James Risen to Bloggers: Shut Up
NYT reporter James Risen took a lot of flak from the blogosphere for his front page story touting the discovery of a trillion dollar mineral trove in Afghanistan, on account of the finding happened years ago and the trillion dollar figure was pulled out of someone’s ass.
In an interview with YahooNews, Risen shot back:
“Bloggers should do their own reporting instead of sitting around in their pajamas,” Risen said.
“The thing that amazes me is that the blogosphere thinks they can deconstruct other people’s stories,” Risen told Yahoo! News during an increasingly hostile interview, which he called back to apologize for almost immediately after it ended. “Do you even know anything about me? Maybe you were still in school when I broke the NSA story, I don’t know. It was back when you were in kindergarten, I think.” (Risen and fellow Times reporter Eric Lichtblau shared a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Bush administration’s secret wiretapping program; this reporter was 33 years old at the time.)
Risen defended the article against claims that Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was largely a matter of public knowledge prior to his story. “If it wasn’t news, then why didn’t anybody write about it?” he asked.
Well, actually, the story was widely reported years ago. Which is how people knew to question Risen’s reporting.
It’s true that I don’t know much about Risen. He’s written some well-received books on the CIA and is widely thought to be a first-rate reporter. The online biographies I’ve been able to find don’t mention his age but, judging by photos, I’d guess he’s in the neighborhood of 50.
But guess what? I don’t have to know anything about Risen to question the specifics of his reporting. Which I did, in a Monday New Atlanticist piece titled “Afghanistan Riches: Beware the Hype.”
I didn’t write it in my pajamas. For one thing, I don’t own any pajamas. For another, I was sitting in my office at a DC foreign policy think tank, where most of us wear suits to work. (Full disclosure: I wasn’t wearing my jacket while writing and researching the piece.)
So, how can I, a mere blogger, have the temerity to question the Pulitzer Prize-winning James Risen, who is older than me? Especially since I have fewer Pentagon sources than he does? Well, I have access to this technology called “Google” and can read stuff written by people who actually know something about Afghanistan, mineral finds, and related issues. And I have an online Rolodex-equivalent called a feed reader wherein I keep up with the thoughts of really smart experts on a variety of topics.
In this particular case, I relied on the work of Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell, Atlantic politics editor and CBS chief political consultant Marc Ambinder, a Wall Street Journal report, CNAS senior fellow Andrew Exum, and retired Green Beret colonel and DoD senior executive Pat Lang for the substance of the analysis. While I have no idea what those people wear while doing their writing — and frankly, I don’t want to know — I’m confident that they’re reasonably intelligent people with significant education, training, and experience.
It’s certainly true that most of the millions and millions of people who write blogs have less information than James Risen and other journalists. But here’s the thing: For any given story, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who are indeed more expert than the reporter. And many of those people have blogs.
Even beat reporters like Risen — who by all accounts is usually quite good at what he does — can get rolled from time to time because they have to rely on people who know more than they do to write their stories. And, certainly, Risen’s editors are clueless when looking at a story about mineral resources in exotic lands. So, there will indeed be relatively rare occasions when a prestige outlet like the NYT runs with a front page story that is embarrassingly bad. And there will be people out there — some of whom even write blogs while wearing pajamas — who will know right away that it’s happened.
Is this embarrassing for Risen? Sure. But not as embarrassing as attacking the messenger when you’ve been rolled. His anger would be far better directed at the Pentagon sources who planted this story with him.
UPDATE: Steve Hynd argues that Risen’s own account of how he didn’t get played proves that he got played.