Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The big lie and the Associated Press

Jerry Stratton, January 3, 2007

As part of his series on the Associated Press controversy, Ace of Spades quotes Jack Shafer on why Stephen Glass’s lies went undetected for so long:

Glass built up credibility as each story was published and went unchallenged. You figured that if RBL didn’t have a bond dealer with a urinal on his desk, someone from RBL would call the writer’s bluff. What you didn’t figure is that Glass would make up RBL itself. The principals in his stories didn’t complain about the falsehoods for the simple reason that they often didn’t exist.

It’s a form of the big lie technique: small lies look like they can be checked. Big ones look like they’d be too much work. And big ones go beyond our normal expectations of what form lies take.

The Associated Press appears to be engaging in the big lie over purported Police Captain Jamil Hussein. Lots of people expect the AP to be biased (whether politically-biased, biased in favor of controversy, biased in favor of bad news, or any number of other biases) but fewer expect the AP to simply make things up.

Regardless of whether Hussein exists or not, he doesn’t appear to be a reliable source. The AP, however, is stonewalling, claiming that even though they’ve given us his name and his location, actually producing him would put him in danger.

But, they claim, he is a reliable source of information who no one has questioned until now. Kathy Caroll wrote that:

Hussein is well known to AP. We first met him, in uniform, in a police station, some two years ago. We have talked with him a number of times since then and he has been a reliable source of accurate information on a variety of events in Baghdad.

No one—not a single person—raised questions about Hussein’s accuracy or his very existence in all that time. Those questions were raised only after he was quoted by name describing a terrible attack in a neighborhood that U.S. and Iraqi forces have struggled to make safe.

Bob Owens gave the AP the Stephen Glass treatment: he went over as many Jamil stories as he could, looking for any on-line corroboration:

That last paragraph printed above has bothered me since I first read it. Executive Editor Carroll, you see, is absolutely correct.

No one raised questions about Hussein’s accuracy or his very existence for a span of run of stories starting on April 24 until his late November unmasking as a probable specter; a remarkable run that Curt at Flopping Aces pegged at 61 stories. This run as a named source doesn’t begin to account for any stories he may have contributed anonymously as “an Iraqi Police Captain” or “according to Iraqi Police” over his two-year relationship with AP.

No one checked…

This includes the reporters, editors, and officers of an apparently unreliable and unrepentant Associated Press.

Richard Miniter both agrees and disagrees. The problem, he says, is that there is no way to corroborate an Associated Press story. Once they do the story, nobody else bothers. Which makes it very easy for them to just not bother getting their stories right. I wrote something similar in The Shopping Cart Graveyard:

Computers, as you know, are able to perform hundreds of thousands, often millions, of tasks every second. You can ask a computer a question that would take a human an entire lifetime to figure out, and the computer will answer in a few minutes. As often as not the computer lies. It knows you aren’t going to spend an entire lifetime checking the answer.

Hat tip to the Jawa report, which has a summary of the controversy, focusing mainly on the AP story that started people wondering: it appears in retrospect that the AP forgot how to manage the big lie; when they reported that six people and four mosques had been burned, it turned out those mosques actually existed.

January 4, 2007: Jamil found?

Has the Associated Press found its Stephen Glass? Two days after I finally comment on the Jamil Hussein controversy, it looks like Jamil Hussein may have finally been located. Whether this is good or bad for the AP depends on whether they can focus the story on his existence or on their own journalism. It does make it easier to determine if the stories that relied on him as a source are truthful or merely truthy.

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