Sun, June 15, 2003

Intentional lies or poor journalism

A story in today’s (London) Sunday Times points to how bloggers are exposing factual errors, out of context quotes, and generally poor journalism. The author, Sarah Baxter writes If it makes America look bad it must be true, mustn’t it? Some left-leaning media will rush to publish anything, right or wrong, if it meets their anti-war agenda. The story is about an article published June 4 by the Guardian online, headlined “Wolfowitz: Iraq war was about oil.”. It stated that US deputy defense secretary Wolfowitz had claimed the real motive for the war was that Iraq is ‘swimming’ in oil.

The Wolfowitz story was too good to be true and too good to check. A freelance at The Guardian was so delighted with it that he went to the trouble of translating Wolfowitz from German into English, when he had spoken in English in the first place. And the German story was wrong anyway. No matter: another journalist turned it into the splash.

The story was eventually retracted, but only after having spread elsewhere. It was reported in Russia by Pravda, in Dar al hayat, the Beirut newspaper, on Radio Shi’i and by other Arab media.

Emily Bell, managing editor of Guardian Online, said the mistake had nothing to do with the anti- war stance of the paper or many of its staff: “I don’t know what the politics of my writers or editors are.” But it is hard to resist the conclusion that the fallacy crept in because it fitted a pre-existing mindset about the war.

Gregory Djerejian, 30, is an American blogger (web logger) in London who runs a site called Belgravia Dispatch. A current affairs junkie, he took only minutes to do The Guardian’s job for it. “When I saw the headline, my first reaction was Paul Wolfowitz is too smart to say anything like that, so I did a quick Google search.”

Wolfowitz had in fact drawn a comparison between North Korea, teetering on the edge of economic collapse — which he described as “a major point of leverage” over its weapons programme — and Iraq. “The primary difference … is that we had virtually no economic options in Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil.” At no point did he state or imply that the war was a grab for oil.

A correction was up and running on Belgravia Dispatch hours before The Guardian got around to its own. “I don’t have a political agenda,” said Djerejian, “but I get a little offended by the constant conspiratorial agenda about the Americans.”

My feelings entirely. The National Museum of Baghdad is to reopen this week with almost all of its treasures intact. Yet western academics and commentators rushed to blame the Americans for the worst vandalism since the invasion of the Mongols.

Who knows whether weapons of mass destruction will turn up like the 5,000-year-old Vase of Warka, which was returned by three Iraqis in the back of a car last week? Whether they will or not, it is at least clear to me that Wolfowitz never described such weapons as a “bureaucratic excuse for war”.

Read the Belgravia Dispatch for its assessment of the Guardian article, commentary on the story carried in Pravda, as well as most fascinating of all, the commentary about the Times article and the role meta-bloggers are playing in fact-checking the press.

If it makes America look bad it must be true, mustn’t it?
Some left-leaning media will rush to publish anything, right or wrong, if it meets their anti-war agenda, writes Sarah Baxter

June 15, 2003

The e-mail was from a friend I hadn’t heard from since the start of the war with Iraq. “Recalling our earlier conversations … ” it began. We’d had quite a few talks in the past about the merits of taking on Saddam: I was for, he was against. Like most anti-war protesters, he was convinced it was a war for oil. I thought it was for other reasons, which would have as a happy consequence the overthrow of a tyrant.

So there was a whiff of triumph in his latest correspondence, relaying the headline from The Guardian’s online edition of June 4. “Wolfowitz: Iraq war was about oil.” Aha! See what a sap I had been? The article went on: “The US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz — who has already undermined Tony Blair’s position over weapons of mass destruction by describing them as a ‘bureaucratic’ excuse for war — has now gone further by claiming the real motive was that Iraq is ‘swimming’ in oil.”

My bullshit detector went off immediately. Why on earth would Wolfowitz, the Pentagon’s ideologue, make such a crude admission? What’s more, The Guardian claimed he had made this “frank assessment” at an Asian security summit in Singapore, which was reported in two German newspapers. Hmm. Let’s hear it in plain English.

I should have replied: “Pah! I don’t believe it.” But, in case I was wrong, I e-mailed back frostily: “I’m surprised Wolfowitz has said this and I’d like to see his remarks in context . . .”

I did not have to wait long. The next morning The Guardian deleted the article and confessed he had said nothing of the kind, but the lie had already spread. In Russia, Pravda picked up the story; more damagingly in the Middle East it has been reported in Dar al hayat, the Beirut newspaper, on Radio Shi’i and other Arab media, where it has become the gospel about American motives.

No Guardian readers in Britain will have seen the story unless they logged onto the net. But the online edition receives an astounding 10m hits a month and, for international readers, there is no distinction between the fish and chip paper and the .co.uk one. As this paper’s New York correspondent, the internet edition is all I have to go on.

A powerful editor of The New York Times just lost his job over the fabrications of Jayson Blair, a young newsroom protégé. Admittedly Blair lied deliberately, pretending to be all over America when he was actually at home in Brooklyn, but his little flights of fancy look trivial next to the casual anti-American distortions of so many newspapers.

The Wolfowitz story was too good to be true and too good to check. A freelance at The Guardian was so delighted with it that he went to the trouble of translating Wolfowitz from German into English, when he had spoken in English in the first place. And the German story was wrong anyway. No matter: another journalist turned it into the splash.

I’m told senior editors at The Guardian were too busy with exciting news about Tony Blair’s leadership pact with Gordon Brown at the Granita restaurant in Islington nine years ago to notice there had been a “massive cock-up”.

Emily Bell, managing editor of Guardian Online, said the mistake had nothing to do with the anti- war stance of the paper or many of its staff: “I don’t know what the politics of my writers or editors are.” But it is hard to resist the conclusion that the fallacy crept in because it fitted a pre-existing mindset about the war.

Gregory Djerejian, 30, is an American blogger (web logger) in London who runs a site called Belgravia Dispatch. A current affairs junkie, he took only minutes to do The Guardian’s job for it. “When I saw the headline, my first reaction was Paul Wolfowitz is too smart to say anything like that, so I did a quick Google search.”

Wolfowitz had in fact drawn a comparison between North Korea, teetering on the edge of economic collapse — which he described as “a major point of leverage” over its weapons programme — and Iraq. “The primary difference … is that we had virtually no economic options in Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil.” At no point did he state or imply that the war was a grab for oil.

A correction was up and running on Belgravia Dispatch hours before The Guardian got around to its own. “I don’t have a political agenda,” said Djerejian, “but I get a little offended by the constant conspiratorial agenda about the Americans.”

My feelings entirely. The National Museum of Baghdad is to reopen this week with almost all of its treasures intact. Yet western academics and commentators rushed to blame the Americans for the worst vandalism since the invasion of the Mongols.

Who knows whether weapons of mass destruction will turn up like the 5,000-year-old Vase of Warka, which was returned by three Iraqis in the back of a car last week? Whether they will or not, it is at least clear to me that Wolfowitz never described such weapons as a “bureaucratic excuse for war”.

This phrase not only popped up in the same Guardian Online piece, but also in other quality newspapers such as the French Le Monde, which claimed the presence of weapons of mass destruction “was merely a pretext” for war. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung concluded: “The charge of deception is inescapable.”

How so? My reading of Wolfowitz’s comments, from this month’s Vanity Fair, is that he and his colleagues were convinced that Saddam’s weapons posed a major threat. There were plenty of justifications for the war, he explained, but “for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason”.

Trying to counter these myths as they spread around the world is a boggling task. Thinking the worst about the Americans has become ingrained. Bell feels The Guardian has done all it can. “We made a mistake and we apologised for it and if people choose to ignore our correction I can’t take responsibility for them.”

Ian Mayes, the readers’ editor of The Guardian, noted in his column that it had not been the “best of weeks” for his paper, especially as The Guardian had just apologised to Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, for “locating him at a meeting which he did not attend”.

This was an alleged meeting at the Waldorf hotel in New York between Straw and Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, where they were said to have discussed the poor intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Except Straw wasn’t there.

As I passed my newsagents’ a few days ago, the weekly international edition of The Guardian was still displaying the “scoop” of the “Waldorf transcripts” on the front page. Never mind. Guardian insiders tell me they got the location wrong, but not really the gist of the conversation between the two foreign secretaries. But if the meeting never took place how do they know that? It’s rather like my friend, to whom I smugly e-mailed The Guardian’s mea culpa with the words: “This should settle matters.”

Far from it. He pinged back: “I think it only proves that The Guardian made a mistake and that Wolfie wasn’t so dumb as to have admitted that in public … It is common sense that oil was one of the reasons for the war.”

This time I did reply: “Pah!”

The bathroom effect

An article from The Salt Lake Tribune describes the new Pixar headquarters: “Pixar resembles the coolest community college you ever attended.… The semi-controlled chaos of the work environment, like the building’s design, is guided by the Pixar philosophy that good things come from creative people bouncing ideas off each other.… They are geeks with the neatest playground in the movie business.”

Leaving creative idea bouncing to chance wasn’t sufficient for Pixar CEO Steve Jobs. To help encourage interaction between the 700 employees, he wanted there to be a single bathroom in the building.

Here’s the “bathroom effect” theory, as Greenberg explains it: “If you have bathrooms that are scattered throughout the building, you use the bathroom nearest to where you’re sitting. If there was one bathroom, all kinds of people would come together and talk with one another all the time — you’d meet different people if you were waiting in line. It would enhance communication, and you’d be talking about things outside of work.”

Mercifully for the bladders of Pixar’s caffeine-addicted staffers, the central atrium has eight restrooms on two floors — four men’s and four women’s (with the silhouettes of “Toy Story’s” Woody and Bo-Peep at the entrances). The atrium also boasts Cafe Luxo (named for the swing-arm lamp that starred in Pixar’s first short), break rooms with an unusual number of toasters, the mailroom, conference rooms, pool and foosball tables, and an open area for the occasional concert or lecture.

via Peter Lindberg’s weblog. Also see his post about the Disney Process.