Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Second-Hand Reporting is Troubling

Yesterday, I was critical of those involved in the raid to kill Osama bin Laden–Operation Neptune’s Spear–for talking about operational details with Nicholas Schmidle, a freelance writer whose article on the raid appears in the current New Yorker. I noted this would make it harder to preserve secrecy on future missions.

Now it turns out the 23 SEALs on the mission didn’t actually talk to Schmidle. Or so reports the Washington Post. I am not sure if this makes the situation better or worse.

Clearly, officers from the Joint Special Operations Command, the higher headquarters for the SEALs, did talk to Schmidle as did administration officials in Washington. All of my prior concerns about preserving secrecy remain. The only difference is that the actual operators–the guys at the pointy end of the spear–have been absolved of the leaks.

But this revelation raises a new issue: Whether Schmidle is guilty of journalistic dishonesty. As the Post account notes, a reader of his piece (which says nothing about its sourcing) would have no idea he didn’t talk to any of the men on the mission: “Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly.” For example:

The SEALs, he writes of the raid’s climactic moment, “instantly sensed that it was Crankshaft,” the mission’s name for bin Laden, implying the SEALs themselves had conveyed this impression to him.

He also writes the raiders “were further jostled by the awareness that they were possibly minutes away from ending the costliest manhunt in American history; as a result, some of their recollections — on which this account is based — may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.”

Except, the account was based not on their recollections but on the recollections of people who spoke to the SEALs.

I suppose there is nothing so shocking about this disclosure which comes decades after the birth of “new journalism” in which writers such as Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, et al., took to applying the conventions of novels to non-fiction writing. Still, I am old-fashioned enough to find it troubling that a supposedly reputable magazine such as the New Yorker is passing along second-hand (at best) reports as if they had come straight from the horse’s mouth. I suppose that’s a step up from publishing Seymour Hersh’s imaginative fiction.


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