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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sloppy Writing, Sloppy Fact-Checking, Sloppy Editing

I understand better than most media consumers the difficulties editors face in terms of fact-checking. I've worked as an editor in multiple countries, including on several publications in non-English-speaking countries where the writing style is very different from the Western stated ideal of accuracy and the writers may have little training. I've also worked with untrained Western writers in Korea who felt it was acceptable to plagiarize vast amounts of text (often from Wikipedia, to make it worse) or who didn't check facts even after I pointed out errors to them, just changed the wording around while still being incorrect.

I've worked as a writer within a chain of command that valued sensationalism and shock tactics over accuracy and I decided many years ago that I would rather be on Page 4 with the truth than on Page 1 with a beat-up. I'm comforted that there are many in the media who still have a strong sense of journalistic ethics and a desire for truthful reporting but am saddened by the number of individuals and institutions that do not. There seems to all too often be a desire to get the scoop and damn the accuracy - and any correction that has to be printed is usually so small as to be overlooked.

There's been a lot of this going around of late.

On a very minor but personal level, an online publication here in Korea wrote a piece recently about a bar in Seoul I used to frequent and the original owner's "public shoving contests" with his "stormy blond wife." The owner's wife was Korean and dark-haired for a start and, as a regular patron, I never witnessed such behavior. This publication is written by volunteer writers so mistakes are more likely than on a professional outlet but when I pointed out the error, the response from the editor was initially rudely dismissive then changed to an e-mail that included the following quote:
I was given the description by someone who knew the the couple that new [sic] the couple... It is mildly sloppy reporting . . .
 He then went on to invite me to write for his publication, on an unpaid basis. Ermm, thanks, but no, thanks.

On a more global level, there have been a number of articles and the occasional book written lately that appear to owe more to fiction than to fact, and where just a little fact-checking should have set off alarms in the editing process. Here are a few high-profile cases, with some links to different sites providing some balance, if only in terms of different extremes of opinion.

First, Greg Mortenson and charges by 60 Minutes that he fabricated passages of his best-selling memoir, "Three Cups of Tea," and of financial irregularities in his non-profit organization, Central Asia Institute.

This is a hard one to judge, and one can only read the different sides and come to their own conclusion. For the record, Mortenson admits to "omissions and compressions" and literary license in this interview. Here and elsewhere, he alludes to this literary license being at the publisher's behest and in this, I'm apt to believe him. It definitely makes a better story that way but, in the end, it's Mortenson's name on the book, along with a co-writer he seems to be laying much of the blame upon. Insisting on accuracy may have lost him the publishing contract, it may not have, but he signed off on the changes.

As to the financial mismanagement allegations, Mortenson's main defenses seem to be "I'm not a good manager" and that he was scammed by a local who he trusted. Should a self-proclaimed poor manager really be director of an NPO to which donors have given tens of millions of dollars?

On an associated note, anyone who has worked in much of Asia, Africa or similar theaters realizes that accurate accounting that auditors and donors will approve of is almost impossible because corruption is just part of doing business there. That's probably not something that well-meaning donors in the US want to know but that's a fact of life in such places, whether you're there for a private business, an NPO, an NGO or a military unit. And yes, money does change hands under an expectation that it will be used for certain things, only to have it disappear elsewhere. I would be incredulous if this has never happened to CAI in building its schools but I would be equally incredulous if it has never happened to 60 Minutes while reporting in the same regions.

For a harsher view than mine on Mortenson, read Carl Prine.

Next up, Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings. He's the young journalist whose story "The Runaway General"  resulted in Gen. Stanley McChrystal being asked for his resignation by his Commander in Chief. A DoD investigation has found "insufficient" evidence of  wrongdoing on the part of McChrystal, his aides and advisers but I believe that, at best, said aides and advisers were foolish enough to think that the embedded reporter drinking with them and no doubt laughing at their snide comments would not then report them. (I also believe McChrystal is too smart not to have suspected this might happen and wonder if this was the general's way of falling on his own sword rather than work for superiors he had lost faith in. Since then, he has been teaching at Yale, busy on the highly paid speaking circuit and, most recently, has been brought back into the White House fold to lead an initiative to help military families.)

Hastings was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, embedded with a group of aides buzzed on ego and alcohol and took full advantage of it to make his name.

Hastings' success seemed to have gone to his head with his subsequent story targeting "another runaway general."  In it, he uses one source only, a disgruntled Information Operations officer who claims he was ordered to use his "psy-ops" training to manipulate visiting senators. From the article:
"My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave," says Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit . . .
What Hastings failed to research, or didn't care about, was that IO and PSYOP (not psy-ops) are different things. And, although Hastings did note that Holmes was disciplined for "improperly using his position to start a private business" with a female subordinate he was also accused of having an "inappropriate" relationship with, it doesn't occur to the reporter that he might be being used to, in effect, advertise that fledgling business. (Holmes denied the relationship and said the two were waiting until after they left Afghanistan to start the business.)

I looked at Holmes's Facebook page at the time of the article and noted his description of himself as a "would-be adventurer." (That fits with his misrepresentation of himself as a psy-ops Jedi knight, capable of getting the enemy to behave the way he wanted and, presumably, of manipulating goats by staring at them also.) In my mind, any reporter that relies on only one uncollaborated source, with an obvious agenda of his or her own, for an article, should consider putting "would-be" in front of their job title also. If you doubt that Holmes did have an agenda of his own, compare his RS quote to this, from his current Facebook description of the strategic communications firm he heads:
SyzygyLogos... Changing the way people act by changing the way they think!

And then there's the embarrassing case of Associated Press being hoaxed by a fake press release about General Electric offering to repay a $3.2 billion tax refund. Despite an initial call to the "communications representative" listed in the release reaching the answerphone of someone with a different name,it didn't seem to occur to anyone to phone GE and check that said representative was on their books. That's shoddy, lazy and reprehensible, in my mind, and I expect much better of AP.

Unfortunately, those reporters who never let the truth get in the way of a good story seem more likely to become successes in the modern media world than those who prefer truth over sensationalism. I have worked with such fabulists also, most noticeably one who is a brilliant and emotive writer, but not so hot on facts. Despite an apology for libel in his past and several well-documented allegations of fabricating both stories and sources, his star continues to rise in the Asian media market.

And I sometimes wonder why people disrespect those in journalism!

The "full" story by Jon Krakaeur, the 60 Minutes reporter. Hell hath no fury like a journalist scammed. The full PDF is only available for a short time.

A reasoned analysis by Marianne Elliott.


  1. Think I know the person you're referring to at the end of the post. He's gone into more PR/publishing industry now in HK, rather than journalism, which suits him much better.

  2. I suspect you do, and I tried not to identify him because I bear him no ill will, but I always wondered why he didn't just write novels. Apparently the money is better in a "real" job.

  3. What proof is truth against all lies? I once attended a symposium with a media panel consisting of senior bureau chiefs from AP, ABC, and Al Jezeera English...and to a man, and they were all men, they all agreed they had no intrinsic interest in providing accurate information to the public. Their sole purpose was to make money. In a world where people (consumers) only want to hear what they want to hear there is no incentive to jeopardize profit over something as tedious as accuracy.

  4. ahh, my young Chi Sti - you have been sadly missed Grasshopper

    but seriously, there IS no defense against lies except, perhaps, to shine light on those lies

    Money is a whole other evil, and to quote in full:
    "The love of money is the root of all evil" - 1 Timothy, 6:10

    It 'aint the money that's the problem, it's the greed, and we are just as greedy to hear what we want to hear

  5. Dang. I just wrote a really long, really intelligent response to your post and then lost it.

    Anyway - great post. Thanks! More when I recover from the loss of all those clever words :-P

  6. Dang. I would have liked to read it