Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Corrupted sight

The NYT has details on the complaint against Bilal Hussein, the Pulitzer-Prize winning AP photojournalist who has been detained for 20 months in Iraq. (Hat tip: Tigerhawk)

A spokesman for the military said that Mr. Hussein had been detained as “an imperative security threat” and that he has persistently been “treated fairly, humanely and in accordance with all applicable law.”

In a lengthy e-mail message, the spokesman said that Mr. Hussein had been named by “sources” as having “possessed foreknowledge of an improvised explosive device (I.E.D.) attack” on American and Iraqi forces, “that he was standing next to the I.E.D. triggerman at the time of the attempted attack, and that he conspired with the I.E.D. triggerman to synchronize his photograph with the explosion.”



Much of the NYT story describes the sad circumstances which underly the media's "reliance on Iraqi journalists". Joel Campagna, Middle Eastern coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists describes Iraq as "the most dangerous conflict we’ve seen at C.P.J. in our 26 years," but added, "News organizations know how to vet and scrutinize information." How exactly is the screening process accomplished? The details are provided elsewhere in the article.

Several editors and reporters overseeing Iraqi coverage for Western news organizations said they worked hard to vet their local hires for sectarian and political ties that could slant their coverage, and offered extensive training in the rules of Western journalism. But there are no official background checks that can be conducted, as American and European companies routinely do when making domestic hires. Rather, news organizations try to get to know their prospective Iraqi hires in person and then judge them by the work they produce.

That's how they "vet" their stringers. The article continues with a tantalizing admission. (Italics mine)

The reporters and editors said that they often had to filter out obvious sectarian biases from news copy, and, as a matter of policy, would not run statistics like death counts from the field without official confirmation from the military. But, these journalists emphasized, there is a big difference between bias seeping into news copy and insurgents infiltrating news organizations.

The fact that biased reports from stingers had to be routinely cleaned up by "reporters and editors" was indicative that they were being infiltrated by insurgents and not proof of the contrary. How they could take comfort that only "bias" and not infiltration was being encountered when they had no means of a) running background checks on their stringers; b) nor observing them in the field and c) and constantly needing to correct or corroborate the "facts" they supplied against official military death counts? How? Because they had no choice.

Western news agencies need access. And access to the ground in many countries can only be obtained by hiring stringers, however and under whatever circumstances they may be found. As such this is not a case of "journalistic freedom versus national security", as the NYT puts it, as about the medias willingness to confront that persistent weakness of any intelligence gathering organization, the doubled network playing back faked reports. Tim Weiner in his history of the CIA, The Legacy of Ashes, describes how time and again, with depressing regularity, the CIA would pay for information by networks of agents in places inaccessible to Americans only to find those agent networks were either paper mills producing fiction for the consumption of CIA case officers or worse, cells actively controlled by enemy intelligence agencies feeding disinformation to Langley. And this despite the fact that the CIA attempted to perform background checks on their agents and even questioned them under duress using drugs and other harsh methods to ascertain their loyalty. If you substitute the words "stringers" for "agents" it is not clear how the NYT can be so sure the same type of game is not being played upon them.

I think any reasonable observer would conclude that if the problem does not already exist among the news agency stringers or even staffers in Iraq then it has every likelihood of coming into existence simply because of the circumstances. This is a structural weakness that the media, like the CIA, wishes would simply go away. Because to admit the problem exists, and the extent to which it probably exists, would imply too much change for business as usual.

25 Comments:

Blogger Fat Man said...

You would have to think the Media cared in some way. They didn't and they don't.

They are uninterested in anything but the very narrowest sort of domestic US politics. They want content that will feed their Narrative, its relation to reality is of only secondary importance.

The Narrative is about how the nation was misled and manipulated by Bush=Hitler and how they, the courageous 4th estate, who in their youth brought down Nixon, who was evil, and ended the Vietnam war, which was lost, are going to do it one more time by exposing how lost the Iraq war is and how evil the US military is.

What they are unable to appreciate is how much of their credibility they have traded for their narrative. Watch out guys, when you are flying blind, it is easy to get disoriented and crash.

12/19/2007 08:07:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

The credibility of the MSM has been squandered. No one trusts them anymore. The right believes that the media are controlled by the left and the left believes the corollary.

They have only themselves and Dan Rather to blame.

12/19/2007 08:39:00 PM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 the Baathist "Main Stream Media Minders" disappeared for a few days. Then they came back and asked for their old jobs back and all got rehired by the Media. They hired their former Secret Police minders! That's taking the Stockholm syndrome to a new level.

In defense of the Journalist: These were very cruel and deadly people they were dealing with. So why cross them? It's better to cross General Sanchez, who remains clueless to this day, then people who will kidnap you and saw your head off why you yet live.

12/19/2007 09:32:00 PM  
Blogger Wadeusaf said...

When CNN traded access to the truth for access to the roof, it allowed itself to become fettered by a government. No independent journalist need apply.

All others left the place, leaving behind whatever social and news gathering networks they had. That was in what, 1990? Building a social network with independent minded Iraqis may have been easier to accomplish in Jordan, Syria or even Kuwait. Such activity is very akin to spying. Building the trust of sources is tough enough even in relative calm, in a climate of kidnapping rings and torture cells, getting chummy with the natives is asking a lot. Yet it seems to me that even with all of the hurdles the news organizations could have recruited and vetted better than they did, they can do better than they are. Somewhere the facts have been confused with flashy photography and snappy sound bites. When the truth becomes whatever message you can transmit, the media is the message. Information suffers.

12/19/2007 09:32:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

I love the comparison between the CIA and the MSM. They are both like surgeons operating remotely with robotic instruments, but the lights go on and off at random and the on-site nurses keep lying.

The big problem is that they have no way of knowing when their sources are truly independent. As with Michael Totten's Egyptian/American translator. The locals can spot something awry based on half a syllable or maybe they way they tie their shoes. We, on the other hand, are hypnotized by the narrative. The TNR editors, not being military, had no background on the kind of tall tales that come from the military. They were pushovers and, convinced of their own savvy, very resistant to correction. Unless you can know and internalize the truth of just how hard the problem is, you are doomed to repeat your mistakes again and again.

12/19/2007 09:36:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

It is diagnostic of the problem with so-called professional journalists that they unquestioningly believe themselves capable of policing their own.

These are the same folks who, braced with a journalism degree and a genuflexion in the general direction of Strunk's "Elements of Style," go forth to share their keen insights into any area of human endeavor whatsoever. They need no further credential to parse the arcane judgments of Legal Scholars, Astronomers, Neurosurgeons, Archeologists, Firefighters, Jet Fighter Pilots, Corporate CEOs, Intelligence Analysts, Cuneiform Scholars, or ice cream vendors.

It is egalitarianism run amok.

As I wrote in my own moribund blog in times past,
"It took the Watergate scandal to truly screw up print journalism.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are a lot of dedicated print journalists out there. [sic] But the sense of gleeful triumph that raced through the liberal community at seeing Nixon brought low has had consequences that will reverberate for the next century.

Not the least of those is the missionary zeal of several generations now of self-annointed crusaders who chose journalism for their college degree program after watching Redford and Hoffman in the unquestionably accurate and honest motion picture “All the President’s Men.” Combined with the Radical-Left domination of American university faculties, this has produced a tide of counter-cultural primitives steeped since toilet training with the notion that the purpose of journalism is to topple Republican/Fascist presidents. The collection and correlation of facts are only important insofar as they can be used to support the underlying agenda--- Resistance to the oppression of the Conservatives. Inconvenient facts or allegations are to be dismissed, belittled, scorned, and characterized as lacking credibility.


Oddly, when I was in high school, the counselors advised me that if I didn't have the rigorous intellectual discipline for the hard sciences or math, I should try majoring in English or History. If those were too demanding of my brain, I should consider majoring in ART or THEATER. As the ultimate fallback position, if all the other degree programs were too demanding, they assured me that anyone could get a journalism degree.

12/19/2007 10:11:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I give more credit to their motivation, rendering them resistant to seeing the truth, even when it is repeatedly pointed out to them.
Can learn a lot from that, and as hdgreene points out, the sins of the "journalists" in their own country pale when compared to these Slimeballs, safe in their editing rooms, more than eager to get their next story proving how evil the US Military is, which is of course understandable, given that it is the Armed Forces of the evil USA.

12/19/2007 10:12:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

(I was replying to jj mollo)

12/19/2007 10:14:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

IKE BEATS TINA TO DEATH
LOS ANGELES - Rock 'n' roll pioneer Ike Turner, who rose to fame in the 1950s and became a star performing with his ex-wife, Tina Turner, has died at age 76 ...
---
In case you, like me, missed this all time Classy Headline.

12/19/2007 10:15:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

Thank you, WadeUSAF.

It is reassuring to see someone else articulate the same conclusion about CNN that Eason Jordan's NYT confession forced on me.

What is terrifying is that however conspicuous and inescapable that conclusion seems, very few folk seem to regard CNN as any less reliable as a source of information.

"Who CARES if they were willing to present Saddam and his administration as benign just so they could have a front row seat to broadcast the coming fireworks? Who cares if they were willing to LIE FOR YEARS AT A STRETCH to the U.S. public, pretending that daily murder, rape, mutilation, intimidation, beatings, hand amputations, electrocutions and other horrible forms of coercion were not used to keep Saddam in power?"

This ENORMOUS LIE made many folks in the US and elsewhere regard George Bush as an idiot because ***HE*** refused to believe CNN, and kept trying to describe Saddam as a mean old bad person...

I thought the point of a news organization was to share important facts with the audience so people could make sense of the choices that need to be made.

Can't do that if the stinking journalists are deliberately withholding the facts.

12/19/2007 10:25:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

I think the problem can be mitigated in two ways. The first is to create some version of a "tracking cell" within publications in which major news stories are followed by 'editors' whose job is not to examine style but content. Second, newspapers should assign unique IDs to sources; not necessarily their names but in order to create a primary key for all the sources they use. Where two or more publications merge the initial keys can be joined. The idea is to be able to judge provenance and the reliability thereof.

This doesn't have to be done when following trade news or sports stories where the probability of being misinformed is low or inconsequential. But it should be done, if only on a sampling basis, with major events.

12/19/2007 10:39:00 PM  
Blogger Zenster said...

mad fiddler: They need no further credential to parse the arcane judgments of Legal Scholars, Astronomers, Neurosurgeons, Archeologists, Firefighters, Jet Fighter Pilots, Corporate CEOs, Intelligence Analysts, Cuneiform Scholars, or ice cream vendors.

What more do they need when one simple rubric defines their entire reportorial ethos:

IF IT BLEEDS, IT LEADS.

Never has this been more true than in Iraq.

12/20/2007 12:20:00 AM  
Blogger Francine said...

Utopia Parkway: The credibility of the MSM has been squandered. No one trusts them anymore. The right believes that the media are controlled by the left and the left believes the corollary.

The left media still thinks they can shape the mind of the American voter, and the right media thinks its their turn to do the same. In reality, people in Iowa are sick and tired of the commercials, and the ones who turn out at the caucuses are going to be swayed by the most persuasive and dominant personality there. So the polls mean nothing. This election is muddier (both in terms of the crap being slung by the candidates and in terms of seeing the outcome beforehand) than it has ever been.

12/20/2007 04:46:00 AM  
Blogger Mətušélaḥ said...

Wretchard writes: "Second, newspapers should assign unique IDs to sources.."

That misses the point. The public has already assigned unique IDs to the newspapers (and the CIA I may add). I will not read/watch anything produced by the BBC, CBC, CNN, NYT, APF, Reuters, and my home town newspaper the Toronto Star. For me, they no longer exist.


Fat Man writes: "You would have to think the Media cared in some way. They didn't and they don't."

And neither do I, as it concerns these media outlets. Let them all compete with each other in serving the Jihadi market as far I'm concerned. They made it more than clear that people such as myself are not part of their target audience.

12/20/2007 06:20:00 AM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

Relentless, destructive critique of MSM persons and publications is among the most important tasks of bloggers, commenters, and tipsters of the Right.Kralizec, in a comment at Hot Air.

The American voter still relies for the most part on the MSM for the information upon which they decide how to vote, how to respond to polls, how much to support or oppose or ignore important issues like war and homeland security, how to feel about the direction the country is going. The Observe-Orient-Decide-Act Loop spits out inappropriate Actions when Observation sees what is not there, ignores what is there, emphasizes and magnifies counterinsurgent shortcomings while downplaying/soft-peddling/ignoring insurgent defeats.

The MSM are specifically protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they are supposed to be our thermal sights, our Forward Looking InfraRed cutting through the smoke and fog and dark of night to give us a clear picture so we can lay our crosshairs on target and Act, but our fire control systems are corrupt and we are operating in Degraded Mode while the rest of the crew wonders why our gunnery sucks.

12/20/2007 07:11:00 AM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

. . . all maskirovka must be persistent to give the enemy a false idea. The objective is to cause the enemy to make incorrect estimates of a situation.

12/20/2007 07:36:00 AM  
Blogger Francine said...

Our friends in Saudi Arabia, flush with western petrodollars, may not give Palestinians $1.4 billion in promised aid because it's going straight to Abbas and not to their buddies in Gaza who implacably refuse to recognize the Jewish state.

12/20/2007 08:20:00 AM  
Blogger always right said...

You think Western press will learn that they don't have absolute immunity? Freedom to the press doesn't mean there shouldn't be consequences, aka accountability?

12/20/2007 08:45:00 AM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

Francine,

Our friends in Saudi Arabia...

Not sure why you post this old news. The Pal Donor conference was held and the Pals gained pledges of $7.4 billion, more than the $5.6 billion they were seeking.

Topping the donors' list were the European Union, which pledged $630 million, the United States, with a $555 million pledge, and Saudi Arabia, which will donate $500 million.


Of course for Arabs talking is the same as doing so the Pals are not likely to receive most of the money pledged by the Arab countries.

12/20/2007 09:10:00 AM  
Blogger Mətušélaḥ said...

The West is doing itself a great disservice by supporting and subsidizing the Jihadi enemy.

Sharanski has it right: "You don't need to fight them. You simply need to stop supporting them."

12/20/2007 09:37:00 AM  
Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 12/20/2007 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

12/20/2007 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

I wonder if Time Magazine will name him their "Photographer of the Year"...

12/20/2007 11:12:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

I'm remembering some kind of scandal with the NY Times right after American soldiers went into Baghdad in 2003. Maybe something like they had moved their operations into a building without the owner's permission or paying rent. I don't remember the details but it was definitely an Ugly American moment, and the resident NYT honcho was summarily replaced.

I'm also remembering there was an Iraqi "fixer" who had been actively involved in setting up the problem, leading the inexperienced Times boss in with honeyed words of "no problem, boss."

I think the Times and its ilk has been played for fools by the Iraqi's since a week after American troops sliced into Baghdad like a hot knife through butter. They were played for chumps then, and probably the same "fixer" who got them into hot water with the Iraqi's in that first scandal introduced them to Bilal and all the other Iraqi stringers who've been gleefully feeding American media lies for the last five years.

I anticipate the NY Times will do everything in its power to protect and defend Bilal Hussein because you just know they have terrorist wannabe's every bit as bad on their payroll and have had since Day 1.

12/20/2007 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

Hey, Wretchard!

Would it be possible to have the comments numbered?

Does that seem wildly unreasonable?

12/20/2007 07:15:00 PM  
Blogger Wadeusaf said...

Wretchard ...

I think the problem can be mitigated in two ways. The first is to create some version of a "tracking cell" within publications in which major news stories are followed by 'editors' whose job is not to examine style but content.

Often with particularly involved stories, either from the standpoint of complexity or legal issues, such tracking is performed, by the representative law firm. Moving such a function to a more routine part of operations would have a price tag. But it would be well worth the cost. Good for the reputation of the news organ and for the reputation of the reporter.

Second, newspapers should assign unique IDs to sources; not necessarily their names but in order to create a primary key for all the sources they use.

Persons and reference works. Does Wikpedia have a corollary somewhere?

12/20/2007 09:30:00 PM  

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