Finding the real Bowe Bergdahl in the fog of news
All news reports are provisional, especially breaking news reports. That which the press states unequivocally tonight may well be retracted by dawn — and then with only a small acknowledgment, much in the way that a TV station’s meteorologist glosses over the fact that the hailstorm he promised for sunrise never arrived.
This message applies to all stories, big and small, and to all news outlets. Today, I single out the New York Times not because I think the Times is a shoddy, careless newspaper but because it is among the best, and its recent miscue in an important breaking story illustrates exactly how abruptly the so-called known facts in a news story can change in short order.
In the first paragraph of its June 3, page A1 story titled “G.I.’s Vanishing Before Capture Angered His Unit,” the Times stated that on the night of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s June 30, 2009, disappearance, he “left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life.” The Times report was promptly repeated by the Daily Mail Online, the Associated Press, Fox News Channel, NBCNews.com, and many other outlets because the Times has a reputation for sober, exacting reporting.
To the Times‘ credit, it did not describe the note as a declaration of desertion, but that was unnecessary. Its very context made it oink like an eloquent desertion manifesto. The paper didn’t directly quote from the Bergdahl note, but sourced its knowledge about it to an unnamed “former senior military officer briefed on the investigation into the private’s disappearance.”
Then, three days later, in another A1 story, “Bergdahl Is Said to Have History of Leaving Post,” the Times openly retracted its earlier assertion about the alleged goodbye note. The new Times story told of the existence of a 35-page classified military report, completed two months after Bergdahl’s disappearance. “But the report is said to contain no mention of Sergeant Bergdahl’s having left behind a letter in his tent that explicitly said he was deserting and explained his disillusionment, as a retired senior military official briefed on the investigation at the time told the New York Times this week,” the Times stated.
What happened between June 3, when its anonymous former senior military officer spoke so authoritatively to the Times about the note and June 6, when the Times essentially said, never mind? For the June 6 story, the anonymous former senior military officer told the Times that he had read a field report about the note in the early days of the Bergdahl search, and could not explain why the note was not mentioned in the final report.
Having learned that the Times source misled it about the good-bye note, how much should we trust the Times reporting about what’s in the 35-page report? The paper never says it has read it, only citing anonymous sources who have been briefed on it. The Times also couches its findings with such distancing language as “the report is said to cite,” indicating that its sources might be reading to reporters from the report or summarizing it.
Again, my intention here isn’t to tie the Times to the whipping post, as fun as that can be, but to remind readers that authoritative sources get important things wrong all the time. And that great outlets disseminate what those sources say. When the source is anonymous, as was the case in the June 3 story, make sure to take the assertions with a shot of whiskey.
How did the anonymous source and the Times err so dramatically? A story published to the Web on Wednesday morning by the Washington Post provides illumination. A Bergdahl friend allowed Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen to read from a “trove of Bergdahl writing,” including journal entries, essays, stories, and emails composed over the year before he left his Afghanistan post on June 30, 2009, and which the friend, Kim Harrison, also provided to U.S. government investigators. I invite you to read the Post story, which quotes expansively from Bergdahl’s writings. The more despairing passages could be read as signals that he intended to escape from Afghanistan. For instance, Bergdahl wrote:
“if at any point in time, kim gets a call from red cross, or the mill, no matter when, in a week, month, or years … Keep her from panic and bad ideas. You know what I do, and ash I am still perfecting, actions may become … odd. No red flags. Im good. But plans have begun to form, no time line yet.”
Perhaps the former senior military officer read from this Bergdahl archive and merely misremembered the correct context? It’s a mistake any of us could make.
The fog of news has descended on other Bergdahl fronts, obscuring the true story. For instance, many outlets have asserted that Bergdahl’s disappearance directly led to the deaths of other U.S. soldiers sent out to rescue him. But those accounts have been dramatically undercut by the New York Times, Reuters, and other outlets.
Consider also the contradictory reports of Bergdahl’s health and safety while in Taliban hands. On June 1, the Wall Street Journal had Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel citing U.S. intelligence to claim that Bergdahl’s health and safety were in peril as long as he was a prisoner of the Taliban, making his rescue imperative. On June 3, the Journal further reported that secret videos made by the Taliban illustrated the “accelerating” decline of Bergdahl’s health between 2011 and 2013.
But Bergdahl looks healthy enough in the release video and the Army says he’s in stable condition. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, should be in a position to know, and says she has “no information” that his life was in danger, challenging Obama administration pronouncements.
I wish I had a list of recommendations for journalists that, if observed, would permanently lift the fog of news. But no such list exists. Breaking news is rarely perfect.
But I can offer news consumers advice. Bring doubt and skepticism to everything the media produces. Read from a wide range of sources, spin the dial when viewing the news on TV. Remember, all is provisional. The final edition never gets published.
In an earlier incarnation, I wrote about the fog of news and Iraq, the Mumbai massacre, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. For another foggy gander, compare these dueling pieces this week from the Washington Post and the New York Times about St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Ireland. Condensed fog contributions accepted at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com to make rain for my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTOS: A sign of support of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is seen in Hailey, Idaho June 1, 2014. REUTERS/Patrick Sweeney