Accuracy in Media

The Washington Post on Monday ran a front-page story by Ellen Knickmeyer about allegations that Marines deliberately killed an Iraqi for absolutely no reason at all. To make matters worse, the Iraqi was said to be a disabled individual who had a bad leg. Charges that he was a terrorist caught in the act of concealing a roadside bomb are categorically rejected out of hand by the man’s family and residents of the area, most of whom spoke to the paper on an anonymous basis. The Marines, who have been tried and found guilty by the paper, were portrayed as cold-blooded killers. No excuse or rationale was offered for their alleged conduct. 

By contrast, however, Rep. William Jefferson, who reportedly put $90,000 in bribery money into a freezer and was videotaped taking cash, is absolved of any ill intent in another page-one story in the Post. Anonymous sources are quoted in this story as saying that Jefferson, the “son of impoverished Louisiana sharecroppers and a graduate of Harvard Law School,” may have taken the money because he didn’t want to live on his public salary and did not “want to leave his family in the financial straits he pulled himself out of…” In other words, poverty made him do it. 

The one-sided attack on our troops, when all of the facts are not in, reflects piling on in the wake of the feeding frenzy over the coverage of Haditha, the alleged massacre involving U.S. Marines. The name of the media game is to be the first to get a Marine scalp. With a scalp comes a possible journalism prize. 

On the other hand, a Congressman allegedly in the middle of one of the worst corruption scandals in history gets caught on tape and with money in his freezer and he is depicted by reporters Allan Lengel and Jonathan Weisman as someone who just wanted to do good for others. The excuse offered by the Post for Jefferson’s conduct was laugh-out-loud funny. Where are the editors of the Post? How could such a claim, based on anonymous sources, have made it into print? 

In the Iraq case, perhaps it will turn out that U.S. soldiers killed the man for no legitimate reason, and that they will be charged with a crime. One has to be skeptical at this point because the Post story was so slanted against the soldiers. Like our troops, Jefferson is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty and he should have every opportunity to defend himself against the charges made against him in the press. But in his case, because the paper has offered an excuse for his alleged conduct in advance of any charges being filed, he will be able to argue that he was doing it all for a good cause-the impoverished. Perhaps Jefferson, if he is eventually charged, will call the Post’s “observers” as character witnesses. 

The absurd “Poverty made me do it” defense of Jefferson was repeated in a caption under a photo of Jefferson on page 4 of the print version of the paper. It said, “Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) does not want his family to experience the financial hardships that he endured in his own childhood, political observers say.” 

Who are these anonymous “observers?” Perhaps members of his own family, for all we know. What kind of “political observer” would rationalize accepting bribes on the grounds that he had a big heart? Perhaps these “observers” don’t even exist. Perhaps they were made up to rationalize Jefferson’s alleged misconduct.  

Ironically, these stories appeared just one day after the Post ombudsman, Deborah Howell, had a column in the paper that began: “Anonymous sources can damage a newspaper’s credibility.” She claimed the Post had been making progress in reducing their use. It’s clear that Post editors don’t pay any attention to her, and she doesn’t pay close attention to what they do. 

In terms of the use of anonymous sources, the Jefferson story is one for the books. The claim that Jefferson allegedly took bribes because he wanted money for his family has got to go down as one of the most original excuses ever offered for reported illegal behavior. If we are to believe the Post, the $90,000 in cold hard cash in his freezer just hadn’t yet made its way to destitute members of the Jefferson clan. Perhaps he just needed more time to distribute the proceeds. That darn FBI got in the way. 

One can anticipate claims that the FBI should have left Jefferson alone because of all the good he was trying to do. After that, it won’t be too long before we see or hear claims that Jefferson, who is black, was being investigated because he was trying to do good for black people, and that federal authorities are racist for interfering with his charitable activities. Expect to read about it in the Post. 

But don’t look for any excuses to be offered for U.S. troops in Iraq trying to defend themselves against terrorists who want to blow them to bits.

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