Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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

Reporting from press releases

Jerry Stratton, February 10, 2007

I’ve complained before about the lack of real reporting in the news today; “reporting” is now often, at best, mixing multiple press releases or press conferences and at worst rewriting a single press release.

Recently, the Washington Post published a “news” article about how the Pentagon’s Inspector General called an intelligence analysis “reporting of dubious quality or reliability”. According to the article, this is what the Inspector General’s report found:

  • Intelligence provided by former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith to buttress the White House case for invading Iraq included “reporting of dubious quality or reliability” that supported the political views of senior administration officials rather than the conclusions of the intelligence community, according to a report by the Pentagon’s inspector general.
  • Feith’s office “was predisposed to finding a significant relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda,” according to portions of the report, released yesterday by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.)”
  • Feith’s office, it said, drew on “both reliable and unreliable” intelligence reports in 2002 to produce a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq “that was much stronger than that assessed by the IC [Intelligence Community] and more in accord with the policy views of senior officials in the Administration.”

The problem? According to a later retraction by the Post, none of those quotes were from the Inspector General’s report. They were from Carl Levin’s press release.

There is more than one problem with this article; the simple one is the one we’ve come to expect: if it can be spun to feed Bush Derangement Syndrome, then it will be. We should want multiple intelligence analyses. They help us understand what we don’t yet know. In this case it turns out that the Pentagon was correct not to trust the general intelligence consensus. The consensus, that radical Islamic terrorists would not cooperate with secular dictator Saddam Hussein, was wrong. There may still be an argument as to how much cooperation there was, but Iraqi documents make it clear that some cooperation did exist.

But the worst part of this article is that it completely misquotes the Inspector General’s report. Journalists Walter Pincus and R. Jeffrey Smith got it wrong because they didn’t do any journalism: they basically rewrote Democratic Senator Carl Levin’s press release. All of the quoted text above, and some of the non-quoted text, was Carl Levin’s analysis, not the Inspector General’s.

At the time I’m writing this, the article still makes these claims—I just copied them from it—with only a small-print correction pointing out that the claim is completely wrong. While the Washington Post is a step ahead of other organizations such as the Associated Press in actually printing a retraction, this is an example of where the mainstream media could take a lesson from blogs: when you’re wrong, you can strike the offending text, leaving it there for archival purposes but clearly acknowledging that it is wrong.

The wider issue, however, is just how badly reporters today rely on press releases for their reporting. All press releases ought to be fact checked, but a moment’s thought should have told Pincus and Smith that press releases from partisan officials need it even more.

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