The St. Louis Dispatch ran an "article" on November 8 by former embedded reporter Ron Harris, purportedly debunking claims made by ex-Marine Jimmy Massey that he and his unit engaged in all manner of atrocities while in Iraq during the early days of the occupation. Complete with perhaps the most unflattering photo published on a newspaper site since the tighty-whitey-clad-Saddam tabloid photo, the piece appeared to have some merit, assuming as one would that a debunking piece in a major US newspaper would have involved extra editorial oversight, fact-checking and source-vetting.
But it turns out one cannot assume too much these days, as appears to be evidenced in an equally scathing debunking-of-the-debunking piece quickly put together by antiwar commentator Stan Goff, which may or may not have been vetted by an editor before it was posted November 8 to the CounterPunch website. Goff's contribution was followed on the 10th by a response from Massey himself.
I spent some time looking into the various claims of the various writers this week, since TNS ran two pieces over the past year citing some of Massey's claims. One was about his testimony at the Canadian asylum trial of a fellow soldier. The other was a report about loose trigger-fingers at US military "checkpoints" in Iraq, particularly the one where soldiers shot at released hostage Giuliana Sgrena and Italian secret agent Nicola Calipari, wounding the former and killing the latter.
But I must confess, given the arguments at hand, it appears impossible to either fully corroborate Massey's story (which does appear to contain contradictions, exaggerations and possibly distortions), or to really validate Harris's decidedly sloppy critique. What is clear is that Harris played fast and loose with his assertions -- especially his claims about the content of Massey's claims -- and that he did one of the poorest jobs of reporting I've seen on a story like this in at least a couple of weeks (which is sadly saying quite a lot, given how much news I read and how bad American journalism is today).
That said, I don't regret summarizing and linking to Harris's story in TNS's In Other News section last week (except for the headline I used, "Ex-marine's shocking war stories revealed as tall tales," which I have since moderated), and yet I don't regret citing Massey's claims in other TNS stories. Allow me to explain...
News journalism is a very messy business, and it is far from scientific most of the time. There are many distinct ways to portray a report of impropriety -- be it a military atrocity or an apparently spurious eyewitness claim. The important thing is to provide the reader the appropriate level of doubt in cases where the story is not "slam-dunk" verified, and I do believe we do that responsibly at TNS nearly all of the time, precisely because we live in fear of getting stories wrong and having to print a prominent correction on our home page for 7 days and 7 nights, as is our policy.
I'll quote here from the relevant portion of the latter piece cited above, about checkpoint shootings, to demonstrate how we portrayed Massey's claims:
Additionally, at least one US Marine has also testified in Canadian court that soldiers deliberately fired at unarmed civilians at checkpoints in Iraq. Jimmy Massey, a former Marine staff sergeant who was honorably discharged after twelve years in the military, told a Canadian immigration board last year that he and his fellow Marines routinely shot civilians. "We deliberately gunned down people who were civilians," Massey said. He also said he had become concerned and decided to speak out "because I felt that Marines were honestly enjoying it. I saw plenty of Marines become psychopaths -- they enjoyed the killing."
Massey, who was testifying at the hearing of another US soldier who was seeking asylum in Canada, recalled a 48-hour period in which he and his fellow Marines killed over 30 civilians at a checkpoint in southern Baghdad. Massey said those civilians included a group of unarmed demonstrators and a driver of a car who had raised his hands above his head in surrender.
Massey said he had been acting on orders to shoot anyone who came too close to the checkpoint.
Now, remember, this was a case of sworn testimony where a 12-year veteran of the US Marine Corps was incriminating himself on record. We still couched his claims as just that: claims.
Compare that to what Mr. Harris did in his Post-Dispatch article, after relaying -- sometimes inaccurately -- some of Massey's allegations and confessions at the top of the piece:
News organizations worldwide published or broadcast Massey's claims without any corroboration and in most cases without investigation. Outside of the Marines, almost no one has seriously questioned whether Massey, a 12-year veteran who was honorably discharged, was telling the truth.
Rather than couching his own assertions that Massey is a liar as claims themselves, Harris just declared outright that Massey is a liar. His evidence? The eyewitness accounts of fellow Marines, who themselves have motive to deny Massey's allegations, and embedded journalists who lacked the ethical wherewithal to report independently on the war and who did not, if they knew of them, report any atrocities committed by the Marines whose protection they depended on. He also cited the results of a supposed military investigation, details of which he has not seen, declaring that Massey's claims were unfounded. I don't need to point out the conflict of interest there.
I've gone on long enough for this blog entry. Suffice it to say that the real story may well lie somewhere between Massey's troubling descriptions of what he witnessed and did in Iraq and Harris's universal dismissal of them.
But what we need to be concerned with is reporting methodology, and context must always be taken into account by editors, and by readers, with appropriate skepticism injected at all times.
As for Harris and his editors, they didn't even have the decency to note that Harris himself was embedded with members of Massey's battalion -- about whom he wrote gushingly romantic pieces throughout his tour -- and I think that lack of disclosure speaks volumes.
UPDATE (11/14): As a curious adendum, I suspect Harris's story actually was "vetted" by editors and probably by the Post-Dispatch's legal representatives. But what most people don't understand about vetting in the corporate media is that their main focus is on libel protection, not accuracy for the sake of truthfulness, per se.
Massey would have a strong case for libel against Harris and the Post-Dispatch only if Harris knew of the atrocities that he is denying took place. The other requirement, malicious intent, would not be hard to demonstrate in court, given the venemous, self-serving nature of Harris's piece.
But I suspect the Post-Dispatch's lawyers took into account the probability that it would be hard to find significant damages -- even if libel were proved -- in a case where the libelous article ironically served to clear the plaintiff of involvement in war crimes.