The exposure of fake or exaggerated tales of journalistic derring-do by Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC Nightly News now suspended without pay, will ignite a small glow of satisfaction in the breasts of many foreign correspondents. The arrival of anchors, editors or “celebrity” correspondents in the middle of a crisis, war, or at any other time, has always been the bane of reporters on the ground. I remember a friend on Time magazine, in the days when it was a power in the land 40 years ago, vainly trying to explain to his bosses why he was having difficulty arranging their fact-finding tour of Kuwait in the middle of Ramadan.
Williams’s credibility first began to disintegrate when he was challenged on his claim that he had been in a Chinook helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the Iraq War of 2003. In fact, the missile hit a Chinook flying half an hour ahead of his own. But he wasn’t the only journalist to be carried away by the idea that his life was in imminent danger at that time. I was then in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, and used to enjoy visiting a hotel called, so far as I recall, the Irbil Tower. Fox News was based on an upper floor of the hotel, the entrance to which, opposite the lift, was protected by a sandbag emplacement though not a shot was fired in Irbil during the conflict. In fact, the Fox team really was in some danger – a nervous receptionist at the front desk told me – because the weight of the sandbags was such that it might lead to the collapse of the shoddily built hotel.
Journalists very seldom lie about their war exploits, because, among other reasons, they are likely to be exposed by their colleagues. Usually, there is no reason to lie because almost any story can be given an appearance of truthfulness by judicious selection of the facts. My father, Claud Cockburn, an author and journalist, got into trouble for attacking what he called “the heresy of the facts”, making the point that there are not a finite number of facts lying around like nuggets of gold ore in the Yukon until they are picked up by some journalistic prospector. He argued that, on the contrary, there are an infinite number of facts and it is the judgement of the journalist that decides which are significant or insignificant. He explained that, in a sense, all stories are written backwards, beginning with the writer’s “take” on what matters and only then proceeding to a search for facts that he or she judges to be important. All this seemed to my father to be a matter of common sense, and he was taken aback to be criticised for confusing decent truth-loving reporters with black-hearted propagandists who make up stories.
Of course, some stories are faked, such as the one in 1990 about babies in a Kuwait hospital being tipped out of incubators by invading Iraqi soldiers and left to die on the floor. But a good propagandist or even a journalist looking for a good story does not have to fabricate; a selective approach to the facts is all that is needed. I remember going to Libya in the early 1990s when there was some prospect of a US invasion. Absolutely nothing was happening and the scores of journalists who had arrived on the same mission as myself waited impatiently until they could go home.
Instead, we all got irritated calls from our offices one morning saying that a well-known paper had an article reporting, to the effect that, “Libya girds itself for war”. The author cited sandbags outside government ministries and diplomats reporting tank traps being dug at the top of beaches. Editors asked why we had missed the story reported by our intrepid colleague. True enough, there were sandbags but they had been there for months. I went with a friend from the LA Times to the Justice Ministry and a couple of dozy guards waved us through. Inside, we found nobody apart from a gardener who said the minister was asleep at home and offered us his address.
The “tank trap” element of the story was more difficult to deflate. The Libyan coast is 1,100 miles long. We went to see a senior Italian diplomat with a reputation for being highly informed who poured scorn on the idea of Libya preparing for war. But he then admitted, with some embarrassment, that he himself might have been the source of the tale about beach-top fortifications being under construction. He explained that the journalist, whose article had caused the fuss, had come to see him and asked about Libyan fortifications. The diplomat had responded that he had just been to the beach with his children and they had seen some bulldozers working there. “Perhaps they were digging tank traps,” he had joked.
What is striking about the Brian Williams debacle, and the exposure of other self-regarding tales for which the media occasionally berate themselves, is their triviality. Television, newspapers and radio seldom indulge in truly damaging self-criticism over false stories that precipitated unjust wars or get a lot of people killed. The New York Times published numerous pieces before and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 falsely claiming proof that Saddam Hussein possessed or was building weapons of mass destruction. The New Yorker ran a false but highly influential story based on the evidence of a gunman who was prisoner of the Kurds claiming that Iraqi officials were working with al-Qaeda militants.
The reasons why media confessions of culpability tend to focus on minor sins is obvious. Persistent self-laceration over serious crimes of misreporting would cause real damage to a publication’s or television channel’s credibility while a deftly handled apology may enhance it. Thus The New York Times devoted two pages to a blow by blow account of plagiarism and misreporting by Jayson Blair in 2003 that damaged nobody, but it was May 2004 before The New York Times’ editors’ critique of their paper’s WMD coverage appeared – and was buried on page 10. It is worth re-reading The New York Times’s public editor’s acerbic comment on the affair saying that some “stories pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of the editors”. Glad that doesn’t happen any more.
The same public editor rightly typifies anonymous sources as “a licence granted to liars” but does not explain why there is such uncritical reliance on such sources: it is simply that journalists are not very well equipped to find out the truth. In movies bad people blub and confess their sins or admit to crimes that might land them in jail. In reality, wrongdoers have too much sense to do anything of the sort. Successful investigation without legal powers is extraordinarily difficult. Hence the reliance on officially inspired “leaks”. Brian Williams’s vainglorious boasting looks likes destroying his career, but those who purvey the most destructive lies in the media will seldom be identified or punished.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution’