Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I don’t want to pick on Michael Yon. After all, he’s in Iraq and I‘m not. He’s putting his life on the line, and I’m in a comfy apartment. But I am taken by this piece of reportage, which purports to convey a third-hand story about some al Qaeda types serving a boy, with stuffed mouth, to his family, as food.

Predictably, this has set off many of the usual suspects, who have concluded that said incident proves that mainstream reporters are somehow covering for evil al Qaeda. I’ll leave that type of cognitive dissonance to those more capable than I, but I would like to address this Yon story.

Namely: how in the world does he know this is true? Sounds to me like he got this story – at least – third hand. Of course, reportage sometimes relies on third-hand sources, but in a story like this, my first instinct would not be to print, but to determine whether what this source was telling me was even remotely true. But here’s how Yon justifies publication:

…[T]he resulting controversy about whether what the man said was true, or whether his words should have been written if the writer couldn’t verify them, seems precious. There is no imaginary line of credulity that al Qaeda might cross should it go from beheading children to baking them.

Now look here. That is just about the worst excuse I can ever think of for printing something. For example, I may know that a certain person is a burglar, but does that make it easy to conclude that he is also a pedophile? It strikes me that reportage like this – fantastic as it is – should be nailed down before it gets aired. I have no doubt that Yon heard what he heard. But I hear a lot of things, too, I just don't put them down for everyone to read.

Yon hints that he has more details on the matter. Great! Let’s hear them. Better yet, let’s go back to this official, ask where the incident occurred, get more information, ask if there was anyone else there who witnessed the incident, etc.

It comes down to credibility. The naysayers in certain precincts of blog-world keep telling us that the big news organizations have lost credibility because they keep screwing up. They point to people like Yon, who they say are giving us the first-hand unvarnished truth. And in many cases, what he is doing is laudable. But of late, he seems to have acquired a penchant for conveying rumor and fourth-hand tales; then when challenged, he dismisses such talk as “precious.”

Which is not to say that this incident didn’t happen. Sure it could have. But Yon’s reportage doesn’t convince me one way or the other.

One last thing: he talks about how it’s easy to conclude that al Qaeda served children as food, after all they beheaded them in the past. He pushes this forward as if it as an incontrovertible fact. Is it? He’s basing it – again – on his thin reporting on the matter.

Permalink posted by Jonathan : 3:06 PM

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