Bad Information on Information Operations

Monday’s WaPo feature by Jonathan Finer and Doug Struck on the increased role bloggers have in the “information war” and my related post on the story drew substantial attention from the Blogosphere in a slow news period. Now, Bill Roggio who, along with Michael Yon was the subject of the story, reports that there were numerous factual errors in the WaPo story.

There are several factual errors in this story, all of which could have been easily verified by direct questions to me, by reviewing my “About” pages at either ThreatsWatch.org or The Fourth Rail, or by asking some questions within their own organization.

This doesn’t surprise me. For reasons I have yet to fathom, a substantial number of professional journalists seem unable to mine the Internet for easily accessible information. For a blogger, checking out the story subject’s Web page would be obvious preparatory work before even conducting an interview. That’s often not the case for non-Web reporters.

I am not a “retired soldier”, as that would have required me to serve in the military for twenty plus years. I spent four years on active duty and two years in the National Guard. The article also indicates that I am currently in Iraq and embedded with the Marines in Western Anbar. I am not. I returned home on December 20th.

The fundamental misunderstanding of basic military terminology and traditions on the part of those who cover it is baffling. I, too, have been referred to as “retired” after a four year active, two year Reserve stint and have seen numerous others in that situation referred to in that manner by media folks, especially on television. The lack of military experience on the part of most reporters also leads to having “retired” Army captains on discussing high level strategy, giving the appearance of profesional expertise when, in fact, company grade officers are tacticians.

Reporting that Roggio was still in Iraq is understandable. The piece was published on the evening of the 25th and presumably written before then. Again, though, most bloggers would have checked Roggio’s site for updates before putting a story to bed.

I was not credentialed by the American Enterprise Institute. This would be impossible as the needed press credentials must be provided by a media organization. A friend suggested I approach the American Enterprise Magazine, which is a periodical published by the American Enterprise Institute. We were unable to work out an agreement, so I searched for an alternative.

Another friend suggested I contact The Weekly Standard. Richard Starr was happy to help and provided the necessary credentials to embed. Also, Rod Breakenridge of the Canadian talk radio show The World Tonight kindly provided documentation for credentials as well. The two letters allowed me to successfully embed, and there were no questions about my credentials in Baghdad or elsewhere.

This is rather sloppy and hard to explain. It’s not a hack job on the part of Finer and Struck, as affiliation with the Standard would be better for bolstering the insinuation that Roggio is a propaganda plant by the neocons.

Aside from rather significant factual errors, though, the title and overall tone of the piece was misleading.

In an email to Mr. Finer expressing my displeasure with being labeled a military information operation, Mr. Finer suggested I read the entire article. I assured him I did. The title and subtitle are not meaningless to the context of the article; it is implied I was a tool of the military, when in fact the military had no influence whatsoever in what I said from Iraq.

The details of my embed are then followed with a discussion on military information operations, the Lincoln Group̢۪s activities in paying for positive articles to be published in Iraqi publications, and the military funding Iraqi radio stations. The implication is clear: a blogger embedding in Iraq must be part of a nefarious scheme by the military to influence the perceptions on Iraq.

The truth is far more mundane. I wasn̢۪t paid a dime to report from Iraq by the Marines, nor was I influenced in any way in what I could or could not write about. I had full control over the where and when of my embeds. Never once was my work subject to the approval or review of the military. I wrote what I experienced, both the good and the bad.

There’s a whole lot more at the link, but you get the idea. The problem here is the conflation of two things stemming from the fact that the military wants to get “their side” of the story out. To do that, they have allowed the embedding of reporters who will naturally be more sympathetic simply by virtue of getting to know our soldiers and getting a feel for how hard their job is. They have also engaged in propaganda efforts to get stories with a favorable spin into various media outlets. While these two programs are aimed at the same end, they are quite different in approach.

Dean Esmay is not surprised by any of this,

It’s pretty clear to me what the mentality at the Post is. Just as with most newsrooms, they long ago decided that Iraq was a “mess” and a “debacle” and a “quagmire,” and proceeded to make that the working assumption and subtext of anything they wrote. Anything which flies in the face of that working narrative is assumed to be either “unusual” or “the Bush party line” or something else to be easily dismissed.

Mark Tapscott thinks something is amiss as well,

Even assuming the reporters have legitimate explanations for these rudimentary factual errors, where were the Post foreign desk editors after the story was filed? Did nobody there not know anything about the Pentagon’s embedding process, despite the fact it has been around since 2002?

It should be noted that the Post is not typically where green rookie journalists begin their careers. By the time a reporter or desk editor is invited to work at the Post, he or she has typically spent perhaps as much as a decade compiling an impressive record of achievement in major city dailies and before that with medium and smaller circulation papers in other markets.

Put another way, one is supposed to have long since stopped making basic factual errors like these detailed by Roggio by the time your byline begins appearing in a distinguished MSM daily like the Post. This fact makes it extremely difficult to believe these errors appeared in the Post as a result of inexperience or as flukish deviations from systemic norms.

[…]

How the Post’s editorial leadership responds to Roggio’s critique could become a positive turning point or it will reinforce the paper’s decline. This is also an opportunity for Ombudsman Deborah Howell to make a positive mark. I know her to be a solid traditional journalist of integrity and I look forward to her assessment of the Finer/Struck story.

Bill Quick and Hugh Hewitt believe this is the mainstream press fighting back against the Blogosphere, which is “eating their lunch.” While I don’t doubt there is some resentment of the attention that bloggers are getting as well as the standard disdain of “amateurs” by “professionals” going on here, I think it’s overstated by several orders of magnitude. I don’t see reporters leaving the major dailies or the networks to start up their own blogs, after all. [Update: Maybe they’re onto something. This screed from Kathleen Parker, about which I’ll comment more later, is some evidence for their position.]

Lorie Byrd‘s reaction is perhaps even more damning:

I am so used to such slanted and biased reporting that I just take it for granted. Now if the Washington Post or the NYT did an unbiased article on milbloggers, THAT would be noteworthy. I was just glad that the article recognized Bill, spelled his name correctly, and gave the the address of his blog. It is sad that I have come to believe that is about the most we can expect from the MSM.

I suspect she’s not alone.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

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