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.