Monday, December 05, 2005

"Editor's note: See correction below"

Suppose an editorial page assailed the work of a journalist. Suppose said editorial page used this one journalist as a model to criticize the entire press corps, if such a cohesive entity could even exist. Further suppose that this is a matter concerning war; lives are at stake. How many sources would this claim necessitate? What sort of careful review would be ethically required before the presses roll? Here is the Wall Street Journal's editorial from Thursday:
This puts him ahead of a press corps that still focuses on past failures. In the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly, for example, James Fallows purports to explain "Why Iraq Has No Army." But the public affairs office of the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq (or "Min-sticky") says Mr. Fallows not only didn't visit but didn't even contact them while reporting the article or at anytime during at least the past nine months. (Editor's note: See correction below.)
The problem with this claim? It was completely in error and substantiated, so it seems, by one source in an informal manner. It would be an understatement to refer to this as sloppy journalism. The correction:
(Correction: Due to inaccurate information from a source, this editorial misstated information about James Fallows's reporting for his essay in the Atlantic Monthly, "Why Iraq Has No Army." While Mr. Fallows did not go to Iraq, as we reported correctly, he did interview U.S. military officers involved in training Iraqi forces by phone and email, including Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, then-head of the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq.)
The correction needs to be sliced and diced. The Journal ascribes blame to a source, and in doing so admits that there is only one source. In addition, the statement attempts to save face for the Journal at the expense of the truth. Initially, the Journal had Didn't-visit and Didn't-communicate in lock step. The correction tries to muddle the Journal's error, and sloppy journalism, by insisting that some of their report was correct.

The paragraph is structured as this: The press corps focuses on past failures. One example is this story. The Journal can assert this for reasons A and B.

B was incorrect, so the Journal's assertion was undermined. That should have been the extent of the correction.

Moreover, this should never have gone to print. Here are the present tense, or recent past tense, reportings from James Fallows' article:
"The current situation will NEVER allow for an effective ISF [Iraqi Security Force] to be created," a young Marine officer who will not let me use his name wrote in an e-mail after he returned from Iraq this summer. "We simply do not have enough people to train forces. If we shift personnel from security duties to training, we release newly trained ISF into ever-worsening environs."

"On the current course we will have two options," I was told by a Marine lieutenant colonel who had recently served in Iraq and who prefers to remain anonymous. "We can lose in Iraq and destroy our army, or we can just lose."

Time is the problem. As prospects have brightened inside the training program, they have darkened across the country. From generals to privates, every soldier I spoke with stressed that the military campaign would ultimately fail without political progress. If an army has no stable government to defend, even the best-trained troops will devolve into regional militias and warlord gangs. "I always call myself a qualified optimist, but the qualification is Iraqi leaders muddling through," one senior officer told me. "Certain activities are beyond Americans' control."

"There is still no sense of urgency," T. X. Hammes says. In August, he pointed out, the administration announced with pride that it had bought 200 new armored vehicles for use in Iraq. "Two-plus years into the war, and we're proud! Can you imagine if in March of 1944 we had proudly announced two hundred new vehicles?" By 1944 American factories had been retooled to produce 100,000 warplanes. "From the president on down there is no urgency at all."

A Marine lieutenant colonel said, "You tell me who in the White House devotes full time to winning this war." The answer seems to be Meghan O'Sullivan, a former Brookings scholar who is now the president's special assistant for Iraq. As best I can tell from Nexis, other online news sources, and the White House Web site, since taking the job, late last year, she has made no public speeches or statements about the war.

The United States will have to agree to stay in Iraq in another significant way. When U.S. policy changed from counting every Iraqi in uniform to judging how many whole units were ready to function, a triage decision was made. The Iraqis would not be trained anytime soon for the whole range of military functions; they would start with the most basic combat and security duties. The idea, as a former high-ranking administration official put it, was "We're building a spearhead, not the whole spear."
In addition to this, Seymour Hersh published a widely read and referenced article in the New Yorker last Monday. There was ample time for it to be read by the Wall Street Journal editorial board before they wrote this nonsense. Just one paragraph from this New Yorker story would indicate that the Spear versus Spearhead dichotomy will remain in the administration's plan:
"We’re not planning to diminish the war,” Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. Clawson’s views often mirror the thinking of the men and women around Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “We just want to change the mix of the forces doing the fighting—Iraqi infantry with American support and greater use of airpower. The rule now is to commit Iraqi forces into combat only in places where they are sure to win. The pace of commitment, and withdrawal, depends on their success in the battlefield.”
Here are two passages from Bob Steele, at Poynter, on journalist ethics:
Seek truth: "Inform yourself continuously so you in turn can inform, engage, and educate the public in a clear and compelling way on significant issues."

[And,] Minimize harm: Be compassionate for those affected by your actions.

Treat sources, subjects, and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect, not merely as means to your journalistic ends.

Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort, but balance those negatives by choosing alternatives that maximize your goal of truthtelling.
In the poor exercise of journalism, the Wall Street Journal has made the crucial evaluation of this war more difficult. No doubt, this untruthful reporting has been harmful, to James Fallows and the Atlantic. More importantly, harm has been done to the knowledge base that each American has to consider the merits of military action in Iraq. Truth is necessary in this debate. The Wall Street Journal did the least necessary action in issuing the correction. They have not, as of now, published the Atlantic's response (via NRO's The Corner):
To the Editor:
Your editorial about President Bush's speech latest speech on Iraq ("Complete Victory," Dec. 1) contains a false statement about an article on the effort to train Iraqi forces by our correspondent James Fallows ("Why Iraq Has No Army," Atlantic Monthly, December 2005). You said that according to the training organization, the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq, Fallows "didn't even contact them while reporting the article or at anytime during at least the past nine months."

That is untrue. Mr. Fallows had extensive email correspondence, starting last August, with the Public Affairs Officer for that organization, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Wellman, who arranged an interview with its commander, Lieutenant General Dave Petraeus, in September. Mr. Fallows spoke with General Petraeus by phone for more than an hour, and checked quotes from that interview via Lt. Col. Wellman before using them in his article.

He also interviewed one of Petraeus's deputies, Colonel John Martin, and had not-for-attribution discussions, via phone and email, with other members of the organization. As Mr. Fallows pointed out in his article, and as he has records to demonstrate, the Pentagon's press office turned down his requests to interview Major General Paul Eaton and others who had been involved in the training effort.

At no point before printing this false statement did you contact Mr. Fallows or me to determine whether what you intended to publish was true.

Cullen Murphy
Managing Editor
The Atlantic Monthly

2 Comments:

Blogger Ezzie said...

They did make a mistake - and it's been a week full of them for the usually spotless Journal (one example: they implied that the late Chanukah would affect holiday sales dramatically, which is crazy - Jews make up such a tiny fraction of the population, and those buying gifts would likely buy them when all the sales are anyway). However, they're still far better than the Times and other papers, who are forced to make huge corrections on a consistent basis: And that's just the ones they agree to.

1:29 AM  
Blogger copy editor said...

Many ed pages get stale on their skills and high on their opinions.

9:30 AM  

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