Archive for the ‘original reporting’ Tag

“America Under the Gun”: Our award-winning investigation

Proud to share some exciting news: The investigation into mass shootings that I’ve led at Mother Jones has recently been honored with multiple journalism awards: the 2013 Izzy Award, a Society of Professional Journalists award for reporting excellence, and an Online Journalism Award.

AmericaUndertheGun
You can read my series of stories from the project and explore all of our data, charts, maps, and additional coverage on MoJo’s special report page.

Conflicting tales of killing bin Laden

[This post has been revised and expanded several times since initial publication; see updates below.]

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to be still scratching your head about the end of Osama bin Laden. Between the Obama administration and major US media, the story of the Navy SEALs’ mission in Abbottabad has never seemed quite straight, tilting toward the political or fantastical more than the cohesive. In some respects that’s unsurprising for one of the most important and highly classified military missions in modern memory — one whose outcome, many would argue, is all that really matters. But as America prepares to reflect on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it’s worth considering how the tales have been told, and where history begins to bleed into mythology. After several months of revised accounts and inside scoops, we still have a conspicuously muddled picture of bin Laden’s killing.

Lots of praise flowed earlier this month for Nicholas Schmidle’s riveting account in the New Yorker of the SEALs’ raid on bin Laden’s compound. It added many vivid details to what was publicly known about the killing of America’s arch-nemesis that fateful morning in early May. But Schmidle’s exquisitely crafted reconstruction also contradicted previous reporting elsewhere, and sparked some intriguing questions of its own.

It underscored what we still don’t really know about the operation. Schmidle’s depiction of the tense scene in the White House Situation Room, as President Obama and his top advisers monitored the action with the help of a military drone, included a notable refutation. The SEALs converged at the ground floor of bin Laden’s house and began to enter, Schmidle reported, but:

What happened next is not precisely clear. “I can tell you that there was a time period of almost twenty to twenty-five minutes where we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on,” [CIA chief Leon] Panetta said later, on “PBS NewsHour.” Until this moment, the operation had been monitored by dozens of defense, intelligence, and Administration officials watching the drone’s video feed. The SEALs were not wearing helmet cams, contrary to a widely cited report by CBS.

Schmidle was referring to a May 12 story by veteran CBS News national security correspondent David Martin headlined, “SEAL helmet cams recorded entire bin Laden raid.

The contradiction has big implications. Martin’s own story was in part a response to the famously mutating account from the Obama White House in the days following the mission. The administration had attributed its multiple revisions to “the fog of war” after backtracking from claims that bin Laden had engaged the SEALs in a firefight and used his wife as a human shield. Martin’s piece stated he was putting forth “a new picture of what really happened” in Abbottabad; he reported that “the 40 minutes it took to kill bin Laden and scoop his archives into garbage bags were all recorded by tiny helmet cameras worn by each of the 25 SEALs. Officials reviewing those videos are still reconstructing a more accurate version of what happened.”

Such footage obviously could go a long way toward a precise account. According to Schmidle’s New Yorker piece, though, it doesn’t exist.

There are other glaring discrepancies between the New Yorker and CBS News reports concerning the climax of the raid. In Schmidle’s version, the encounter involved two of bin Laden’s wives, and one SEAL firing the kill shots:

The Americans hurried toward the bedroom door. The first SEAL pushed it open. Two of bin Laden’s wives had placed themselves in front of him. Amal al-Fatah, bin Laden’s fifth wife, was screaming in Arabic. She motioned as if she were going to charge; the SEAL lowered his sights and shot her once, in the calf. Fearing that one or both women were wearing suicide jackets, he stepped forward, wrapped them in a bear hug, and drove them aside….

A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed…. Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye.

But in Martin’s version, the encounter involved bin Laden’s “daughters” as well as one of his wives — and not one, but two SEALs firing the kill shots:

The SEALs first saw bin Laden when he came out on the third floor landing. They fired, but missed. He retreated to his bedroom, and the first SEAL through the door grabbed bin Laden’s daughters and pulled them aside.

When the second SEAL entered, bin Laden’s wife rushed forward at him — or perhaps was pushed by bin Laden. The SEAL shoved her aside and shot bin Laden in the chest. A third seal shot him in the head.

What’s going on here? Martin’s piece for CBS aired nearly two weeks after the raid; presumably the US government had its story straight by then. (The Guardian’s roundup of White House revisions linked above was published on May 4.) Martin provides scant information about his sourcing. If his piece has turned out to contain inaccuracies, to date CBS News has given no indication.

It is also possible that Schmidle’s piece contains inaccuracies, although it is more deeply reported and goes further in describing its sources. They include Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, and perhaps most significantly, “a special-operations officer deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid.”

Still, Schmidle wasn’t able to interview any of the Navy SEALs directly involved in the mission, despite that his piece seemed to suggest he had. Instead, Schmidle told the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, he relied on the accounts of others who had debriefed the men.

Schmidle wrote conspicuously of the SEALs’ perspective during the raid: “None of them had any previous knowledge of the house’s floor plan, and they were further jostled by the awareness that they were possibly minutes away from ending the costliest manhunt in American history; as a result, some of their recollections — on which this account is based — may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.”

From fraught US-Pakistan relations to conspiracy theories to partisan politics, it’s an understatement to say that there is keen interest in knowing exactly how the killing of bin Laden went down. Faulty reporting may be to blame for standing in the way. Alternatively, the mind doesn’t require much bending to imagine why military, CIA or White House officials might have been happy at various turns to help muddle the story. A certain degree of imprecision or misdirection can serve the side of secrecy. Perhaps at a time when the White House declined, amid much clamor, to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse, it was useful to let the world know that it also had video footage of the whole operation. Perhaps at some later point it was useful to quash the idea that the US government had lots of raw footage with which it might address questions about the circumstances and legality of bin Laden’s killing.

Whatever the case, one of two stories from major American media outlets is flat-out wrong on a significant piece of information about the raid. (As well as on some other details, it seems.) It may be that a precise account of the historic military mission will elude us for a long time, just as its target so famously did.

How many SEALs? (Update, Aug. 4)
Looking back over the CBS News piece again, I spotted another discrepancy: Martin reported that 25 SEALs stormed bin Laden’s compound; Schmidle’s New Yorker piece says there were 23 SEALs directly in on the raid. (Plus a Pakistani-American translator and a now legendary Belgian Malinois.)

Also, it’s worth noting how central the helmet cam information was to Martin’s story; the video version of it opened with a “CBS news animation” showing them:

I’ve also now filed an error report about this at MediaBugs, seeking a response from CBS News. I don’t have enough information to know whether their story is inaccurate, but it seems fair to say that the overall picture here suggests the onus is on CBS to corroborate their story.

Lack of disclosure (Update 2, Aug. 4)
In a guest post at Registan.net, Georgetown professor C. Christine Fair raises some provocative questions about Schmidle’s New Yorker piece, including about its sourcing. She is not the only one rebuking the magazine for failing to disclose clearly that Schmidle did not talk to any of the SEALs who raided the bin Laden compound. (That lack of disclosure apparently prompted an error and correction on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”) Fair wonders about how certain details in the story, and the fact that Schmidle’s father is the deputy commander of the US Cyber Command, might play across the Muslim world. Though I don’t necessarily share her conclusions, the post is interesting and worth a read.

“An administration puff piece” (Update 3, Aug. 10)
Marcy Wheeler has a rundown on Schmidle’s sourcing. She suggests that Obama senior advisers Brennan and Rhodes may have served as anonymous sources for the piece as well as named ones. (Not an uncommon practice in the journalism field, in my experience.) Thus, she argues, Schmidle’s piece deserves greater scrutiny in light of the “war on leaks” conducted under Obama. “This story is so thinly veiled an administration puff piece,” Wheeler says, “it ought to attract as much attention for the sheer hypocrisy about secrecy it demonstrates as it will for the heroism such hypocrisy attempts to portray.”

A Hollywood conspiracy (Update 4, Aug. 11)
Rep. Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has called for an investigation into alleged collaboration between the Obama administration and filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (of “The Hurt Locker” fame) for a forthcoming movie about the bin Laden takedown. Reportedly due for release in October 2012, just before the next presidential election, the movie project “belies a desire of transparency in favor of a cinematographic view of history,” according to King. The White House says King’s take is “ridiculous.” The story here seems to be opposition party politics layered on top of presidential politics layered on top of a Hollywood production — with the finer facts of bin Laden’s demise buried somewhere beneath.

Seeking clarification (Update 5, Aug. 15)
I’ve reached out to Nicholas Schmidle by email asking if he can offer any additional information regarding the helmet cam issue. (His New Yorker piece says nothing about his sourcing on that particular point.) I’ve also contacted CBS News about it and am in the process of looking for a more direct way to reach David Martin.

More details that don’t add up (Update 6, Aug. 26)
For more on this story, read my piece over at Mother Jones, which includes further examples of conflicting details from news reports on the bin Laden mission.

The case of the New York Times’ terror error

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it isn’t hard to recall the politically fraught case of the 20-year-old bearded kid captured by US soldiers in Afghanistan in late 2001. But think the media got the whole story right on the so-called American Taliban?

Think again: Nearly a decade later, a rather extraordinary meltdown occurred during a recent San Francisco radio show focused on the case of John Walker Lindh. It happened thanks to 14 erroneous words printed in the New York Times in July 2002. My MediaBugs partner Scott Rosenberg and I just published a long piece in The Atlantic that traces the tale and explains its profound implications for news accuracy in the digital age. Here’s how it begins:

***

It is hard to describe the interview that took place on KQED’s Forum show on May 25, 2011, as anything other than a train wreck.

Osama bin Laden was dead, and Frank Lindh — father of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” — had been invited on to discuss a New York Times op-ed piece he’d just published about his son’s 20-year prison sentence. The moment host Dave Iverson completed his introduction about the politically and emotionally charged case, Lindh cut in: “Can I add a really important correction to what you just said?”

Iverson had just described John Walker Lindh’s 2002 guilty plea as “one count of providing services to a terrorist organization.” That, Frank Lindh said, was simply wrong.

Yes, his son had pled guilty to providing services to the Taliban, in whose army he had enlisted. Doing so was a crime because the Taliban government was under U.S. economic sanctions for harboring Al Qaeda. But the Taliban was not (and has never been) classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization itself.

This distinction might seem picayune. But it cut to the heart of the disagreement between Americans who have viewed John Walker Lindh as a traitor and a terrorist and those, like his father, who believe he was a fervent Muslim who never intended to take up arms against his own country.

That morning, the clash over this one fact set host and guest on a collision course for the remainder of the 30-minute interview. The next day, KQED ran a half-hour Forum segment apologizing for the mess and picking over its own mistakes.

KQED’s on-air fiasco didn’t happen randomly or spontaneously. The collision was set in motion nine years before by 14 erroneous words in the New York Times.

This is the story of how that error was made, why it mattered, why it hasn’t been properly corrected to this day — and what lessons it offers about how newsroom traditions of verification and correction must evolve in the digital age.

***

Read the whole thing here in The Atlantic. We reexamined the complicated Lindh case and conducted interviews with Frank Lindh, reporters and editors at the New York Times and KQED, and experts on media accuracy to get to the bottom of what turned out to be a fascinating case study.

Bonus link: Apparently the New York Times is not the only major news outlet with a Lindh error lurking in its digital archive.

John Yoo’s faulty Bin Laden conspiracy theory

John Yoo is someone who knows how to push an argument. At the U.S. Justice Department he designed rationales for the most controversial policies of the Bush-Cheney “war on terror,” and since then he has promoted right-wing political views in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. Yoo must also know that an argument, however unyielding, quickly goes limp when it gets basic facts wrong.

If so, he hasn’t bothered to address a key problem with his recent Op-Ed trashing President Obama for the killing of Osama bin Laden. His misrepresentation of the CIA’s role, flagged in a MediaBugs error report, undermines Yoo’s most audacious critique of the president.

What was hailed across the press and party lines as Obama’s “gutsy” call to send in the Navy Seals, Yoo regarded as a botched opportunity. He suggested that the U.S. might have taken bin Laden alive. “If true, one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands,” Yoo wrote in the Journal.

That was just part of how he reiterated the case for the Bush administration’s brutal interrogations of terrorist suspects. Yoo further argued that Obama wanted bin Laden not dead or alive, but just dead — because taking him prisoner would have required Obama “to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay, something that has given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure.”

Here’s the problem: Yoo’s argument hangs on a faulty summation of the intelligence trail that brought the Navy Seals to Abbottabad. From Yoo’s perspective, as the U.S. closed in on the compound “the CIA became certain that the al Qaeda leader was hiding inside.”

That doesn’t square with planning and operational details made public by top Obama officials and the president himself. As many news outlets have reported, Obama had to calculate his risky decision based on uncertain evidence of bin Laden’s whereabouts. According to CIA director Leon Panetta, analysts were only 60 to 80 percent confident bin Laden would be found in the compound. “We never had direct evidence that he in fact had ever been there or was located there,” Panetta said. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said Obama made his move based on “what was probably a 50-50 chance that Osama bin Laden was there.” The president himself said on “60 Minutes” that “there was no direct evidence” of bin Laden’s presence.

If Yoo and the editors of the Wall Street Journal know something about the bin Laden operation the rest of don’t, they should share it. Otherwise, they should correct the record.

In a recent conversation about news accuracy, a senior editor at the New York Times told me that its opinion writers tend to get more leeway than its news reporters do when it comes to drawing context. Still, he said that when an opinion writer has clearly gotten a fact wrong “you have to correct it.”

We agree. The question is, does the Wall Street Journal? We may not get an answer to that; thus far the Journal has been unresponsive to inquiries about Yoo’s piece, and its newsroom has proven inaccessible on such matters in prior cases.

It’s unsurprising to see Yoo argue for the notorious interrogation policies he helped craft. (Or for more credit for bin Laden’s demise to go to the president he worked for.) But his implication that Obama — armed with full-proof intelligence — intended from the get-go to bury bin Laden at sea just so he wouldn’t have to decide whether to waterboard him looks foolish in the face of widely reported facts. Meanwhile, the Times has since reported that the White House had two teams of specialists ready for action during the mission: “One to bury Bin Laden if he was killed, and a second composed of lawyers, interrogators and translators in case he was captured alive.”

As of this writing, MediaBugs’ multiple emails to Yoo and the Wall Street Journal have gotten no response and Yoo’s piece remains as it was first published.

[Cross-posted from the MediaBugs blog.]

UPDATED: A couple of interesting comments over at the MediaBugs blog.

UPDATED, 5/16/11: In the Washington Post today, Greg Sargent reports about a “private letter” from Leon Panetta to John McCain strongly making the case that interrogation by torture was not instrumental in tracking down Osama bin Laden.

The Panetta letter reveals further problems with Yoo’s piece, in which Yoo claimed: “CIA interrogators gathered the initial information that ultimately led to bin Laden’s death. The United States located al Qaeda’s leader by learning the identity of a trusted courier from the tough interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, and his successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi.”

But according to Panetta’s letter: “We first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002.”

Panetta continued: “It is also important to note that some detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false or misleading information about the facilitator/courier. … In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.”

UPDATED, 5/23/11: And now Yoo’s polemic in the Wall Street Journal has been further discredited by reporting in… the Wall Street Journal. In March, according to the Journal, Defense Secretary Bob Gates also felt explicit uncertainty about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad (emphasis mine):

The B-2 plan had many supporters, particularly among military brass. A bombing would provide certainty that the compound’s residents would be killed, and it posed less risk to U.S. personnel. At the time, Mr. Gates, the defense secretary, was skeptical of the intelligence case that bin Laden was at the compound.

As late as April 28 — just three days before the raid — Gates still worried about it. Obama convened his top national security advisers in the White House Situation Room. “Only at that meeting,” reports the Journal, “did Mr. Gates come around to fully endorsing the operation, because of his skepticism of the intelligence indicating bin Laden was there.”

Vancouver’s bold war on drugs

For many years Vancouver has had a serious heroin addiction. So it’s heartening to see that one of the city’s boldest strategies for confronting the problem, launched eight years ago, is continuing to meet with serious success: Vancouver’s government-backed “supervised injection site” — the first of its kind in North America — has helped reduce the number of fatal drug overdoses in the city by 35 percent, according to a new scientific report detailed in the Vancouver Sun.

The news is gratifying for me personally, having invested deeply in the issue with a reporting project I did for Salon beginning in 2003. (My initial story from Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside — a neighborhood much changed these days, particularly since the 2010 Winter Games — is linked above.) Reporting another piece in 2006, one of the most striking things I found was that early results from Insite, as it’s called, had already converted some hardcore conservatives. Then city councilor George Chow — who had campaigned vigorously against the injection site when running for office — told me in fall 2006 that conservatives’ ideological fears had been misguided. They had declared that a government-sponsored facility for helping drug users shoot up would only breed more chaos.

“After three years that has not happened, even with an increase in the homeless,” Chow told me then. “Without this facility the drug problem would have been far more out of control. There would be an even bigger problem with HIV transmission and other issues.”

As I wrote at the time, research showed that Insite had also helped sharply reduce the sharing of dirty needles among street addicts and increased their entry into detox and addiction treatment programs. Supporters of Insite believed that the facility’s success would prove a beachhead for a less punitive and more humane war on drugs extending across Canada, and perhaps even to drug-troubled cities south of the Canadian border. Chow himself suggested that Toronto and Montreal, as well as U.S. cities with similar problems, should consider the policy already working so effectively in his own neighborhood.

Now, he and Insite’s other supporters can point not only to a reduction in fatal overdoses but also to a rigorous research report making that same recommendation. The report was published Sunday, as the Vancouver Sun noted, in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet:

The report, compiled by Canadian scientists from the Urban Health Research Initiative, the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and St. Paul’s Hospital, goes on to argue that Vancouver’s Insite — the country’s first safe-injection facility — should be replicated in other North American cities where drug use is a common problem. …

In a column accompanying the report, Dr. Chris Beyrer, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, commended the facility’s work in helping drug abusers. “Supervised injection facilities clearly have an important part to play in communities affected by drug use. They should be expanded to other affected sites in Canada, on the basis of the life-saving effects identified in Vancouver,” he wrote.

Maybe city leaders in Baltimore, San Francisco and New York City will finally take notice, too. For a deeper dive into Vancouver’s acute hard-drug crisis, and Insite’s role in helping contend with it, read this piece.

How USA Today tiptoed away from the GE tax hoax

Last Wednesday, USA Today editor Doug Stanglin reported about the Associated Press’s hugely embarrassing misfire-of-a-story on General Electric. In a blog post headlined “AP falls for prank report that GE is giving back a $3.2B tax refund,” Stanglin quoted from AP’s correction, included the full text of the retracted AP story on GE, and cited a report from Reuters about the activists behind the hoax.

It was a thorough rundown except for one thing: USA Today had also fallen for the prank report. The fact that it ran the bogus story from AP, and later removed it from USAToday.com, did not make it into Stanglin’s blog post. Why not?

Many news outlets run wire stories using an automated feed of some kind. Given the speed and volume of the content it’s easy to see how mistakes or problems could be missed — and whether news sites should be responsible for corrections to erroneous wire stories they’ve run has been an open question, as we noted in this recent error report at MediaBugs.

But when a news outlet makes the effort to report on another outlet’s high-profile bungle — and fails to mention its own participation — readers are bound to wonder why.

If you searched for the bogus GE tax story on Google News on Wednesday, you would have seen that USA Today ran with it:

Or, if you were one of USA Today Money’s more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, you might’ve seen it there (or via one of the many people who retweeted it):

Many people quickly took notice of USA Today’s publication of the story, including the pranksters themselves. But later on Wednesday if you clicked on the link to that story, you arrived on a USA Today page simply telling you that it had been removed:

In other words, between the link to the retracted story (later on filled in with AP’s correction) and Stanglin’s blog post, USA Today essentially provided no record on its site that it played a part in spreading some majorly wrong “news.” Nor was there any mention on USA Today’s corrections page, despite the high-profile nature of the mistake, which had real consequences. (GE’s stock price dropped significantly on the fake news.)

If the AP’s blunder had been headed for USA Today’s print pages, it would have been caught and not published — but even in the unlikely event that it had been published, you can be sure the paper would have run a correction notice in a subsequent edition. Online publishing makes it easier to cause embarrassing errors to disappear, but it doesn’t remove any of a publisher’s responsibility to own up to and correct them.

MediaBugs reached out by email to both Stanglin and standards editor Brent Jones to find out why USA Today handled things the way they did. Both responded quickly and cordially, with a definitive explanation on Friday morning from Jones:

USA TODAY’s newsroom practice is to be forthright and transparent when setting the record straight. We responded to reader inquiries and published a correction on Twitter, but we should have included that we published the AP’s story when reporting on the GE tax hoax. To clarify with our readers, website editors have since updated our blog posting, posted a note on our corrections/clarifications blog and the AP’s corrected report.

It’s good that USA Today had put the word out on Twitter, and we applaud them for addressing the problem thoroughly on their site pages in response to our inquiry. (You can now see those updates here, here, and here.) Also worth noting is that USA Today’s accessibility and corrections practices put them at the front of the pack of U.S. media. Even so, in this case they needed external prodding to do the right thing.

Perhaps the online medium makes it easier to stumble in this way. It’s simple enough to unpublish something and just move on — and far too many news sites still lack a clear process for tracking and rectifying their mistakes. There may also be an increasing tendency, navigating today’s ephemeral sea of news, to shrug off responsibility for nonproprietary content. Wire stories, blog posts and tweets seem at once to come from everywhere and nowhere. That’s precisely why this case is instructive.

It’s simply not possible to walk away from the kind of goof USA Today indirectly made. Social media, search engines and other tools will capture it. As more and more content is syndicated, aggregated or borrowed (with or without permission), newsrooms may feel they are less responsible for its accuracy. But in an era of deep distrust of the media, the opposite has to be true. When a news site chooses to repeat someone else’s report it shoulders new accountability along with it — including a duty to correct errors, thoroughly and forthrightly, before they get compounded further.

[Cross-posted from the MediaBugs blog.]

Juan Williams, Fox News and how to fix a flagrant error

Back in late February, Fox News columnist Juan Williams wrote a scathing piece about racial prejudice in the media. Exhibit A was the Washington Post’s coverage of a poll showing that African Americans and Latinos are optimistic about the economy. The Post, Williams charged, had “buried” this good news because it didn’t fit with the bleak racial stereotypes typically found on the front pages of “the big, white press.”

Since it turns out that the Post actually had splashed the upbeat poll story all over its Sunday front page and its website, the “entire premise” of Williams’ column, as a reader reported at MediaBugs, was flat-out wrong.

At MediaBugs we did what we do in this situation, which is to try to get a response from the media outlet behind the piece in question. Yet, despite multiple attempts on our part to alert Williams and Fox News to the problem, they failed to respond or correct the blunder for weeks.

On Tuesday, Fox finally posted an editor’s note on the piece:

EDITOR’S NOTE: The results of the poll referred to in this article were in fact reported on the front page of the Feb. 20 editions of the Washington Post. Mr. Williams regrets the oversight to the Post, and maintains the study’s findings deserved more prominent coverage in other media outlets.

The good news here is that Williams and Fox finally took responsibility for the mistake. Bravo! We mean it.

Nonetheless, it’s just possible that Williams and Fox might someday make another mistake. And since MediaBugs has published a set of best practices for error reporting and corrections, we thought we would offer a few suggestions should they ever find themselves in this position again:

  • Don’t wait a month and a half to fix an error, especially when it’s a flagrant one. If you can’t respond in short order, at least acknowledge inquiries on the matter and let folks know you’re looking into it.
  • Try not to mince words. Call an error an “error” and a correction a “correction.” Readers can probably surmise the meaning of “Mr. Williams regrets the oversight to the Post.” But it’s classier not to downplay a mistake while you’re in mid-regret.
  • Don’t use a correction to reiterate an argument. Williams certainly is free to wish that other outlets such as the New York Times had covered the Post poll — though, veteran that he is, he must know that most media companies rarely give big play to their competitor’s surveys. But when you’ve reported as fact something that hundreds of thousands of newspaper and online readers know to be false, your mea culpa is not the right place to declare “I was right anyway!” Write another column if you must.
  • Give your audience a clear and easy way to alert you when you’ve gone astray. If your “Email Newsroom” link leads the public into a brick wall, and they’ll have to spend weeks chasing down other ways to try getting your attention, you can safely conclude that your status quo is ineffective.

A really good start, in fact, would be to publish any kind of corrections page and policy on your website.

[Cross-posted from the PBS MediaShift blog.]

Juan Williams misplays the race card

In a Feb. 24 column on FoxNews.com, Juan Williams rebuked the Washington Post for downplaying a poll measuring the views of blacks and Latinos on the recession. The poll, which the Post itself helped produce, showed those groups were more optimistic than whites about the U.S. economy despite being hit harder in the downturn. According to Williams, the Post’s poll coverage “did not make its front page” but instead was “buried” in the business section. This was typical, Williams said, of “big media’s inability to report on good news when it comes to life among people of color.”

The purpose of the column was to mount a case against unjust media, with the Post’s deficient poll coverage as Exhibit A. Williams worked his way up to a racially fraught finish:

If there is a story about black poverty, police brutality or a drug-related shooting spree in a Hispanic neighborhood, the big papers will feature it with Page One coverage. Those stories fit old racial stereotypes. And lots of old line civil rights groups and liberal cocktail party people will applaud those papers for any story about racial minorities’ complaints about life in America or stories confirming that life is bad, unjust and oppressive for people of color.

But when there is good news on race relations and refreshing evidence of blacks and Latinos leading the way by showing faith in America’s future, the big media is just not that into it.

That patronizing attitude amounts to prejudice. It is condescending and says more about the old racial attitudes holding back the big, white press than any racism holding back blacks and Latinos in modern America.

There’s one little problem with Williams’ complaint: The Washington Post hardly buried its poll. In fact, as an error report at MediaBugs details, it ran an in-depth story about its findings on the front page of the Sunday, Feb. 20 print edition — replete with a large, sunny photo illustration and oversized headline. The Post also produced an extensive multimedia package around the story on its website.

In other words, as the person who submitted the error report put it, “the entire premise of his column was incorrect.”

Williams’ blunder isn’t just embarrassing for how carelessly he flogged his apparently predetermined argument. (How could he have missed the striking A1 spread or multimedia Web package? Did he stop reading the Post altogether despite having worked there himself for more than two decades?) Equally undignified is that Williams and Fox News have ignored attempts by the public to alert them to the problem and get the record corrected.

For our part, MediaBugs tried multiple times to contact Fox News via email and Twitter since March 15. The generic address provided with FoxNews.com’s “Email Newsroom” link (newsmanager@foxnews.com) apparently isn’t effective. We have yet to get any response.

The lack of one may in part be due to the fact that Fox News has no accessible corrections info or content on its website, as we reported in our recently published study of online corrections practices across U.S. media. The news honchos at Fox might consider an approach more like the one at NPR, where Williams recently was ousted for a different prejudicial tangle. Fox may regard its newsroom as “fair and balanced” — but apparently it’s also totally inaccessible to an audience concerned with factual accuracy.

There’s some chance, once this post circulates, that Williams and Fox News will take notice of some unflattering attention and fix the piece. Better late than never. With our work at MediaBugs we’ve seen more than one case in which a long chase and critical coverage have proven necessary to motivate a response.

In the flourishing age of interactive news, it shouldn’t have to be that way. Terrific tools already exist for better communication and greater transparency. Perhaps only ideology, or just plain laziness, now stands in the way.

[Cross-posted from the MediaBugs blog.]

Lara Logan story botched by LA Weekly

On February 15th the LA Weekly published a post by Simone Wilson under the headline “Lara Logan, CBS Reporter and War Zone ‘It Girl,’ Raped Repeatedly Amid Egypt Celebration.” The opening paragraph stated that Logan had been “brutally and repeatedly raped” — with that phrase emphasized in bold type.

The LA Weekly apparently got the story wrong. Logan had suffered a horrifying sexual assault while working in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, disturbing details of which came to light in subsequent media coverage. But according to reporting from three different news outlets — The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and IOL News of South Africa (Logan’s native country) — Logan was not raped. Those articles were cited in a MediaBugs error report posted last week by Tracy Clark-Flory, a journalist who covers women’s issues. (Disclosure: Clark-Flory is a friend and former colleague of mine at Salon.) Since the report was posted, MediaBugs sent three emails to LA Weekly editors seeking a response. We’ve received none.

It’s understandable how a news organization might have made this kind of mistake; while many initial reports about Logan’s attack adhered to a statement from CBS News describing “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating,” LA Weekly wasn’t the only outlet to make the leap to “rape.” (See Jen Phillips’ post on MotherJones.com for more on this.)

Still, it’s troubling that more than three weeks later the LA Weekly has not posted a correction on its piece, or explained why it believes no correction is warranted. To say that accuracy is important to a news organization’s credibility is stating the obvious — but it seems particularly crucial when public understanding is distorted around a story as emotionally and politically fraught as Logan’s.

Here’s one small anecdote showing why. Last weekend I described the issue to a friend who is well-read on current events. He said that he’d seen the LA Weekly piece, among others. When I told him that Logan apparently had not been raped, he was surprised — he’d understood that to be a central fact of the story.

The LA Weekly’s silence on the matter could in part be due to the withering criticism it came under for Wilson’s piece, which ran with a curvaceous photo of Logan and used various sexualized descriptions of her, including “firecracker” and “gutsy stunner.” Newsrooms tend to circle the wagons when under attack.

That uproar, ultimately, was a matter of editorial judgment and (brutally bad) taste, one that LA Weekly editors may or may not choose to address at some point. (Wilson did so, to some degree, in an update to her post on Feb. 16.)

But this issue is more straightforward. By not addressing the apparent factual mistakes brought to its attention, the LA Weekly not only damages its reputation but also does a disservice to Logan’s story, which has cast a powerful light on a previously underreported problem faced by female journalists. The uncorrected errors take a piece that already comes across as insensitive and make it seem irresponsible, too.

[Note: This post first appeared on PBS.org’s MediaShift blog.]

UPDATED: It seemed worthwhile to include this subsequent exchange I had with an anonymous reader in the PBS MediaShift comments thread:

Anonymous: “I agree with you for the most part, however… no named source has yet contradicted their account. It could be that Lara was raped. We still don’t know.”

My reply: “True, the details of what happened still aren’t entirely clear. But since all the evidence we do have points to Logan not being raped, reasonable readers have a right to raise questions — and they deserve an answer from the LA Weekly. Perhaps the Weekly knows something it hasn’t shared, though the piece appeared to include no original reporting and that seems unlikely. Regardless, if the public raises legitimate questions the onus is on the newsroom to support — or correct — its account.”

UPDATED, 3/15/11: LA weekly has since posted a correction notice stating that it “erroneously interpreted CBS’ report of what happened to Logan on February 11, 2011.”

As of this update the original article’s headline and repeated references to “rape” in the text remain unchanged.

For additional details, see the updated mediabug.

Hacking the Middle East

Simplistic pronouncements about the role of social media in stirring uprisings and toppling dictators have by now, thankfully, seemed to die down. That Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital tools have been important to the historic upheaval in the Middle East is an unimpeachable fact. And a closer look at how those tools played a part is more than just interesting — it may offer clues to major social and political movements of the future.

A gathering last week in San Francisco organized by Hacks/Hackers and HackDemocracy showcased some illuminating work on the subject. Stanford computer scientist Rio Akasaka shared an animation he made showing worldwide Twitter activity from Feb. 7 to 14 that used the hashtag #Egypt. Unsurprisingly, the United States and Europe figure most prominently in the dynamic constellation, but there was also a climactic surge across the Middle East, South Asia and South America as news spread on Feb. 11 that Hosni Mubarak no longer held power:

Each dot on the map, Akasaka said, represents a single tweet; at the peak of activity for #Egypt, he said, there were as many as 6,000 per minute.

After the Mubarak regime all but shut down the Internet in Egypt at the end of January, activists moved to work around the technological assault. Egyptians relied even more on mobile phones to connect to the outer world, said Ahmed Shihab-Eldin of Al Jazeera English, in some cases texting and emailing trusted contacts elsewhere in the Middle East or Europe who would disseminate the info via Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Meanwhile, Google and Twitter joined forces to launch speak2tweet, a service that helped Egyptian citizens keep information flowing online by way of voicemails.

Egyptian-born technology entrepreneur Amir Khella said that the R.N.N news hub on Facebook, which reportedly saw a veritable explosion of page views in late January, was the best “hack” he’d seen among any related to the revolution. The R.N.N page pulled together information via text messages, phone calls and emails from people witnessing various events on the ground. R.N.N would crosscheck multiple reports from the same approximate time and location, Khella said, in order to separate fact from rumor. (Who exactly is behind R.N.N remains unclear, he later told me.) It was a nimble kind of crowdsourcing born of the crisis.

No doubt there have been other useful applications of digital technology during this period of seismic change in the Middle East, and surely more will spring up in the months ahead. It’s also important not to overstate their role, and to examine how the Internet has been used nefariously by oppressive regimes.

Maybe in part it’s because the earlier proliferation of Facebook and Twitter in American culture was marked by some frivolity that writers such as Malcolm Gladwell haughtily dismissed them as a sideshow in the context of revolutions. (See Matthew Ingram for a sharp take on how Gladwell went astray.) But as the speakers last week in San Francisco reiterated, a great number of people in the Arab world are using them, and not primarily to muse about what they ate for lunch. Under pressure from the U.S. government, executives at Facebook and Twitter have made moves to keep their platforms viable for activists, and it’s doubtful that their motivations to do so were solely capitalistic.

“We realize that in order to be meaningful, online freedoms must carry over into real-world activism,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February, in a wide-ranging speech about Internet freedom. She later continued: “The dramatic increase in internet users during the past 10 years has been remarkable to witness. But that was just the opening act. In the next 20 years, nearly 5 billion people will join the network. It is those users who will decide the future.”

This is Yahoo News on speed: too fast for a correction notice

Recently the Spanish-language site of Yahoo News reported that NASA had contracted with three companies to develop some truly incredible commercial aircraft. The future planes, Yahoo reported, could be available by 2025 and fly at 85 percent of the speed of light. Just imagine: You’d be able to jump aboard one of these suckers and zing from Vancouver to Capetown in, oh, about a fifteenth of a second. Now that’s newsworthy!

And perhaps it might even be possible — but it’s not true. As a MediaBugs user reported, NASA is in fact aiming for these future aircraft to reach 85 percent of the speed of sound. (Impressive in its own right, but nothing remotely approaching the speed of light.) Apparently somebody at Yahoo Noticias en Espanol had mistranslated the NASA press release from which the story was mostly drawn.

Even seemingly small errors in the news — in this case a single mistranslated word — can matter, and they should be corrected with care. The Yahoo story was fixed a day or two after the mediabug was posted — a positive outcome — although without any notice to the public that it was changed. [*See update below.] We don’t actually know how the error came to Yahoo’s attention; I couldn’t get any meaningful response from the company when I tried to let them know about it.

Which is quite difficult to do. Yahoo News has no corrections info or content of any kind, nor any real channel for contacting its editors or producers. (When I tried the “News Help Form,” found via a barely noticeable link in the page footer, I received a comically unhelpful “Escalation Notice,” followed a day later by an email from a customer service rep promising to “send this information to our editors if necessary.” By that point the article had already been fixed.)

As we revealed in an in-depth MediaBugs study published in November, many legacy print-news companies are still stumbling big-time when it comes to error reports and corrections online. Yahoo News, of course, can’t even plead about transitioning to digital in an era of dwindling resources; it is part of a pioneering technology company native to the two-way medium of the Web. So why isn’t it doing a better job with this stuff?

Part of the answer may be that Yahoo News primarily is an aggregation site, filled with wire service stories and links to reporting from other news organizations. But in July 2010 Yahoo launched The Upshot, a news blog with original content produced by a small handful of established reporters and editors. Yahoo News already commanded huge traffic, but now the company apparently was making a bid for greater news-media relevance (and, presumably, even more traffic). Its Twitter feed, followed by roughly 62,000 people, says that its “Tweets are hand-picked by the Y! News Team and 100% RSS feed free!” In other words, there are real people behind the curtain here.

Still, good luck reaching them. In addition to trying the “help” form and contact via Twitter, I emailed an Upshot editor, Chris Lehmann, to see about reporting the “speed of light” error. He responded quickly and cordially, telling me that he had no idea whom to contact about it, particularly since the error was on the Spanish-language site. I commented that correcting a substantive error without any notice to the public is bad form. (Yahoo News has company in this practice: The New York Times and Reuters recently were caught doing this too.) “On the U.S. news blogs,” Lehmann said with regard to substantive fixes, “we always append an update to note when we’ve corrected the text.”

The Upshot also stands out from the Yahoo News mother ship by providing on its main page a visible list of editorial staff and their contact info. “Keep us honest,” editor Andrew Golis wrote last July. “Email us, comment on our posts, let us know when we’ve made a mistake. When we agree with you, we’ll be fast and transparent about fixing it, apologizing and explaining.”

The rest of the Yahoo News operation should get onboard with that agenda if it wants the public to trust in its content, already an uphill battle for the news media in general.

Here’s a suggestion to the managers of Yahoo News for a good start: Join the Report an Error Alliance. Put that snazzy little red-and-black button on every news page. When it bleeps with reader feedback, have somebody around to respond in reasonably short order (light speed won’t be necessary!) and publish the results in a transparent, user-friendly way.

UPDATE, 11:30 a.m. PT: Things have since accelerated farther away from clarity: When I returned to the Yahoo News story page today to check for an update I discovered that the text has changed back to the erroneous version first published. Whereas the segments in question had been changed from “la velocidad de la luz” to “la velocidad del sonido” they are now back to the former.

My suspicion is that while the first change was in all likelihood made by a person, the reversion to the error is probably due to a system glitch whereby that fix was overwritten. Of course, this points back not so neatly to the crux here — we have no effective way to inform Yahoo News about the problem, let alone get a clear explanation from them.

[Ed. note: This post also appeared today on the MediaBugs blog.]

The art of Amy Poehler

It was an amusingly good time interviewing one of the great comedians of my generation for the Jan/Feb issue of Arrive magazine. If you don’t have any plans to ride the rails in the northeast over the next few weeks you can read my cover profile of Amy Poehler here. She talked (and joked) with me at length about her current TV show Parks and Recreation, which returns to primetime tonight, as well as about her Saturday Night Live days, parenthood and some action-packed projects she is pondering next. (“I want to be killed in a movie,” she said. “I want to have a really spectacular end.”)

It was interesting to hear Poehler’s take on the humanity beneath the antics of “Parks.” She mastered sketch comedy long ago, and her acting interests have broadened in recent years. I hadn’t watched much of the show until I took this assignment; from what I’ve since seen, it has its moments but can be rather uneven. And yet, it was also quickly apparent to me that Poehler’s charisma and comedic talents could carry the show, at least for a while. The future of “Parks,” now in its third season, appears to be riding on how the ratings tally this spring.

Particularly fun in going back over Poehler’s incandescent career to date was revisiting one of her early breakthrough characters (and one of my favorites), “Stacy,” who brought hilarious combustion to Late Night with Conan O’Brien in the late 1990s. Thanks to YouTube, of course, you can watch her again in glorious action.

The snazzy layout for the print issue of Arrive is also worth checking out via the link above, not least for the gallery of Poehler’s many memorable SNL characters, from Dolly Parton and Dennis Kucinich to Hillary Clinton and Kim Jong-Il.

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