Opinion

Jack Shafer

The source may be anonymous, but the shame is all yours

Jack Shafer
Jun 16, 2014 22:49 UTC

 Bob Woodward, former Washington Post reporter, discusses about Watergate Hotel burglary and stories for the Post at Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda

Twice over the past two weeks, New York Times reporters got taken for long rides by anonymous sources who ultimately dropped them off at the corner of Mortified and Peeved.

The first embarrassing trip for the Times came on May 31, as the paper alleged in a Page One story that a federal insider trading investigation was “examining” golfer Phil Mickelson’s “well-timed trades” in Clorox stock, according to “people briefed on the investigation.” On June 11, the Times rowed the story back — citing anonymous sources again, namely “four people briefed on the matter” — calling the original story about Mickelson’s role “overstated.” Mickelson did not, the paper reported, trade shares of Clorox.

Heads bowed, the new Times article explained the error: “The overstated scope of the investigation came from information provided to the Times by other people briefed on the matter who have since acknowledged making a mistake.”

Gotta love the wording. The people briefed made a mistake, not the Times for relying on anonymous sources.

The Times got its second joyride in a June 3 Page One story about Bowe Bergdahl. A “former senior military officer briefed on the investigation into the private’s disappearance” claimed that before Bergdahl fled his unit on June 30, 2009, he left a note in his tent expressing his disillusionment with the Army and the American mission in Afghanistan, and stated that he was leaving to start a new life. This marked Bergdahl as a deserter for many in the press.

Finding the real Bowe Bergdahl in the fog of news

Jack Shafer
Jun 11, 2014 22:51 UTC

 A sign of support of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is seen in Hailey, Idaho

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.

Bowe Bergdahl’s court-martial by the press

Jack Shafer
Jun 3, 2014 19:23 UTC

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The Army has no immediate plans to punish Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for leaving his post in Afghanistan, Secretary of the Army John McHugh said in a statement on Tuesday, putting Bergdahl’s medical and psychological needs first. Bergdahl, a Taliban prisoner for the past five years, was swapped over the weekend for five Talban heavyweights imprisoned at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

That doesn’t mean Bergdahl is off the hook. Already, the 28-year-old soldier has been called a traitor by members of his platoon in the pages of the New York Daily News and on CNN. Members of his unit have blamed him in the New York Times for the deaths of other troopers sent out to rescue him, although the newspaper heavily discounts those claims. James Rosen has even published on FoxNews.com a piece sourced anonymously to the Defense Department speculating that Bergdahl was an “active collaborator with the enemy.”

So instead of facing an Army court-martial for allegedly deserting his post on June 30, 2009, Bergdahl finds himself facing a brisk public court-martial in the press. This trial-by-sourcing will only accelerate as the press explores military records and interviews Bergdahl’s troop-mates looking for the evidence.

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