How the media gets it wrong

Over at the excellent SOFREP a while back, designated frogman Brandon Webb fisked a blog post by Time journalist Mark Thompson. In the comments to that post, our editor here made a few points, as did other vets. One excellent response by a Marine, “bmessenheimer,” noted that the reporter was quoting from a standard DOD contract request, that he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about (reinforcing Brandon’s point), and that he should have enquired of a DevGru source. We thought the response to Messenheimer deserved to be elaborated on as a post here.

First, our Marine friend noted that the post was merely a contract request.  There are two problems with this: one, it’s kind of lame journalism to riff off a contract (it’s not exactly shoe-leather reporting; it’s terribly chairbound and lazy). And two, why did they let a public contract in the first place? Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get around the contract regs, as we’ve learned since hanging up our body armor.

There’s even this huge bureaucracy, the Defense Acquisitions University, to teach you how to navigate the huger procurement bureaucracy without becoming roadkill. While the bureaucracy is incredibly frustrating, it’s there for a reason. Each mind-numbing reg and every roll of red tape is there because of some crook they caught ripping off the taxpayers. You can often point to the exact scandal that created the regulation, just as air-safety experts can point to the crash that engendered a safety rule. But the red tape winds up as wasteful as the corruption, and the unintended consequences of the new regulation inevitably create new ratholes for corrupt people to maneuver in.

As to the comment that Thompson “should have inquired with an internal source at DevGRU,” it’s a pretty safe bet that he hasn’t got one. One part of the SOF ethos we all share is this: we don’t talk to reporters, unless directed by command, full stop. As we told a reporter after the frogs whacked Osama, “The people that know are not going to talk to you, and the people that are going to talk to you don’t know.” Despite that, many news stories and at least one book got published that are basically fairy tales and fabrications — some fabrications by sources without accurate knowledge, other fabrications by reporters.

Consider this, cub reporters: it took thirty to fifty years for SOG’s actions in Vietnam to be publicized. And that was a war that had long since ceased to have any bearing on current national security. But the secrets don’t end there. The oldest classified information that is still held by the National Archives and Records Administration (and periodically reviewed for potential declassification) is 95 years old. (It dates to 1917, and there are no immediate plans to declassify it). Significant World War II secrets are still classified. For example, British POW interrogation records are classified for a minimum of 100 years, to ensure that no prisoner who talked faced difficulties in postwar Germany (among other reasons). It’s possible that the records of those POWs who crossed over into active support of the Allied cause, particularly as clandestine agents, will never be released.

And those are only the records that get archived. It is possible to run an operation with minimal paperwork and then destroy it all. And it is sometimes necessary to do so, to quote from a famous inaugural address, “to ensure the survival and success of liberty.”

DC-based reporters, who are awash in besuited scumbags bending their ears with supposed secrets, often get cynical about secret information and vastly overestimate their ability to get the story, and underestimate the capability of the system to keep stuff sub rosa. This is not to say that DOD and the services don’t leak. The politicians and DOD suits, especially, leak; but the ones that leak often leak RUMINT and BOGINT. The reporter never asks, wait a minute, this source works in WMD analysis, what the heck does he know about current operations? They don’t ask because they don’t know to ask. The Dunning-Kruger effect.

Anyone working with HUMINT knows to ask two questions: (1) Why is he telling me this? and (2) Why is he telling me this now? Two generations into New Journalism they don’t ask these questions any more. So they get played. It’s hard to have any sympathy, because when they don’t get played, they just make stuff up. A classical example of this is the Washington Post and the Jessica Lynch amazon woman story. They have never retracted this false story, despite no one having been on record for it ever, and everyone who has gone on record, including PFC Lynch, denying it.  Professor Campbell thinks that a source without accurate information misled Post reporter Vernon Loeb, and he implies that Loeb protects this bad source because he still uses him or her. Personally, we believe that Loeb can’t “out” the source that burned him and fellow reporters Susan Schmidt and Dana Priest, because that source never existed. Someone — probably Priest — made the source, and the story, up. As Campbell notes, the story pushed every button of a modern, feminist reporter. Like Priest.

We have no proof that our belief is correct, but it fits the facts better than this false story, that the Washington Post still has not retracted nine years later. And they have no proof that their story is true: or they’d have put their cards on the table.

Making things up. That;s how they roll. And it’s not just those bylines (although those bylines are comoletely untrustrwothy) or that paper (ditto). It’s the trade as a whole: look at who wins the Pulitzers and you’ll see that they honor storytellers, not fact reporters.

There is a strong bias towards sensation in journalism. There is also a very large strain of (unmerited) class snobbery. Both of these combine to convince journalists that they know what goes on in special operations units. Nothing could be further wrong.

Finally, our Marine friend noted the reporter’s “unfounded and undereducated perspective.”

Bingo Marine, you have put your finger on the Dunning-Kruger effect.

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Edited: typos, italics and a missing word