Monday, December 17, 2007

War of the Words

Online political content can sometimes pit left against right in a war of semantics. Even seasoned journalists can get caught in the conflict. That’s exactly what happened to a colleague who is also my friend after he blogged for National Review Online. I felt compelled to share his story.

When blogs first began to appear on the Internet, hobby writers created a virtual stampede. The format alone gave anyone an easy-to-use forum for political views or creative writing. Appreciating the success of sites like Daily Kos, mainstream media followed suit. Media reports have noted that even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blogs, writing about his experiences as the president of Iran.

Blogging a top content feature at political sites
For veteran journalists like W. Thomas Smith, Jr., the blog format offered a convenient, immediate way to report news. An independent journalist whose articles have appeared in numerous mainstream publications, Smith began to write for The Tank, a group blog hosted at National Review online. His dispatches from places like Iraq and Lebanon were filed in the spirit of legendary war correspondents like Ernie Pyle. Smith’s writing at The Tank, as might be expected, was more casual and far less formal than the features and analytical pieces he writes for national magazines and book publishers. The conventional approach of a blog is, after all, accessibility to the reader, offering a welcome mat via a conversational tone.

A well-known conservative on matters of defense and government, Smith also served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard "special weapons" security and counterterrorism instructor. Following his hitch in the Corps, he served on a para-military SWAT team in the nuclear industry. He has covered battles in the Balkans, Israel, Iraq and in other countries. Within days of 9-11, he headed to New York on his own dime to cover the first widespread attack on American soil by a foreign entity.

When he arrived in Lebanon September 25th, he filed his first post at The Tank: “Arrived here [in Beirut] less than two hours ago (after 25-hours of travel and layovers). Now relaxing here in the Al Dekwaneh neighborhood-offices of the International Lebanese Committee for UN SCR 1559 (more on that later).”

There was no editorial annotation at that point, explaining the committee. National Review attracts a relatively informed reader who would likely assume Smith, a conservative, was dealing with other conservatives, readers who would have at least a passing familiarity with UN SCR 1559, a resolution that included a call for disarming militias in Lebanon. Naturally, one of those militias would be Hezbollah.

More on Hezbollah
In June, 2007, in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, James Phillips, research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said, “Hezbollah is a cancer that has metastasized, expanding its operations from Lebanon, first to strike regional targets in the Middle East, then far beyond.” Phillips noted the United States, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands have designated Hezbollah as a terrorist group, with the United Kingdom placing the “Hezbollah External Security Organization” on its terrorist list. Phillips also pointed out, “But the European Union has dragged its feet on taking serious action against Hezbollah.” One country’s terrorist, in other words, is another’s freedom fighter.

As might be expected, the blog format popular with American political pundits has become popular in other parts of the world. Lebanon is no exception.

On a populist site, Lebanese Forces, a poster named “Drinkaholic” whose location is noted as “somewhere near Lebanon,” put things in perspective on the forum on December 7. “I can see that Hezbollah is acting in a very wrong way, it has become like a state-within-state where for example it even has sort of like it’s [sic] own police force in Dahieh!” Another post concluded, “Hezbollah now has a huge base of weapons, and so other (sects) feel threatened by this now and won’t accept to see such a large amount of weapons held by just one party.” Visitors to the site commented, in the discussion thread, on Hezbollah’s physical strength and presence in Lebanon.

Smith fires off dispatches amid a volatile political climate
Meanwhile, Smith filed his dispatches in streaming prose, relying on trusted sources, writing further in his initial post, “Between the airport and the committee's office, we (my escorts and I) passed by the sprawling Hezbollah tent city — some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen — positioned between the parliament and the Serail, basically the headquarters of the prime minister, his deputies, and all the cabinet members.”

Four days later, he wrote, “Hezbollah is rehearsing for something big here. Not sure what or when. But a few days ago, between 4,000 and 5,000 HezB gunmen deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in an unsettling “show of force,” positioning themselves at road intersections and other key points throughout the city.”

Smith’s dispatches, though technically a series published in chronological order, were not published one after another in sequence. The Tank is a group blog, so one writer’s posts may be separated by another’s. Smith would have no idea that the blogging platform actually posed a challenge to the cohesiveness of his posts. The structure of The Tank distanced posts where Smith cited sources from other posts where he did not. He filed his dispatches on the fly in a conversational tone as he traveled.

In December, after pro-democracy Lebanese Brig. Gen. Francois al-Hajj was assassinated by a car bomb, Smith would later write an article at the Web site Family Security Matters and further express his thoughts about the political climate in Lebanon: “There is also the inability of Lebanon to elect a president; the existence of the virtual state of Hezbollah (the “kingdom of Hezbollah” as some Lebanese have told me) within the so-called sovereign state of Lebanon; the manipulation of the media (both nationally and internationally) in that country; and the unchecked money, weapons, and influence of Iran and Syria.”

Dissenting voices weigh in on Lebanon
Weeks after Smith returned to the United States, Thomas B. Edsall, a special correspondent for The New Republic, would write an article for a “progressive” Web site, The Huffington Post. Edsall named two journalists who questioned Smith’s veracity about his dispatches from Lebanon. Smith’s detractors described him with a level of hyperbole common on political blogs. Edsall cited Chris Allbritton, who called Smith a “fabulist.” Albritton said Smith’s “claim that 4,000 Hezbollah gunmen took over East Beirut at the end of September simply never happened.”

What Edsall didn’t point out was Allbritton’s slightly mangled quote in his email to Edsall. Smith never used the term “took over.” Smith applied the verb “deployed,” in the word’s primary definition connoting the idea of positioning. Allbritton’s perspective possibly stemmed from his lack of familiarity with military terms.

Edsall also quoted journalist Mitchell Prothero who alleged that Smith’s accounts, including the “presence of 200 armed Hezbollah fighters in downtown Beirut laying siege to the prime minister’s office….is all insane.” Edsall had included a direct lift of some of Smith’s words regarding the 200 armed fighters. In his December 1 article, Edsall noted Smith’s claim that the fighters occupied “a sprawling Hezbollah tent city.”

The only problem there: Smith’s actual post said the Hezbollah fighters were positioned. He did not use the term, laying siege.

During a slow news week a small story becomes a big one
Over a period of days, Smith’s accusers gained ground with the momentum of a cavalry charging down a steep slope. CNN interviewed Edsall, and numerous print publications carried stories alleging Smith “fabricated.” The Columbia Journalism Review noted Smith reported “fabrications fed to him by sources during a trip to Lebanon this fall.” Coincidentally, Edsall is a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, in addition to his work as a correspondent for The New Republic and his position as political editor of The Huffington Post. Other publications like Salon and Harper’s levied criticism against Smith, apparently relying on Edsall’s analysis for research. None of the publications relying on Edsall’s analysis contacted Smith.

Edsall’s original headline queried, “In The Tank: Did National Review Reporter Make His Stories Up?”

Smith remained calm for a journalist being criticized even by conservative columnist Michelle Malkin. “This thing is just so complex,” he said during a phone interview. As far as making things up, “I didn’t.” Kathryn Lopez, an online editor for National Review, told a conservative Internet radio host Smith’s sources were “trusted.” But she added she couldn’t independently verify the sources. She apologized extensively to her readers and to media. She did not point out that getting Hezbollah or any of the media associated with the “resistance” would be unlikely to corroborate statements made by the other party. That would be similar to getting Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to agree on taxes or federal spending.

'Progressives' busy defending stories about the Baghdad Diarist
Meanwhile, the “progressives” were busy putting out their own fires and those fires were considerably hotter than Smith’s. Franklin Foer wrote a ten page exposition in The New Republic, expressing his thoughts about Scott Thomas Beauchamp, popularly known as the Baghdad Diarist who accused American troops of heinous conduct in Iraq. Beauchamp’s work was published by The New Republic.

Foer noted the individual who checked Beauchamp’s facts turned out to be a young woman—an intern for the magazine—who eventually married Beauchamp after he and she met online. The word “fabricated” or a form of it was used to describe the American soldier’s dispatches from Iraq. Beauchamp had claimed among other things a soldier wore part of a human skull like a yarmulke and other soldiers deliberately ran over stray dogs. Beauchamp’s first-hand accounts of life as an American soldier in Iraq, initially filed without using his real name, became suspect, and conflagration ensued after The New York Times ran a story raising doubt about the diarist’s claims. As might be expected, conservative publications subsequently had a field day, levying heavy criticism against The New Republic for the dubious claims.

In some publications, Smith’s predicament was compared to that of Beauchamp.

“They’re saying I lied, that I made things up and I didn’t,” Smith said with steely resolve, speaking by phone from his office in South Carolina.

Should standards for pro bloggers be developed?
Asked if the format itself—the blog, carrying an impression of informality dating to its roots when a blog was called a weblog and viewed more or less as an online diary, as well as the physical structure of non-sequential postings by multiple authors at The Tank—caused part of the problem, Smith called blogging “a new dynamic.” He added, “There needs to be proper sourcing and attribution when reporting events on the scale, and in the complex environment of Lebanon.”

Smith did source his statements, but the sourcing was, by virtue of the posting format, often separated from future statements by those sources. The situation that confronted him is one that many editors may consider as blogs continue to grow in popularity and traffic. Should a link to the first in a series be placed by subsequent posts, to remind the reader of sources’ identities and political slants? Should opposing parties each have a say in assessments of politics in a country or culture? Will blogs ultimately be held to the same standards as a typical feature in a mainstream publication? Should mainstream publications embrace the point of view of writers with a declared political bent, and refrain from contacting the opposition for a different viewpoint?

Those questions indicate, aside from the fact blogging is here to stay, the format has grown up and, over the protests of many fringe writers, become mainstream. With that growth come challenges unique to new technology. Standards are sure to follow.

Smith weathered the storm with perseverance characteristic of a Marine. As his reputation was dissected by media, some of whose intentions might be considered suspect, he shrugged it off with dry humor. “Using a military analogy, I failed to deploy pickets for security on my flanks.”

Further Reading:

Facts: Statement by W. Thomas Smith,Jr. at US Writer

The Story behind the Story by W. Thomas Smith, Jr. at US Writer

Smith is a Hero by Tom Harb, Secretary General of the International Lebanese Committee for UN Security Council Resolution 1559, at World Defense Review

American Mercenaries of Hezbollah by Tom Harb (see above) at Family Security Matters

In The Tank: Did National Review Reporter Make His Stories Up? by Thomas B. Edsall for The Huffington Post

W. Thomas Smith, Jr., and His Reporting from Lebanon by Herschel Smith at Captain's Journal

Scandal Equivalence by John Tabin at American Spectator

W. Thomas Smith, Jr., The Saga Continues by Steven Foley for The Minority Report

Ed. Note: All the articles cited are online. Because online content can easily be changed, I printed the original documents as they first appeared, for fact-checking purposes.

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