News flash: reporters are not stenographers
Well, that's good to hear: We're not stenographers, we're journalists says Philip Dixon, former managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and currently chairman of the Howard University Department of Journalism.
Dixon was criticizing the actions of the press in the Massey case, in which countless reporters apparently reported the lies of Jimmy Massey without bothering to verify them, although such fact-checking could have been done easily, and there were inconsistencies in his stories to act as red flags.
What is it that Massey lied about? Oh, nothing special; just allegations of war crimes committed by the US Marines with whom Massey served during the Iraq war:
...no one ever called any of the five journalists who were embedded with Massey's battalion to ask him or her about his claims.
The Associated Press, which serves more than 8,500 newspaper, radio and television stations worldwide, wrote three stories about Massey, including an interview with him in October about his new book.
But none of the AP reporters ever called Ravi Nessman, an Associated Press reporter who was embedded with Massey's unit. Nessman wrote more than 30 stories about the unit from the beginning of the war until April 15, after Baghdad had fallen.
One good sign in all of this is that even some in the press are questioning what went on:
"I'm looking at the story and going, 'Why, why would we have run this without getting another side of the story?'" said Lois Wilson, managing editor of the Star Gazette in Elmira, N.Y.
Join the club, Ms. Wilson. Some of us have been wondering that sort of thing for a long, long time.
Dixon's "we are not stenographers" statement was a response to this defense mounted by some reporters:
In many cases, journalists covered Massey as he was speaking at public gatherings. Some reporters said that because he was making public statements, they didn't feel an obligation to check his claims. Some editors worried they could be accused of covering up his claims if they didn't report on his speech.
What does all of this remind me of? As with many things, the answer is "Vietnam." Not My Lai, of course; that was a well-verified story. Rather, the Winter Soldier investigations, reported (to the best of my recollection) uncritically and widely--and very influentially--at the time, despite what turned out to be the lack of substantiation of so many of the claims.
I wonder whether these sorts of false claims of US atrocities happened during or immediately after WWII. Somehow, I tend to doubt it, although if anyone has any information to the contrary I'd be interested in hearing it. My guess, however, is that the all-too-real My Lai gave copycat attention-getting false claimants an idea for how to make a big splash in the press. But they would never have been able to do this to such great effect if the press didn't so often act as their accomplice and enabler.