The NYT and Dangerous Reporting

Some days you are just going along fairly well and then something really sets you off.  I was having a good day until Powerlineblog directed my attention to this NYT article on IraqTheModel.  IraqTheModel is a generally, though not reflexively pro-American weblog run by three Iraqis.  Last month, as the authors met with the President, there was a kerfuffle when Juan Cole repeated some rumors from anonymous web sources that the authors of the blog were CIA spies.  This was pretty well put to rest as mere mean-spirited speculation at the time. 

So, enter the New York Times:

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When I telephoned a man named Ali Fadhil in Baghdad last week, I wondered who might answer. A C.I.A. operative? An American posing as an Iraqi? Someone paid by the Defense Department to support the war? Or simply an Iraqi with some mixed feelings about the American presence in Iraq? Until he picked up the phone, he was just a ghost on the Internet.

What?  Had a NYT reporter found out that the bloggers really were CIA plants? 

The mystery began last month when I went online to see what Iraqis think about the war and the Jan. 30 national election. I stumbled into an ideological snake pit. Out of a list of 28 Iraqi blogs in English at a site called Iraqi Bloggers Central, I clicked on Iraq the Model because it promised three blogging brothers in one, Omar, Mohammed and Ali.

It delivered more than that. The blog, which is quite upbeat about the American presence in Iraq, had provoked a deluge of intrigue and vitriol. People posting messages on an American Web site called Martini Republic accused the three bloggers of working for the C.I.A., of being American puppets, of not being Iraqis and even of not existing at all.

I see.  The NYT reporter hasn't found out anything.  She is merely repeating rumors from websites.  Ah, the deep investigative powers of the mainstream media.  She merely repeats the unfounded rumor, notes that the bloggers write in surprisingly (why surprisingly?) fluent English, and notes that the bloggers deny being plants.  She also reports that when she spoke to one of them, he had withdrawn from the blog due to fears for the lives of his family. 

This article pisses me off because it shows completely shoddy reporting, and doesn't bother for a second to think of the ramifications of making this particular unfounded accusation.  The brothers of IraqTheModel are already putting their lives on the line by being pro-American in Iraq.  Do they really need the most important American newspaper to insinuate that they are CIA spies?  Did Sarah Boxer think for a moment about the ramifications of that charge?  There are basically two situations.  A) The brothers are CIA plants.  If this were true, and if there were something to be gained by exposing it, the insinuation might be defensible.  I can't think of why the reporter would need to reveal that--putting their lives in danger--but maybe it could make sense in certain situations.  Of course Boxer's article sets up no such important situation which tends to make the insinuation bad even if we were to assume its truth.  B) The brothers are not CIA plants.  If this is the case, Boxer just put their lives in even more danger for absolutely no defensible reason.  If the evidence were to be judged on a perponderance standard--with the only evidence presented that IraqTheModel is pro-American, writes in good English, and that anonymous web-posters say they are agents--we would have to conclude that B) seems much more likely.

How can a NYT writer be so disconnected from reality?  Even if the insinuation didn't endanger people, doesn't it violate the basic tenets of reporting to make a serious charge with no more than third-hand rumor?  Did Boxer's need to discredit a vaguely pro-Bush Iraqi source extend so far as to rely entirely on rumor?  It makes me want to scream. 

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at January 19, 2005 2:59 AM