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The Commandant Didn’t Say What Everyone Says He Said

Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, addresses a crowd of U.S. Marines and Sailors at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan Dec. 23.  Amos expressed his admiration to the service members for their accomplishments and dedication to supporting the ongoing  counterisurgency mission, especially while deployed during the holiday season.

My latest for War on the Rocks, “Don’t Believe Everything You Read in the Papers,” has posted. The intro:

Many of us have experienced occasions where we’ve read about an event in which we were a participant — either as a direct actor or merely an observer — and found ourselves perplexed by the written account. Whether because of an ideological agenda, an inadequate understanding of the topic, or — more commonly — a desire for a juicy headline and a scandal, reporters frequently misrepresent what transpired or was said. Paradoxically, however, we instinctively treat reports about events where we were not present as gospel.

Recently, a collaborator and I fell into this trap. A series of venues reported some remarks by General Jim Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, which seemingly questioned the president’s leadership on issues of international security, blamed the current crisis in Iraq on his fecklessness, and strongly implied that the president had betrayed the sacrifices of American warriors who had died there. As strong advocates for civilian control of the military, we submitted a blistering piece to War on the Rocks outlining the proper limitations for general officers publicly speaking on matters of policy, explaining the rationale for those limitations, and ending with Amos standing at attention in the Oval Office being reminded of his place in the chain of command. It was right on all counts — except for the not so minor detail that Amos hadn’t done what we were criticizing him for doing.

The rest examines what was reported and compares it to what Amos actually said. The bottom line is that, while the quotes were more or less right, the context in the initial reports was wrong and further reports and analyses distorted the speech further.

Given that I was saved from adding to the noise only by an unusually diligent editor—few bother to so much as click the supplied links, much less go beyond that—I’m not about to accuse Ollie North and others who have seized upon Amos’ remarks for their own agenda of dishonesty. It’s far too easy to assume that reports in reputable publications are accurate and not go further. Brookings had the video of Amos’ speech up before most of the reporting went out but, at well over an hour, I didn’t watch it and, in the absence of a transcript—which I would indeed have read had it been available at the time of my initial writing—I just took the press accounts and ran with them. It’s quite probable that North and others did the same thing.

What will be interesting to see is whether, now that my piece is out there—and Brookings has an uncorrected transcript posted—the narrative will be corrected. My strong suspicion, alas, is that it won’t.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    What will be interesting to see is whether, now that my piece is out there—and Brookings has an uncorrected transcript posted—the narrative will be corrected. My strong suspicion, alas, is that it won’t.

    To paraphrase…someone, “bullshit can be halfway around the world before fact finishes tying its shoes.” And unfortunately, once that happens it is well-nigh impossible to change the narrative. Even a prominent and strongly-worded correction only gets to a subset of those who heard the original story.

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  2. C. Clavin says:

    Please James…don’t compare yourself to Oliver North.

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  3. pylon says:

    No, let’s never assume Oliver North is dishonest.

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  4. DrDaveT says:

    Once again, we find the need to be first (under the euphemism “timely”) turns out to do actual irreversible harm. Will journalists learn from this?

    No. Because they are not punished for doing harm, but are rewarded for being first.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @pylon: I’m not saying “never.” I’m saying it’s quite reasonable to believe he found press reports that had Amos saying something he agreed with and ran with them without having any cause to investigate further.

    @DrDaveT: That’s quite right. There’s not much counter to that aside from really aggressive editors but, absent transcripts to check, it’s really hard for editors to have any basis for pushback unless the reports just smell off. It seemed perfectly plausible that Amos would have said this sort of thing—he in fact did say these words, just not in the context portrayed—and so there was no real reason for editors to push back. And, naturally, once one outlet runs with the quote, that becomes a “second source” verifying the report. It’s a nasty cycle.

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  6. pylon says:

    I don’t doubt he may have seen it and run with it like others as you say. That said, had he known the context, I’d put money on the bet that his actions wouldn’t have changed. Because he’s Oliver North.

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  7. Josh says:

    Thanks for posting this correction. The Commandant would never speak out against his Commander and Chief, republican or democrat.

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