Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Politico Fails Journalism 100

When I was studying journalism way back in the early 1980s, they hammered on us pretty hard about fact checking, verifying sources and not accepting things as fact based on hearsay. I don’t think we covered conference calls specifically, but I believe it was implied that you might not want to go with something in your story's lead based on unsubstantiated, third-party recollection.

But that's exactly what The Politico did today when they went to press with the banner headline that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) had "…called Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 'incompetent' during an interview Tuesday with a group of liberal bloggers, a comment that was never reported."

I was on that call. And let me explain to The Politico why I did not report on it.

It's because those of us who actually participated in the conference call heard the context in which Senator Reid made his comments. What he said about Pace was not said in the spirit of throwing some rhetorical red meat to a bunch of liberal bloggers by gratuitously bashing General Pace -- which is certainly what one could infer from The Politicos "reporting" on this story.

Rather, Reid was talking informally about George W. Bush's refusal to dump Alberto Gonzales and told us what he said to Pace in a private meeting before Bush tossed aside the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff like a rotting fish.

Here's exactly what Reid said:
"I guess the president, uh, he's gotten rid of Pace because he could not get him confirmed here in the Senate… Pace is also a yes-man for the president and I told him to his face, I laid it out to him last time he came to see me, I told him what an incompetent man I thought he was."
So, did Reid utter the word "incompetent" in the same sentence with General Pace's name on the conference call? Yes, he did.

But in the context in which it was said -- and based on Reid's tendency to speak like the straight-talking, former boxer that he is -- it all makes sense. And to those of us not looking for a Matt Drudge-worthy story, it hardly seemed remarkable.

The overwhelming majority of the American people are against this war and are angry about the totally incompetent way it has been handled since 2003. And most Americans would probably use much stronger words than "incompetent" to describe the people who have helped Bush conduct this disastrous war and who have, by commission or omission, assisted in misleading the American people about how badly things are going.

Harry Reid talks every day about the thousands of American military dead and the tens of thousands wounded as a result of the Bush administration's lies and incompetence. What he told us on that call was that he had the character to tell one of the principals in this mess exactly what he thought right to his face.

And, for that, the Senate Majority Leader should be applauded.