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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

How Will The Washington Post Handle This? Simple Corrections Won't Do it

Mainstream media giants like The Washington Post repeatedly claim to have layers and layers of editors and fact checkers to make sure only verified facts appear in the daily newspaper. This process is allegedly why MSMers are superior to bloggers in getting it first and getting it right.

But then along comes a big story like "Bloggers, Money Now Weapons in the Information War: U.S. Recruits Advocates to the Front; Pays Iraqi TV Stations for Coverage" by Jonathan Finer and Doug Struck, reporting from Baghdad earlier this week.

Finer and Struck are experienced journos but their reporting in this instance contains so many errors of basic fact that one has to wonder how on earth this example of their work made it into print.

Will the Post try to ascribe the Finer/Struck debacle to a complete breakdown in the newspaper's otherwise sterling editorial process that they simply cannot explain? Or will they admit they published a story that illustrates ideological blinders shaping the presentation of selected "facts" to create a pre-ordained conclusion in the reader's mind?

More likely, this story exemplifies some of the most characteristic and ultimately damaging flaws in the typical MSM newsroom. Whatever the explanation, the Post will have to go beyond mere corrections on this one.

Otherwise, it will be clear the editorial leadership is either not interested in making things right in their newsroom or refuse to see the seriousness of the problems illustrated by this article and how it points to their newspaper's continuing circulation decline.

Blogger Bill Roggio is a major focus of the Post story and he explains how many basic, easily verifiable facts were mis-stated by the newspaper. Note that getting facts as basic as these wrong is not uncommon with a recent J-school grad working on their first police beat story or obit, but not with a couple of veteran correspondents:

"There are several factual errors in this story, all of which could have been easily verified by direct questions to me, by reviewing my 'About' pages at either ThreatsWatch.org or The Fourth Rail, or by asking some questions within their own organization.
"I conducted an email interview with Mr. Finer from Iraq. This interview consisted of a single email exchange, and never once were the facts below addressed in any follow up questions. (Emphasis added)

"I am not a 'retired soldier,' as that would have required me to serve in the military for twenty plus years. I spent four years on active duty and two years in the National Guard. The article also indicates that I am currently in Iraq and embedded with the Marines in Western Anbar. I am not. I returned home on December 20th."

But wait, there are more errors:

"I was not credentialed by the American Enterprise Institute. This would be impossible as the needed press credentials must be provided by a media organization. A friend suggested I approach the American Enterprise Magazine, which is a periodical published by the American Enterprise Institute. We were unable to work out an agreement, so I searched for an alternative.
"Another friend suggested I contact The Weekly Standard. Richard Starr was happy to help and provided the necessary credentials to embed. Also, Rod Breakenridge of the Canadian talk radio show 'The World Tonight' kindly provided documentation for credentials as well. The two letters allowed me to successfully embed, and there were no questions about my credentials in Baghdad or elsewhere.
"The Weekly Standard or Mr. Breakenridge did not establish any preconditions for providing the credentials, nor did they fund my trip in any way. I wrote a single article for The Weekly Standard about Election Day in Barwana, and gave two phone interviews from Iraq to 'The World Tonight.'"


Even assuming the reporters have legitimate explanations for these rudimentary factual errors, where were the Post foreign desk editors after the story was filed? Did nobody there not know anything about the Pentagon's embedding process, despite the fact it has been around since 2002?

It should be noted that the Post is not typically where green rookie journalists begin their careers. By the time a reporter or desk editor is invited to work at the Post, he or she has typically spent perhaps as much as a decade compiling an impressive record of achievement in major city dailies and before that with medium and smaller circulation papers in other markets.

Put another way, one is supposed to have long since stopped making basic factual errors like these detailed by Roggio by the time your byline begins appearing in a distinguished MSM daily like the Post. This fact makes it extremely difficult to believe these errors appeared in the Post as a result of inexperience or as flukish deviations from systemic norms.

But amazingly Roggio goes on to detail more errors:

"In an email to Mr. Finer expressing my displeasure with being labeled a military information operation, Mr. Finer suggested I read the entire article. I assured him I did. The title and subtitle are not meaningless to the context of the article; it is implied I was a tool of the military, when in fact the military had no influence whatsoever in what I said from Iraq.
"The details of my embed are then followed with a discussion on military information operations, the Lincoln Group's activities in paying for positive articles to be published in Iraqi publications, and the military funding Iraqi radio stations.

"The implication is clear: a blogger embedding in Iraq must be part of a nefarious scheme by the military to influence the perceptions on Iraq.
"The truth is far more mundane. I wasn't paid a dime to report from Iraq by the Marines, nor was I influenced in any way in what I could or could not write about. I had full control over the where and when of my embeds. Never once was my work subject to the approval or review of the military. I wrote what I experienced, both the good and the bad."


Were it simply a matter of a poorly written headline and subhead, it might be possible to understand a reporter trying to turn away Roggio's critique, but the juxtaposition of the discussion of Roggio and the Lincoln Group angles is clearly an intentional equation by the reporters of the two elements as being analogous. That equation should never have gotten past the foreign desk editors.

Roggio also discusses how the Post reporters use of their straw man of DOD-controlled bloggers and flaks working in concert with al-Qaeda propaganda and disinformation campaigns is symptomatic of the disease of moral equivalence.

That disease blinds so many MSM journalists to the difference between a U.S. soldier defending Iraqi voters' right to cast ballots without being blown up and the Islamofascist rantings of a Zarqawi as he slices off an innocent American civilian's head.

How the Post's editorial leadership responds to Roggio's critique could become a positive turning point or it will reinforce the paper's decline. This is also an opportunity for Ombudsman Deborah Howell to make a positive mark. I know her to be a solid traditional journalist of integrity and I look forward to her assessment of the Finer/Struck story.

UPDATE:

Hugh Hewitt points to some interesting background info on Finer and wants to know if the Post reporter was "as much a cheap-shot artist" when he was embedded with the Marines as he now appears to be with the piece on Roggio.

UPDATE II:

Bill Quick thinks the Post went after Roggio because he represents the MSM's worst nightmare - a blogger who goes into the field and demonstrates bloggers can report as well or better than traditional MSMers.

"Until bloggers like Roggio raise money from their own readers, buy their own equipment, and go out and cover the news as well as, or better than, the mainstream media journalists do. And this is only the first, tiniest trickle of what will eventually become the wave that threatens the very foundations of the mainstream media itself.
The blogosphere has thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of willing potential reporters - many with closer ties, better connections, and more expertise on any given story that the mainstream media can possibly hope to bring to bear. This is an immense resource the blogosphere is still trying to figure out how best to make use of."


Exactly. Like I said, it took the auto industry nearly a century to get from Henry Ford's Model T to the Ford GT. With no disrespect meant for Roggio or Michael Yon, both are the Blogosphere's Model Ts of foreign reporting. Just think where the Blogosphere's reporting capabilities will be a few years down the road from today.

Bill has much more to say of the Post travesty and I encourage to read his whole post.

UPDATE III:

Actually, Francis Turner, the Brit under the shadow of the olive tree, thinks the Post was doing FUD.

HT: Instapundit.

UPDATE IV:

Radio Blogger has the full transcript of Roggio's interview with Hugh Hewitt. Among Roggio's many observations, this exchange strikes me as especially revealing:

"HH: Oh, and Bill, it's also...I meant to say this last hour, when Joshua Micah Marshall went up to cover the conventions last year, or the New Hampshire primary in 2004, I believe it was, he raised money to cover the trip. And it's fine. It's just how citizen journalism works. It's absolutely a model. But I have never seen anyone raise a question about that before The Washington Post story slamming you yesterday.
"BR: Yeah, it's astonishing. It's just a cheap tactic. I don't understand why people can't...I think the fact that what I tried to do...I think people find it very hard to believe that I have convictions, and I have the willingness to follow through. I mean, my job was in jeopardy. I made a...my family was very upset with me for going, until I explained to them the reasons why I went. It wasn't a very easy decision. I have three small...I have a five, a three, and a one year old at home."


Of course, TPM didn't invent the concept of reader-supported blogging. Remember the novelty when Andrew Sullivan started doing it?

UPDATE V:

Here's Andrew Kantor's response to Roggio, as indicated in the comments section of this post.