Stories on media screening weak on sourcing
By MARK PRENDERGAST | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: February 23, 2010
This is the second part of a review of Stars and Stripes’ reporting on the military’s use of the Rendon Group to analyze the work of journalists in Afghanistan. That reporting recently received a 2009 Polk Award. The first installment of this review was published Feb. 12. All installments will be posted at stripes.com.
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Stars and Stripes said on Sept. 3 that as a result of its recent work “reporters from numerous media outlets have obtained copies of their own Rendon profiles and learned details of how they were blacklisted or secretly managed by public affairs officers.”
The newspaper had quoted from Rendon reports that provided advice on dealing with two unidentified reporters, but it produced no evidence that those recommendations had been acted upon and no reporters claiming to have been blacklisted or secretly managed.
On Aug. 29, the newspaper said Maj. Patrick Seiber, a PAO, had rejected two embed requests during his year in Afghanistan “based partly on what he read in the profiles,” concerns that involved one reporter’s accuracy and the other’s treatment of classified information. It offered no other examples of embed requests being rejected or any cases of journalists being steered.
All told, the number of journalists reported as having seen their files was three, one of whom did not appear to have been interviewed at length and the others not at all.
On Aug. 28, the newspaper said an unidentified “Pentagon correspondent” had quickly obtained her file the day before, reporting only that she said it was current through July. The next day, it reprised that mention.
The other journalists cited as having seen their files were P.J. Tobia and Nir Rosen, but neither had been contacted by the newspaper. Instead, it used comments from their blogs, in Rosen’s case without so noting, implying he had been interviewed.
Taken with the two preceding paragraphs, Rosen’s comments appeared to confirm that he was among “numerous” reporters who had just discovered “how they were blacklisted or secretly managed.”
But the newspaper neglected to mention that Rosen and Tobia had obtained their Rendon files from the military well before Stars and Stripes’ stories appeared and that neither had complained of mistreatment.
Tobia, who has been published in the Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, wrote that he got his Rendon report, dated May 5, around the end of May.
Rosen, aware and supportive of Stars and Stripes’ initial reporting on the Rendon files but not that his name had later appeared in the paper, told me in response to an e-mail query that officers had twice shown him his file, in June and July, and even given him a copy.
Rosen, who has written for the Washington Post, New York Times, Mother Jones and the New Yorker, also disputed Stars and Stripes’ summation of his uncredited blog.
The paper said in its Sept. 3 analysis of military media policy: “Freelancer Nir Rosen, who has reported downrange for Time and Rolling Stone, said military officials overseas nearly blocked his embed requests because profiles labeled him as an opponent of the Iraq war and warned that he might ‘circumvent security and administrative restrictions in order to pursue other story angles’ — charges he vehemently denied.”
Rosen told me: “I was not nearly blocked, or at least I wouldn’t categorize it like that, and I didn’t vehemently deny anything,” adding, “I don’t usually do anything vehemently.” He said that had he been barred or nearly so or had felt steered, he would have said so publicly: “It would have made for a great story.”
The strongest language I found on his blog was a sentence disputing a Rendon statement: “That last part was definitely wrong.”
Rosen, who has accompanied both American and Taliban forces, with the latter venture of some concern to Rendon, told on his blog of a PAO describing his file as “the most alarming report about a journalist that he had ever seen.” But Rosen wrote that his embed request to report on counterinsurgency operations was approved anyway.
“I've been embedded three times and always treated very well, despite my works and criticism of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Rosen told me.
Neither Rosen nor Tobia said he had been denied embeds because of the Rendon reports nor felt steered or managed, despite criticisms by Rendon.
That information was not reported.
Rosen told me his report identified the Rendon employees who had worked on it.
Tobia, whose blog says he lives in Kabul, wrote in August that “most reporters in Afghanistan know about these reports,” that “every Kabul journo” knew that “the military hired Rendon,” though some had complained the company wouldn’t give them theirs, and that he had even socialized in Kabul with Rendon analysts who boasted over drinks of their power.
Those comments were not reported.
Just as some journalists were aware their work was being monitored, collected and analyzed by the military and contractors like Rendon, others, like the unidentified Pentagon correspondent, clearly were not.
Stars and Stripes’ editor, Terry Leonard, said that after the newspaper thrust the issue of Rendon’s contract into the spotlight, two leading journalists had complained privately that they had not known of the files, with one coming to believe an embed had been denied because of them.
What is undeniable is that Stars and Stripes’ articles suddenly made the reports newsworthy even for journalists who already knew the military, and in some cases even Rendon, was compiling files on their work.
Paul McLeary wrote at AviationWeek.com that in the summer of 2008, while aboard ship covering a Navy mission in the Caribbean, he had actually received e-mail from a Rendon analyst who said she was “tracking” his and other reporters’ work.
Thomas E. Ricks, who received a Pulitzer Prize reporting on the military for the Wall Street Journal and later covered the beat for the Washington Post, said on his blog Sept. 1 that “twice in the past I've actually been shown official military files on me.”
“Despite huffing and puffing by Stars & Stripes, this is not [a] big deal,” he wrote.
Ron Martz, president of the association Military Reporters and Editors, was quoted Aug. 24 in Stars and Stripes saying, “The whole concept of doing profiles on reporters who are going to embed with the military is alarming.”
But in a later letter to Congress urging an investigation of the Rendon contract and its possible impact on news coverage, Martz allowed that “those of us who have covered military affairs have known for years that the military has kept unofficial dossiers on reporters to determine their level of competence and the types of stories on which they are likely to report.”
All told, the five Rendon stories preceding the Sept. 3 analysis of military media policy cited six people who had provided information directly to it – four military PAO’s, one Defense Department spokesman, and the unidentified Pentagon correspondent who said her file was current through July 2009.
Neither of the two other journalists cited, Rosen and Tobia, were ever contacted, and in Rosen’s view his uncredited blog comments were misrepresented on Sept. 3.
In all six articles, published documentary source information relating directly to the Rendon files was taken from two Rendon reports, e-mailed responses to queries sent to Rendon, and one of two public statements Rendon issued, on Aug. 26 and Sept. 3.
The newspaper cited six people who all provided supportive opinions – journalism advocates, media analysts, “military watchdogs” and “one servicemember,” the last a departure from newspaper policy that anonymous sources be quoted only to present vital information that cannot be done so any other way.
No one outside the military or Department of Defense was quoted defending or providing a rationale for the file-keeping or Rendon’s contract to do it.
Leonard defended the newspaper’s reporting and cited the praise the articles garnered from journalists and advocacy groups. Since his comments, the articles have also been honored with a prestigious Polk Award.
Leonard takes strong exception to any suggestion that based on what was published, the Rendon articles may appear undersourced to the average reader.
“Stars and Stripes’ investigation of the U.S. military’s program to compile profiles of reporters and attempt to steer their coverage of the war in Afghanistan was consistently even-handed, accurate and balanced,” he wrote in a statement that accompanied publication of the first ombudsman’s column in this review.
In my view, Leonard and the editor who oversaw the coverage, Howard Witt, could have been more rigorous in pressing their reporters and presenting their findings in a way that would assure readers of the underlying evidence.
In my view, Stars and Stripes did not publish sufficient evidence of reporters’ being blacklisted or unknowingly steered by virtue of the files, and in some instances, it omitted mitigating information.
Not only because of what it reported but because of what it left out, it is my view that the Rendon articles provided readers with inadequate bases for a number of the articles’ most serious assertions and fostered impressions that were either inaccurate or unsupported by what was published.