Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Journalism 101

I’m not a journalist, and I never took Journalism 101. I’m a scientist being a blogger, so I’ve learned a bit about journalism.

Scientists have a lot in common with journalists, I’ve found. We are looking for something like the truth, but we know it can be hard to find. The methods of both are asking questions and then trying to figure out whether the answers make sense, although nature is resistant to the sorts of questions journalists ask; and the things that journalists investigate can be resistant to the sorts of questions scientists ask.

That phrase “something like the truth” is important. Truth can be slippery in both professions, and there can be stunning reverses, even if you do a good job at questions and verification.

I wrote my latest post on R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick’s series of revelations (on China, North Korea and Iran) from A. Q. Khan via Simon Henderson when I was quite irritated by all the ways these articles continued to flout both science and journalism, my irritation increased by the Washington Post’s hiring of yet another right-wing hack and lover of torture to afflict our eyeballs on a regular basis. I’m not sure when I’ll get over that last, but I’ll leave it in this paragraph for now.

I’m not at my best when I’m that irritated, and I can be obscure even at my best, so let me lay out more specifically what is wrong with Smith and Warrick’s journalism.

Sources are a large part of the problem. Smith and Warrick are reporting on documents by A. Q. Khan, provided to them by Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, or WINEP, or The Washington Institute. This puts them at two removes from the person whose ideas they are writing about, and questions are needed about those removes. Jeffrey Lewis is looking at the questions of A. Q. Khan’s veracity, and archjr (March 16, 02:20 AM) provides a few in the comment thread to that post.

I have tended to dismiss anything written by Khan because I can think of too many reasons that he might write, well, anything. He has been under house arrest and now seems to be more available, but he still has not spoken to law enforcement from outside the country, he is the “father of the Muslim bomb” and has that image to uphold, he has stolen information from his employers, and he was at the center of an international ring of providers of services for manufacturing nuclear weapons. Lewis may be planning to work through what the Smith and Warrick articles say about Khan, and there may be contradictions or small pieces of information to be gleaned in that way. It’s not my cup of tea, so I’m glad Lewis is doing it.

Smith and Warrick say in their latest article
The Post had no direct contact with Khan, but it independently verified that he wrote the documents.
Nothing about how they verified this.

It is not Khan who is providing the documents to Smith and Warrick, but rather Simon Henderson, a former journalist who is now at The Washington Institute, which seems to be the currently acceptable name-shortening for that organization. So there are many questions to be asked about Henderson and his employer, and how he came into possession of the documents. I am not focusing on Henderson or TWI, but rather inserting those proper nouns into questions that, it seems to me, should be taught in Journalism 101.

Does TWI have an agenda? One might start by looking at Wikipedia, for example, or the governing board, or the scholars and associates on its list. TWI was founded by AIPAC. I agree with Lewis that one must judge a work product for itself, but it is always worth asking whether that work product serves larger aims.

What is Henderson’s position at TWI? Not just his job title, but how he fits into the mix there. This would be an indicator of how likely it is that larger aims are involved. Again, one of the commenters on that thread at ACW has done some digging on these subjects.

How did Henderson get the documents? The reported story seems fairly straightforward, although it must be asked why Khan entrusted them to Henderson rather than someone else, and what his purpose was in doing that. When anyone gives documents to a person who can make them public, there may be some self-serving involved. And, going up that chain, we need to ask why Henderson made the documents available to Smith and Warrick.

Why did Henderson make this document available to Smith and Warrick at that time?
Why did Henderson make this document available to Smith and Warrick at that time?
Why did Henderson make this document available to Smith and Warrick at that time?
Why did Henderson make this document available to Smith and Warrick at that time?

There are easy answers to these questions, like “because Smith and Warrick were the most accurate journalists Henderson could think of” and “because Henderson believes that the documents should be available as a public service” but, as I noted a week or so back, multiple hypotheses are always possible, and a good scientist or journalist will try to work up a number of them for evaluation. In fact, at Lewis’s post, Smith gives a clue to one answer:
With regard to seeing the documents, they were provided to us to review and report on. But they are, in essence, Mr. Henderson’s to release. Those who are eager to see them are free to ring him directly. But I think he will say that you will have to wait until the final thread, not yet reported, plays out.
So either Henderson or the Washington Post is timing the release of this information. The obvious question would be why.

The articles also fail to make clear how many documents are involved, what kind of documents they are (A letter is mentioned. Also mentioned:
Khan's 11-page narrative, prepared in 2004 during his initial house arrest
Memos to self? memos to higher-ups? diaries? drafts intended for publication?) Memory is far from infallible. Did each Post article come from a single document? Several? How much inference was applied by Henderson, Smith, and Warrick?

I believe that Journalism 101 teaches that multiple sources are needed to support an assertion. The nature of the reported claims, however, is resistant to this kind of confirmation. The claims are about Khan’s interactions with officials of other governments to whom he was trying to sell his wares. Clearly those North Korean and Iranian officials are unlikely to speak candidly to American reporters. Since the report about China was 1982, those officials may no longer be alive, but if they are, they will share that reticence. And the records of those meetings are not publicly available.

The third article contains some of this sort of verification, but it is very thin. Smith and Warrick quote others who have not seen the documents and are commenting about various events from their points of view. These quotes may satisfy the currently fashionable journalistic requirement of “he said, he said,” but they provide little illumination. (Sorry – some snark getting through! This journalistic requirement differs from those of science.)

The quotes from Leonard Spector and Sig Hecker raise questions about Khan’s veracity, but they are just left to stand alone.

There are big claims in these three articles, based solely on Khan’s documents as provided by Henderson. It’s interesting that Khan claims such things, but why should we believe any of this?

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