alaska-singer-23b51eda?mod=opinion_lead_pos7&mod=article_inline.

[11] Justin Elliott, Joshua Kaplan, Alex Mierjeski, and Brett Murphy, “A ‘Delicate Matter’: Clarence Thomas’ Private Complaints About Money Sparked Fears He Would Resign,” ProPublica, December 18, 2023, https://www.propublica.org/article/clarence-thomas-money-complaints-sparked-resignation-fears-scotus.

[12] Ramesh Ponnuru, “ProPublica’s Journalism by Insinuation,” National Review, December 19, 2023, https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/propublicas-journalism-by-insinuation/.

[13] “The Far-Left Campaign to Undermine the Court,” Washington Examiner, December 22, 2023, http://web.archive.org/web/20231222050702/https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/editorials/the-far-left-campaign-to-undermine-the-court.

Parker Thayer

Parker Thayer is a Investigative Researcher at Capital Research Center. A native of Michigan, he recently graduated from Hillsdale College.
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