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October 17, 2003
The LA Times Unleashes Another Firestorm

As if it hadn't been burned enough with the 'get-Arnold' campaign John Carroll waged the past few weeks, the LA Times has demonstrated atrocious journalistic standards in its editorial section yesterday.

The story concerns General Jerry Boykin, the man in charge of finding al-Qaeda leaders and Saddam Hussein, and the man Rumsfeld just nominated as deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence. General Boykin is a fervent Christian who feels God is calling the US to fight against Satan, and who regularly shares this opinion with others, when asked to do so. For instance, according to William Arkin, the Times' military affairs analyst, Boykin has been quoted as follows:

In June of 2002, Jerry Boykin stepped to the pulpit at the First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow, Okla., and described a set of photographs he had taken of Mogadishu, Somalia, from an Army helicopter in 1993. The photographs were taken shortly after the disastrous "Blackhawk Down" mission had resulted in the death of 18 Americans. When Boykin came home and had them developed, he said, he noticed a strange dark mark over the city. He had an imagery interpreter trained by the military look at the mark. "This is not a blemish on your photograph," the interpreter told him, "This is real."

"Ladies and gentleman, this is your enemy," Boykin said to the congregation as he flashed his pictures on a screen. "It is the principalities of darkness It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy."

The editorial (which is linked) covers other similar quotes from Boykin, and about two-thirds of the way through the article, Arkin states:

But that's only part of the problem. Boykin is also in a senior Pentagon policymaking position, and it's a serious mistake to allow a man who believes in a Christian "jihad" to hold such a job.

Putting aside Arkin's opinion, to which he's entitled and for which he's paid, there seems to be an issue with quoting Boykin on believing in a Christian "jihad": he's never said that. He never said the word "jihad", so what are the quote marks supposed to be indicating? James Lileks has an intriguing guess, in the form of an imaginary dialogue between Arkin and his editor:

But he didn’t say that.

Exactly? Well,he meant, it though.

He meant it.

Yes, and that’s why I put it in quotes.

Quotes. Which are usually reserved for, you know, quotes.

Right, but I used them here to set the word apart. You know, show that it was a paraphrase.

By using the means we use to indicate direct transcriptions.

Well, sometimes, sure. But I meant them more as, you know, those air quotes you do with your fingers?

Yes, the official LA Times explanation is that they used quote marks precisely because it wasn't an exact quote. Arkin intended to highlight the concept. But now, I wonder how many of Arkin's quotes were exact, or just Arkin's paraphrase. For instance,

"It is the principalities of darkness. It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy."

could very well have been

"It's a murky region. There's an evilness in the area that my faith compels me to confront and overcome."

And, of course, the further question is: in how many other stories did Arkin apply this odd journalistic and grammatical standard? The Times should be prepared to produce transcripts supporting quotes in every one of Arkin's stories or retract them.

I first heard about this story yesterday on Hugh Hewitt's radio show, where he discussed this with Peter Beinart. Hewitt's focus was not on the quote -- I don't know if that was in question at the time -- but on how the Times had handled the entire story's publication, which had gone to NBC first for Wednesday night's news broadcast:

I interviewed Arkin today and discovered that he developed the story on his own initiative as a columnist for the Times, and he decided with the full knowledge and approval of editors at the Los Angeles Times to provide NBC News with the story so that NBC could run the story before the paper ran Arkin's op-ed and the front-page story. He stated that the idea was to get the story some pop by using the audio and video.

The Los Angeles Times thus gave away a scoop on a story that ended up on its front page. Why would it do that? It may have a precedent in the world of journalism, but to me it stinks. Didn't the Times engage in manipulation of the news to increase its impact on the audience? Or did the paper need cover for the story and gave it to NBC in order to generate that cover[?]

While synergy in media is nothing new, this clearly appears to be a case where both A and B apply: The Times manipulated the story so as to maximize its exposure, and it also allowed NBC to make the false claim that it had developed the story so as to deceive the Times' readership as to the origin of the reporting. It's embarrassing and shameful that a newspaper of such stature could create such staggering ethical crises as the Boykin and the groping stories have done. In order to maintain any credibility as both a media outlet and shaper of the political debate, the Times can have an (honest and open) editorial slant but still must be transparent in its processes, and setting out to deceive people in this manner completely destroys their credibility and the trust needed for them to function in either capacity.

We are in Jayson Blair territory here. Unless the Tribune Company makes immediate changes in management, the Times is forfeit as a reliable news source, and Angelenos should be outraged. They deserve to have a daily newspaper that reports fairly, quotes accurately, editorializes to improve the community as it sees, and discharges its public-service mission in a responsible, consistent, and fair manner. The events of the past three months have made it clear that John Carroll and his team are not the people to meet those objectives. Carroll and Arkin, and perhaps more, need to be removed immediately.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 17, 2003 1:33 PM

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