December 3, 2007

NRO: Still Learning The Lessons

Earlier this afternoon, Kathryn Jean Lopez joined me on Heading Right Radio to discuss the continuing controversy over reporting at The Tank by Thomas Smith. Smith wrote two posts at The Tank in September which got events spectacularly incorrect, as recapped ably by retired Washington Post journalist Thomas Edsall at the Huffington Post. Both Michelle Malkin and Rick Moran wrote highly-linked articles on NRO's reaction to the exposure of the blown stories, both castigating Smith; Michelle praised Kathryn's reaction to the challenge, while Rick insisted that Smith be fired. Andrew Sullivan added a series of posts challenging Kathryn's response, noting claims that she and NRO had been notified of the problem weeks earlier and had ignored it.

For full disclosure, Kathryn has on occasion asked me to contribute to NRO for on-line symposiums on specific topics. I don't believe I've ever done anything for pay at National Review, although I may have. These occasional contributions could be counted on one hand, but it's important to note them nonetheless. Kathryn explained that she wished she could have joined me today under better circumstances, and I certainly hope that we can have her back.

To start, we reviewed what happened on these two posts that allowed NRO to publish faulty information. Kathryn believes that NRO failed to provide sufficient editorial control at The Tank. Smith did not just get to post his submissions without editorial review, but Kathryn felt that the process lacked enough control. Smith isn't a regular war reporter but more of a blogger, and she said that the magazine owed him better supervision and a more critical editorial process. NRO should have asked more questions about his sourcing for these stories, and asked him to clarify what he himself observed and what he got from other sources.

The failure of the editorial process was clearly evident. As Edsall, Moran, and others have pointed out, a shift of 5,000 armed Hezbollah militia members to a Christian neighborhood should have resulted in a lot of things blowing up. An editor who saw that kind of dispatch should have turned on CNN or the BBC to see how much smoke appeared over the Beirut skyline. When other reporters failed to note these developments, Smith's editor should have asked further about these stories.

Smith, in his long explanation, insists that he had sourcing for the stories but left a misleading impression that he witnessed them himself. His defensive tone raised some questions as well, considering that he got the stories wrong. Kathryn told us that she asked Smith to post an explanation of what went wrong, while she handled the retraction and apology. Smith clearly needed a little guidance on that post as well.

Kathryn said that she didn't think Smith intended to mislead or to create fabulism, but simply got burned by a source with an overactive imagination. NRO, contrary to the assumptions in the blogosphere, has not completed its investigation of The Tank's reporting from Lebanon. Kathryn wanted to quickly retract the two posts and offer her apologies, while they continue to investigate Smith's reporting. If they find more problems, Kathryn says they will re-evaluate their relationship with Smith.

That brings us to the issue of responsiveness. Kathryn says that she first found out about this just recently, within the last week or so when Edsall contacted her. Mitchell Prothero and Chris Albritton claim they both e-mailed NRO in October with their challenges to the story. However, Albritton used the e-mail for The Tank, not NRO's editors; Prothero may or may not have done the same, but Lopez got neither of them, nor did any of the other editors. One might have assumed that The Tank's published e-mail address would go to Smith, but in fact it went nowhere. Kathryn reports that NRO cannot find any evidence that the published e-mail ever got assigned to anyone. Only when Edsall contacted her directly -- her e-mail appears on her posts at The Corner -- did she start checking the story, and rapidly tried to respond.

So what are the lessons Kathryn and NRO want to take from this?

* Check all e-mail addresses posted on the site. As one listener commented in the webchat, it's rude to have an e-mail posted for a writer or editor that doesn't work. It also keeps editors from finding out about big problems with posted material in a timely manner. NRO is presently checking all of them now to ensure they have correct e-mail addresses, and that someone reads mail received from them.

* Provide real editorial supervision, especially over inexperienced writers. Had the editor checked the work, it would not have remained on the site for long, since the stories turned out to be false. Ask questions, challenge assumptions, and make sure that the writer clearly shows the sourcing on a story. ADDENDUM, 4:43 PM: Just to make sure this is clear, Kathryn felt that stronger editorial work would have revealed that Smith didn't actually witness these events -- and that would have prompted an editor to ask for more corroboration. A better process would have resulted in keeping these stories off of their website.

I got the sense that Kathryn wants to do the right thing by everyone involved -- Smith, the editor, and the readers. In a sense, she feels that NRO has failed Smith by not providing the supervision and support he needed to write more clearly and also to show his sourcing. I don't get a sense that she's hiding anything or making excuses, except that she may be a little too solicitous of a writer that should have done a better job at making sure that the dramatic events he described actually took place.

Kathryn understands that the bottom line for any media organization, be it NRO, Captain's Quarters, or The New Republic, is to get the story right. If she feels that adjusting NRO's editorial process is sufficient to ensure that, we will watch the results. Kathryn promises to report on any other problems found in Smith's other posts -- and we'll keep a close eye on that as well. Be sure to listen to the entire interview at Heading Right Radio.


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