Washington Babylon — May 1, 2008, 8:26 am

Journalism Ethics Lessons from the Iraqi War’s Chief Salesman

In his new blog, Jeffrey Goldberg complains that he recently was insulted by Matt Haber of the New York Observer. Haber cited an old item I wrote which said that Goldberg had helped sell the Iraq War with reporting that relied “heavily on administration sources and war hawks (and in at least one crucial case, a fabricator).” Goldberg said that in doing so, Haber had “repeated a discredited accusation made by an ethically-challenged journalist about my reporting.”

Presumably I am “ethically-challenged” because I went undercover for a story last year in which I posed as a flunky for the Stalinist government of Turkmenistan and tricked several top Washington lobbying firms into offering, for huge fees, to improve that regime’s image. Which, though I admit to a certain bias here, strikes me as being a lot less ethically-challenged than Goldberg having written articles in the run-up to the Iraq War that read like Bush administration talking points on Saddam Hussein having WMD stocks and ample ties to Al Qaeda. Goldberg so slavishly aped the administration’s views that President Bush and Vice President Cheney both publicly cited his work in making the case for war.

As to my “discredited accusation,” here’s what I wrote about Goldberg back in 2006, detailing his stenographic work for the administration. Many other writers have documented Goldberg’s outlandish pre-War work, including this recent item by Spencer Ackerman and this 2003 article by Jason Burke of the London Observer, which demolished Goldberg’s reporting.

Also, in her 2007 book Echoes of Violence: Letters from a War Reporter, the highly-regarded German reporter Carolin Emcke further shredded Goldberg’s work. In a review in BookForum, Eliza Griswold writes:

Most interesting, however, is a thirteen-and-a-half-page section titled “On Journalistic Misjudgments,” in which Emcke examines the work of Jeffrey Goldberg, whose New Yorker article “The Great Terror” was published in the lead-up to the Iraq war and advanced the administration’s argument that there was indeed a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Several weeks after Goldberg’s article appeared, Emcke traveled to Kurdistan and interviewed Mohammed Mansour Shahab, the so-called Al Qaeda link. While Goldberg had taken this source’s account to be true, Emcke, like others after her, found the story of Shahab (aka Mr. Fridge) to be incredible. Baffled as to how Goldberg could have taken him seriously, she contacted the reporter and subsequently writes about their exchange. “It is not our mistakes that endanger our credibility,” she concludes, “but our unwillingness to handle them critically.”

I guess the reporting of Ackerman, Burke, and Emcke (among many other critics of his work) is entirely “discredited” too, eh Goldberg?

P.S. Do not miss Ackerman’s delightful piece on Goldberg yesterday.

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

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I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

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