Sunday, December 02, 2007

Lying in Print

You don't need a degree in anything to do journalism. Until about 30 years ago, it was a job you could hook into right out of high school. You didn't even have to be good with interviews (you could be a rewrite man). You didn't even need to know how to type. I still don't.

But you did need some things. And you still need them. One is the ability to be clear and honest about information and where you got it. And more than a few of the people who want to be citizen journalists don't pay attention to that. Here's the latest example.

In retrospect, however, this is a case where I should have caveated the reporting by saying that I only witnessed a fraction of what happened (from a moving car), with broader details of what I saw ultimately told to me by what I considered then — and still consider to be — reliable sources within the Cedar Revolution movement, as well as insiders within the Lebanese national security apparatus.

The problem is not that you used sources, or even anonymous sources. The problem is, you didn't tell your readers you did so. And you conflated what they told you with what you saw, and passed it off as eyewitness reporting.

Why would a writer do this?

  • 1. To make his writing more compelling. It's the kind of sin committed by people who traditionally sneer at news reporters and who really want to be creative writers or riveting storytellers. All that detail of attribution -- "said an unnamed source close to the investigation who asked to remain anonymous," etc. -- really clots up the flow of your prose. And if you're telling people something, it's the thing that matters, not the source, right?

    At the same time, it makes you look like a real active heroic fact-gatherer, face-to-face with the harsh realities of the story, not some computer jockey working the phones and getting the picture second-hand from sources.

  • 2. When the narrative matters more to you than the facts. Here's one of the stories that tripped up the above writer. The part in boldface is the part he now acknowledges he got from someone else, and has never been confirmed:

BEIRUT – Hezbollah is rehearsing for something big here. Not sure what or when. But a few days ago, between 4,000 and 5,000 HezB gunmen deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in an unsettling “show of force,” positioning themselves at road intersections and other key points throughout the city. Two additional objectives were achieved: First, the operation served as a probing action to determine local reaction. Second, it served as an exercise to gauge the time required (speed, synchronization, etc.) to achieve the key points and intersections.

Amazingly, there was no response from the police or the army.

HezB is also jamming cell-phone signals almost daily. Their lookouts are everywhere, at least from my vantage point, because they are watching the people I'm with and me.

HezB is also far better armed, equipped, and tactically proficient than most Americans might realize. They are terrorists to be sure: But they are also a very strong Iranian-trained guerrilla force here in Lebanon, and they seem to be getting a pass from far too many people in high places.

Last night, an anti-Hezbollah “weapons expert” said to me, smiling, “Lebanon needs about 25,000 U.S. Marines.”

The "between 4,000 and 5,000" thing, in fact, is about the only "fact" in there. The rest of it is narrative spun from that supposed fact. The unattributed statement that phone signals are being jammed -- and naming who is doing it (how? which signals? all of them? says who?)-- along with the ability to turn "they are watching me" to "they have lookouts everywhere" ought to be enough to raise anyone's red flag, unless you're reading to feed your narrative.

This editor's note is weasel words. To blame it on "[t]he Arab tendency to lie and exaggerate about enemies" is execrable. This is closer to the right tone.