To trust a snitch

Web sites like The Smoking Gun may provide lots of information for the public, but they sometimes lack context to help sort the important from the frivolous, the bona fide from the dubious.

For instance, there is the Smoking Gun material posted before last year’s Teamsters presidential election. Two FBI documents, both decades old, label 1998 candidate James P. Hoffa as a former union bag man.

"What you are looking at is FBI documents, informant documents," says David Wallace, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and an expert on electronic archives. "Just because it is from the FBI does not make it true.

"When you go to an archive, you get a box of information and leaf through it in context with the other documents in the box," Wallace says. To understand the two separate pages mentioning Hoffa that The Smoking Gun presents, Wallace says, they need to be read in relation to other documents.

But Wallace is not entirely critical. "It’s like a double-edged sword," he says. "I think it’s great that these documents are available over the Web," even though they function largely as entertainment.

The Smoking Gun Web site introduction to the "Hoffa Jr." documents reads: "While we’re wishing him better luck than his MIA pappy, here are a couple of FBI information reports with unflattering references to Junior."

One page, pocked by magic marker deletions and citing an unnamed source, mentions Hoffa delivering $300,000 cash in a black valise to an unspecified party at a Washington hotel in an effort to get his father, Jimmy Hoffa, out of prison; the name of the supposed recipient is one of the deletions. (President Richard Nixon commuted Jimmy Hoffa’s sentence for jury tampering in 1971 after the elder Hoffa had spent three years behind bars.)

A second page is attributed to "a source who has furnished information of unknown value in the past." Referring to International Brotherhood of Teamsters locals, it reads: "Detroit IBT Locals 299 and 283 have several captains and lieutenants in the Detroit police force on the payroll. This is to insure the union members are not hassled with tickets (parking or moving violations) as well as no police interference in strikes or any union ‘strong-arm’ actions against employees or dissident members. Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. is one of the principle fixers or bag men for the union locals in Detroit."

Wallace says that the reader has to rely on an FBI informant without knowing how to judge what is being reported. According to The Smoking Gun, the informant is the late Jackie Presser, acknowledged as a longtime FBI source, and who ran into his own problems with the law as Teamsters president.

One person who may not find the Hoffa documents entertaining is James P. Hoffa who did not return calls from the Metro Times for comment.

"On the one hand this is the future of archives, to make material available on the Web to all kinds of people," says Wallace. "This is clearly where the archive profession should be moving and it’s sites like this that could show what is wrong with what’s out there."

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