W. Joseph Campbell

Abrupt WaPo rollback stirs fresh questions about anonymous source use

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Washington Post on January 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm

The Washington Post offered online readers a dramatic example of “whiplash journalism” yesterday, reporting that the goal of U.S. sanctions against Iran was to topple the regime in Tehran then rolling back that stunning report.

Left thoroughly unclear was how the Post got the story so utterly wrong in the first place.

The original report, though based on the paraphrased remarks of a single anonymous source, seemed to signal a U.S. policy departure that would “reverberate around the world,” as Blake Hounsell, managing editor of Foreign Policy, promptly pointed out at the journal’s “Passport” blog.

Hounsell called it “a bombshell revelation” — if true.

The original report certainly seemed of bombshell quality; its opening paragraph declared:

“The goal of U.S. and other sanctions against Iran is regime collapse, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, offering the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is at least as intent on unseating Iran’s government as it is on engaging with it.”

(The report was touted at the Post’s CheckpointWash” Twitter feed, which stated: “Goal of US sanctions on Iran is regime collapse, senior US intel official says.”)

But later in the day, the Post amended — and considerably softened — its report to say:

“The Obama administration sees economic sanctions against Iran as building public discontent that will help compel the government to abandon an alleged nuclear weapons program, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official.”

Discontent in Iran is quite pronounced already, so the Post’s revised version added little that’s new.

But quite puzzling is that the newspaper’s reporting could reach such dramatically differing interpretations on a leading foreign policy issue. The two-sentence correction appended to the revised version served only to deepen confusion.

The correction read:

“An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that a U.S. intelligence official had described regime collapse as a goal of U.S. and other sanctions against Iran. An updated version clarifies the official’s remarks.”

Huh?

Did the Post reporters on the story not understand what their source — the “senior U.S. intelligence official” — was telling them? Did the source exaggerate under the cover of anonymity? Did the blanket of anonymity grant him license to speculate incautiously, or to go beyond his brief?

By email today, I asked Patrick Pexton, the Post’s ombudsman or reader’s representative, if he knew how or why the two versions of the same story differed so sharply.

Pexton has not replied to my inquiry. replied, saying he would look into the matter.

I also asked Pexton whether the Post’s rollback represented another example of playing fast and loose with the newspaper’s policy on anonymous sources. I believe it may.

Pexton’s predecessor as ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, noted in a column in 2010 that “too often it seems The Post grants anonymity at the drop of a hat.”

That may have been the case on the Iran-sanctions reporting: A too-quick grant of anonymity.

Alexander further wrote in the column:

“The Post’s internal policies set a high threshold for granting anonymity. It ‘should not be done casually or automatically.’ … If sources refuse to go on the record, ‘the reporter should consider seeking the information elsewhere.'”

That guidance seems not to have been followed in the Iran-sanctions report, which, in the confusion caused by relying on an anonymous source, is reminiscent of the enduring messiness created by another sensational Post story — its botched report in 2003 about Jessica Lynch’s purported battlefield heroics.

The Lynch story — a Post exclusive that was picked up by news organizations around the world — was based on anonymous sources whom the newspaper identified merely as “U.S. officials.”

The Post indirectly quoted one of the anonymous sources as saying Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army supply clerk, “continued firing” at her attackers “even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

That source was quoted directly as saying:

“She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.”

The comment inspired the memorable headline that accompanied the hero-warrior story:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

But the Post’s report about Lynch’s derring-do proved utterly wrong.

Lynch had not fired a shot in the attack; she cowered in the back of a fleeing Humvee which was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, killing four of her Army comrades and leaving her unconscious and badly injured.

Lynch was taken to an Iraqi hospital, from where she was rescued nine days later, in a raid mounted by U.S. special forces.

The Post’s erroneous story about Lynch was has had enduring consequences.

The newspaper’s unwillingness to explain just how it got the hero-warrior story so utterly wrong, as well as its unwillingness to identify the sources who led it astray, have given rise to the tenacious false narrative that the military ginned up the story to bolster support for the war.

We know that it’s a false narrative from one of the reporters on the Lynch story, Vernon Loeb, who said in an interview with NPR in December 2003:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

He also said in the interview that military officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch. I’ve never believed that, at least as far as the story we wrote goes, that it was a Pentagon attempt to create a hero there. … I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none.”

Even so, the false narrative took hold and lives on, an ugly media-driven myth.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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