Scandal Equivalence | The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Scandal Equivalence
by

W. Thomas Smith, Jr. is agitated. “What upsets me is when I’m accused of lying or fabricating stories, which is absolutely not the case.”

Smith was, until recently, a contributor to National Review Online‘s military blog, The Tank. On a trip to Lebanon last fall, he did some reporting — badly. He reported a “show of force” by 4,000-5,000 Hezbollah gunmen in Beirut that, many reporters on the ground in Lebanon agree, probably didn’t happen. And he filed a description of a “sprawling Hezbollah tent city” housing “some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen” that struck many people familiar with Beirut as an exaggeration.

Smith admits that he was sloppy, but the severity of the beating that his reputation has taken has him riled. “These blogs, they pick up on something, and then they twist it or they distort it, and then they repeat it, repeat it, repeat it, and next thing you know it’s spreading like wildfire,” he says, his voice rising in frustration.

On November 30, NRO editor Kathryn Jean Lopez posted an editor’s note regarding the questions that had been raised about Smith’s reporting. Last week she gave a fuller account, retracting Smith’s reports, detailing the problems with them, and explaining how emails alerting NRO to the errors fell through the cracks. “I don’t think that Smith fabricated or falsified his reporting,” wrote Lopez. “But he should have been more clear about what exactly he saw with his own eyes, and he should have attributed any other information about the event to his sources (along with caveats about their credibility, if necessary.)”

Unfortunately for Smith and NRO, this all broke at the same time that New Republic editor Franklin Foer issued his bizarre and self-serving retraction of Scott Thomas Beauchamp’s Baghdad Diarist articles. Thomas B. Edsall, a Special Correspondent for the New Republic, flogged the Smith story at the Huffington Post, at one point flatly labeling Smith’s stories “fabrications.” Edsall mentioned in one of his reports that Smith and others at NRO had been critical of TNR during the Beauchamp saga — but never mentioned his own berth on TNR‘s masthead. (Edsall’s relationship with TNR isn’t mentioned in his HuffPost bio, either.) TNR Contributing Editor Andrew Sullivan (the TNR editor who first hired famed serial fabulist Stephen Glass) blogged obsessively about Smith, making sure to include the word “fabulist” in the title of nearly every post on the topic.

Mainstream media outlets followed by reporting the TNR and NRO stories together, implying a symmetry between the two cases. But the cases are quite different. Lopez responded within weeks of Smith’s dispatches being brought to her attention, and handled it straightforwardly. Foer took months to finally retract Beauchamp’s stories, and spent those months lashing out at TNR‘s critics. Beauchamp has refused to speak to reporters; Smith has sought reporters out. (It was Smith who first contacted TAS, not the other way around.) Foer refused to take phone calls from reporters who were following the story closely enough to ask pointed questions; Lopez did a detailed and thorough interview with blogger Ed Morrissey.

It’s easy to see why Smith is upset. His errors remain troubling, though. Anonymous sources, even self-interested anonymous sources peddling rumors, certainly have their place. The cardinal rule: Tell readers as much about your source as you can. Smith failed to even mention that he had sources, implying in some cases that he was relaying first-hand accounts. “My mistakes were that I didn’t source and attribute everything that I was saying in blog posts, which I absolutely should have done,” he admits. “But that does not mean that I am a liar or a fabricator.” Indeed, some Lebanese activists insist that Smith’s accounts were largely accurate.

A 48-year-old Marine Corps veteran, Smith has been working as a journalist for more than a decade (though he has somewhat less experience as a foreign correspondent). Smith even taught journalism at the University of South Carolina for a few semesters several years ago. There’s no excuse for his poor sourcing; he should have known better.

The New Republic loyalists who are loosely tossing around allegations of outright fabrication should also know better.

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