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Accuracy in the Media: Misinformation, Mistakes, and Misleading in American and Other Media

Todd Leventhal, Chief of the Counter-Information Team, U.S. Department of State; Dante Chinni, Senior Associate, Project for Excellence in Journalism
Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
April 6, 2005

2:00 P.M. EDT

MR. MACINNESS: Good afternoon, welcome to the Foreign Press Center. We're happy this afternoon to have everyone here, even though it's a beautiful day outside, probably the best day that we've had this spring.

I'm very happy today to be moderating a program we're going to have on accuracy in the media. We have Todd Leventhal, who works in the International Information Programs Bureau here at the Department of State. And we have Dante Chinni from the Project for Excellence in Journalism and he's a journalist himself, a working journalist, and he'll take the view from the journalist side. We'd like to make this fairly informal, although we are being filmed so we will have people talk from the podium. They'll each talk a little bit about the subject of accuracy in the media, and then we'll take questions and we want to keep it a fairly open -- so please feel free to make comments on what they've said and then ask a question and I'll moderate it.

MR. LEVENTHAL: Regarding disinformation, I went and looked on the web quickly this morning to look it up, and you get a lot of different definitions for it from the ones you would expect to hear, but the most interesting one was the definition off a website that is, basically, a disinformation website. It's one of these alien watching websites, and in its view, disinformation is the U.S. Government's attempts to discredit our site and others who understand how the aliens have taken over the United States. (Laughter.)
So, disinformation is in the eye of the beholder, not necessarily a term that just has an agreed-on definition. Anyway, without much further ado, I think I'll just start with Dante.

MR. CHINNI: Hey there. The aliens did not send me here today to talk to you. But I'll do it anyway. Accuracy in the media is something near and dear to my heart and near and dear to the heart of the organization I work for, the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The Project for Excellence is a non-profit organization funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and our mission, really, is to study the media and try to gather as much as we can empirical data, numbers that show what's happening to the media in this country. And it was formed because there are some real issues right now with the media in the U.S. and some of it concerns disinformation. And it has to do, I think, with a couple of things, but primarily -- in the U.S. anyway -- with the explosion of outlets, the number of outlets out there, the proliferation of outlets and how they all have different standards.

There was a time, I think, when journalism in this country was focused on what we call, where I work, “the journalism of verification.” You found out something and you didn't run with it, you didn't go to air, you didn't print or publish, until you knew it was right. As best you could, you'd go out and try to verify. There are just a lot of places out there where that isn't the case anymore. A lot of them are on the web. I think, the internet mentality has filtered into television and you see it in television too now, where they go with things very quickly before they know whether they're accurate or not.

What we saw here last year during the election, in particular, was the rise of "blogs," which I'm sure you've all heard and read much of. Blogs -- we don't have an opinion on them being a good or a bad thing. Blogs just are. But some of the methods that some blogs use aren't so good. And some of them are basically used to float false data -- false information, they want to put false information out there, they're funded by people and their whole mission is to kind of put bad information out there. And then once it gets out there into the "blogosphere" it's kind of an echo chamber, stuff just starts bouncing around and it appears on one site, it appears on another site. And it bounces around so much that it somehow it ends up working its way into a mainstream media outlet because, well, everybody's talking about it so we have to talk about it.

We don't think that's the way it should work. That's just the way it has been working increasingly. And in this election, we have a couple of really good examples of it. We had -- and not all bad -- the two negative things that really popped up in the blogosphere.

One was the alleged affair of John Kerry with an intern, which was obviously a popular topic in this country, that turned out to be completely false. But it really developed a life of its own on the web and we studied how the rumor went around. And actually, it went from being just gossip on the web to making it on the local newscast. You can go and check Lexis-Nexus. It was making it on local newscasts in Dallas, in Texas and Ohio, and stations around the country, just because they thought it was news.

It was news that people were talking about something that people didn't know whether it was true or not. I'd argue the other place we saw it prominently in this election was in the Swift Boat Veterans Campaign against John Kerry, which, you know, it was an interesting story that kind of took on a life of its own and I think, again, it's because of the blogs -- it was not a very expensive television ad buy, they didn't buy that much time, but it got into the blogs, it worked its way around the blogs, it got on the 24-hour news because they were talking about it on the blogs, and eventually it worked its way into newspapers.

As journalists, what we have to do, in our opinion, we've got to try to hold the line as best we can. Just because people are talking about something doesn't mean you run with it. You just can't. I mean, we have too many people doing this now. But your mission as a journalist still has to be, first and foremost, that you have to verify, you have to find out if you're telling people the truth, because if you're not telling them the truth, you're really not doing your job.

That's the whole side of disinformation when we're talking about -- you could say some of it's intentional but a lot of it is kind of just chatter that develops into something else. There are obviously other cases where you have intentional disinformation, and I think we'll probably get to that a little further on today as well.

But why don't we just leave it right there to start and pass the microphone over here.


MR. LEVENTHAL: Very interesting. Thank you, Dante. As Duncan indicated, I work at the State Department in the International Information Programs Bureau, so I don't deal with domestic issues within the United States, just outside of the United States. And I hope that you all were able to get a copy of the front page of our website (http://usinfo.state.gov/media_resources/misinformation.html), which gives you some idea of the range of issues I deal with.

I've been countering disinformation and misinformation for a number of years and I have my own definitions. They're not universally accepted, but I use "disinformation" to mean something that's deliberate falsification, the person or government or some sort of institution has the intent of spreading a false story.

And "misinformation" is more of a mistake, an unintentional action – the information can be equally false and equally damaging, but the difference is the question of intent, in the way I define it anyway, and you can't always tell. It's not always clear even with a lot of study and pondering whether someone is spreading something because they really believe or there's somewhere halfway in between where they sort of suspend their critical faculties and spread it because they want to believe it. So there's a range there but I think we can think about those two phenomena as archetypes anyway.

And then there are also conspiracy theories, which we're all familiar with. You know, there is some vast conspiracy, some huge hidden power that's controlling things secretly; if only we knew about it, we could stop it. We've all seen those kinds of stories about the Kennedy assassination and things like that.

And urban legends, which are usually word of mouth type stories you'd hear, you might hear from your college roommate. I remember when I was in college, the story was that the oil companies had invented a carburetor that enabled you to get 200 miles to the gallon but they were keeping it off the market so they could make lots of money. And I thought, wow this, you know, it really fit with what I thought at the time, the evil oil companies. But of course if they had such an invention, they could make tons of money by selling it. But I hadn't thought it through that well at that time.

But these are stories -- they're out there, all over the place, and occasionally they crop into the media. And I spent about ten years actually countering one of them, an organ trafficking rumor. This basic story being that Americans are going down to Latin America or elsewhere and adopting children and cutting them up for organ transplants. It's a horrifying thought but sometimes these stories sort of rely on this horrifying nature. There's something that in the human mind that is just, you know, repulsed and fascinated by these kinds of things at the same time. And it sort of goes by our critical faculties and goes right in there and we get outraged about it, even though, you know, it's something that hasn't occurred.

So this story bounced all over the world press and actually won the most prestigious journalism prizes in France in '95 in Spain and '96, much to my chagrin. But it seems to have been like a fever, it sort of peaked and you don't hear about it as much anymore, but it still does crop up. So it's amazing to me over the course of 12 years doing this job to see stories that really have no basis in reality, you know, spreading like wildfire. It's a real problem.

So, my job is try to research these things, and sometimes it can take a number of days, and to try to explain as best we can what the facts are. It's easy to make an accusation, but it can be very hard to disprove a negative. How do you prove that something didn't happen? Well, you have to just approach it in as logical and as reasonable and as calm a fashion as you can to try to do that. And also, if someone has a track record of spreading false stories, well, that tells you something about their credibility and you have to consider the source when you're trying to evaluate these things.

So that's the general type of work that I do and I'd be glad to take any questions with Dante on these subjects, but I think if you look at the copy of the website, you can see the various topics that I deal with.

MR. MACINNESS: Dante, could you join us now? Yeah, we're going to have both of them here. Please just direct your questions to one or the other. Make sure you please identify yourself and your organization.

QUESTION: My name is Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya Television. I'm interested in the Arab media and how do you see it. As you might know, most of the information now is obtained through Arabic television, mainly the two major networks, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, and I'm wondering if you do monitor information that broadcasts daily on both of the channels, in particular in the earlier accusation from the Pentagon that it was broadcasting misinformation and it was using the network to incite violence against Americans and particularly in Iraq. And I'm also just looking at this stuff that you've published here. You quoted Al Jazeera already in one of these things about misinformation using certain things.

Do you feel this is intentional and is this continuous process? Is just a mistake, as you said, that people did it because it was unchecked sources?

MR. LEVENTHAL: Well, I myself don't monitor these stations. They broadcast, you know, on a daily basis. Other people do. And if there's some question that someone has, they generally refer it to me.

I know this secondhand but I believe it to be accurate -- that there have been more problems with Al Jazeera broadcasts out of Iraq after their correspondent was expelled from Iraq or not allowed to report from Iraq. They used stringers. And the people I've talked to that followed this very closely said that the stringer reports were much less reliable than the previous correspondent's reports. So I hesitate to say something I haven't verified myself, but I do believe that would be accurate.

On this reference to Al Jazeera that's on here -- you'll notice it's Aljezeera.com -- I think if I reference it. And that's actually a look-a-like website that pretends to be the real Al Jazeera; the Qatari satellite television station that we all know as Al Jazeera is actually Aljazeera.net. And then there's another one called Aljazeera.com and if you go to that site, until very recently, for example, they sold the movie "Control Room" which was about Al Jazeera. So they are pretending to be the real Al Jazeera, but they're not, and it's a very interesting site. And they pick up a lot of disinformation stories. I've done some research on them: I can't say with complete confidence who they are, but I know they're not the Qatari satellite television station.

But many people will make this mistake and it's very easy mistake to make. And they don't have an Arabic language site, they have an English language site. So in some cases, they've picked up conspiracy theories and then other people have reported it, sourcing it Al Jazeera, when it's not the satellite television station at all.

MR. CHINNI: The issue of "spoofing" by the way is one -- I mean, people will buy URLs that are very similar to names or institutions -- the White House was a famous one, the whitehouse.com, which was a porn site, you know. And so that's one way of actually putting misinformation or disinformation into the Internet sphere.

MR. MACINNESS: Do you have a follow-up?

QUESTION: I am Hanan El-Badry, Egyptian journalist. Who you mean by "others"? Do you mean some people in the State Department or outside like MEMRI [Middle East Media Research Institute], if you know MEMRI? And I would like to know details regarding your daily work, how you monitor, how you doing the work, how many people work here with you? Thank you.

MR. LEVENTHAL: Sure. I don't know what you mean by "others," your reference to others?

QUESTION: You reference to others (inaudible) --

MR. LEVENTHAL: But what -- I've forgotten exactly what I --

MR. MACINNESS: Others are monitoring.

MR. LEVENTHAL: Oh, others, yes. Oh, okay, I'm sorry. Well, for example, Central Command in Qatar and in the multinational force Iraq in Baghdad have people who monitor Al Jazeera. And then FBIS, of course -- the Foreign Broadcast Information Service -- monitors it and they will translate key articles and they'll do some analysis on this. So these are some of the other people. And I believe -- you know we have a media outreach center in London, they follow the Pan-Arab press and I must admit I don't read their things that closely, but I believe they would be following Al Jazeera as well.

MR. CHINNI: And each Embassy also follows the local media for that country. So in Cairo, for instance, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo follows up and does that.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. I mean, it's all government? You never get any information from the private or independent organization regarding any false news or so?

MR. LEVENTHAL: Well, I wouldn't say never, but the usual way to get it is from an embassy and that's to talk about what I do on a normal basis. We usually field requests from embassies because, as Duncan indicated, they have people in each embassy who monitors the local press. And if they see a story that, you know, they think they should either want to research to find out what the truth is or they want to counter it if it's false, they'll get in contact with us and we'll do that research for them.

Also, we've come to a short list of websites that carry disinformation on a regular basis, such as Aljazeera.com and others like that that we'll go to and visit and see what they have on their website because there might be something that starts on a website and then it gets picked up by newspapers in other countries so if we can catch it on the website first before it's picked up by newspapers, which our embassies would be monitoring, then we, you know, we might have a day or two head start on it.

So that's basically what we do and it's just, I should explain to you, I've got this sort of nice title of being head of a team and I think when they gave me that title they thought at least I have two or three people, but I've only really got one person half time helping me so I'm two-thirds of the team right here. This is the -- you know, we don't have any discord because, you know, it's easy to vote.

But you know, you can still do a lot and what I'll do is if I get a question about something, if it has to do with a military subject, you know, you contact whoever would know the information within the military. For example, on the tsunami, there was a question about the Diego Garcia. So I called DOD [Department of Defense] Public Affairs and spoke to several people and finally I found the guy in Japan with the Pacific fleet who's the Public Affairs Officer for Diego Garcia. And I didn't call him, I did all this by e-mail. But he was able to answer my questions about Diego Garcia. And on that case, I also talked to the head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii because they're the ones regarding whom there were questions about what they knew and when they knew it, so I just went and talked to them directly through, you know, you call someone in Washington and eventually you get the number. So that's what I do on a daily basis.

QUESTION: The clear answer regarding getting any news or any reports from MEMRI is no?

MR. LEVENTHAL: MEMRI, no. I mean, occasionally, I'll look at MEMRI, but usually, like for example on the tsunami, they did something on the tsunami, a report on the tsunami, but I had already, you know, I'd already seen it and researched it so I didn't really learn anything from what they had to say.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Andrei Sitov, I'm with the Russia News Agency TASS. First of all, congratulations on a very good idea of a site like that and thank you for coming over to talk to us and thanks to the FPC for arranging this.

I have a question for Dante about the recent case with the Pope, the death of the Pope. It's a good illustration to what you said with people rushing in with information because basically in practical terms, we as journalists, we know sometimes you don't have an option not to go. We had at TASS a flap with one of our guys going with the CNN report that the Pope had died and then we fell flat with that.

Basically, my question to you, from the point of view of excellence in journalism, how do you phrase this? How do you go with this if it is not completely checked out, whether it's true or not?

And, sir, and I wanted to ask you about -- since you already answered that you probably don't accept queries from journalists about true or false stories --

MR. LEVENTHAL: Oh no, I would.

QUESTION: Oh yeah, you would? Okay. Please tell us where we should address those queries then. And I also wanted to ask you, what was the biggest story that you remember that was completely sensational on the face of it and turned out to be true?

MR. CHINNI: Well, that's a really good question. When it comes to the Pope and the death of the Pope and the way that it happened, I honestly -- and maybe I'm just being pollyannish here -- I don't know if there really is a need to run with it until you have it verified. I mean, it's very clear the Pope is, you know, he was teetering, he was on death's door, you know. And the need to be the first news agency to tell everybody the Pope's dead -- there is this big rush in journalism to be the first, you know. Everybody wants to be the first. But you know, being the first is fine unless you're wrong. Nobody's, you know, if you're first and you're wrong, that's all everybody is going to remember and I think that's, I mean, that's just something we have to remember as journalists. Being first is great but being right is better.

QUESTION: Okay, how about this? The AP did it this way. We are checking --

MR. CHINNI: Right.


MR. CHINNI: No, you have to, and I mean you have to put --

QUESTION: -- information that --

MR. CHINNI: You have to put in front of caveats. And, in fact, the way Fox News handled that -- I don't know if anybody -- has anybody's seen the video of the Fox News?

QUESTION: I saw the apology.

MR. CHINNI: Well, when it happened live it was awful, I mean, because they actually later played the audio. I don't know if it was live when it happened, but the producer was telling the guy, "The Pope's dead, the Pope's dead, you got to go live with this, the Pope's dead." And they go to the anchor and they're showing they're showing what everybody's showing, the building and the two lights are on, you know, where the Papal apartment is. And he says well, you know, the lights are on -- and this is paraphrased but this is basically what he said – “the lights are on and there's no need to beat around the bush, it's obviously there's no need to sugar coat this, the Pope has passed.” But there was nothing obvious about that. (Laughter.) There was a picture with the building and two lights on. There's nothing obvious about that.

And it's like what you say is, "We are hearing," "There are some early reports that the Pope may have passed," and, you know, we're not going to say that. You know, good Lord, we went through this in the 2000 election. You think we would've learned by now that you don't declare something until you know for sure that it's right because, you know, it's hard to pull back. I mean, you know, the Pope is a very old man, there's a very good chance that he was going die, we all -- it was pretty clear what's going to happen, you know, God help him if he pulled through. I mean, you know, what were they going to say on Fox? You know, it could've been a miracle I guess. Anyway.

MR. LEVENTHAL: The Pope's mostly dead, you know.


MR. LEVENTHAL: But, no, I'd be glad to take queries from individual journalists who have actually -- we've got a contact us thing there where it says, you know, send us a story and sort of try to filter out the nutcases, you know, the people who read this and go on and on about different conspiracies. But if a serious journalist has a serious question. I did get one from the United Kingdom. They were interviewing somebody who had written a book about the Martin Luther King assassination and, you know, they were interviewing him, they knew that, you know, he might not be the -- how can I say it -- and you know, they might have had some doubts about his credentials but they thought it was a newsworthy item. They wanted to know if I had anything on it. And I didn't have anything I had done on that, but I was able to do a quick Internet search and give them some useful information. So, no, I'd welcome serious inquiries from serious journalists.

And did you have another question?

QUESTION: (Off mike.)

MR. LEVENTHAL: Oh, yes, now I should've had -- I got listening to Dante and forgot all about it. But, you know, it's -- not a lot springs to mind, but just one -- let me give you one example.

There was a book called The Life of Mohammed that was printed back in 1830 by the Reverend George Bush, okay. And the story was, a few months ago, that this was the President's grandfather -- he had the same name -- but he wasn't his grandfather because he died in 1859 and even if George Bush's father was born in 1860, he'd be 145 now. So it was rather obvious he wasn't his grandfather, but we finally determined, you know, he was the cousin of his great-great-great grandfather or something.

But, you know, one of the things in the story was that this book is in print, and I said that's ridiculous, you know, this book's not in print. And then I looked it up on the Internet and there it is. Because, of course, in today's modern age, you know, there's no copyright on it and it's in print in a catalog where they just printed on demand. I later called the publisher and said, you know, how many have you sold? Well, 50 in about three years so it's not a bestseller. But you have to check everything. You really do, because you can't just assume on the face of it because it doesn't sound right that it's not true. It takes time and it can frustrating when people are out of the office and you want to get back to somebody with a response, but you have to check everything.

MR. CHINNI: Actually, let me add one thing about misinformation and disinformation and just quickly because you bring up stories that are true or untrue. One story that got a lot of attention during the war in Iraq was the Jessica Lynch story. Now the question a lot of people have was: Jessica Lynch -- was the story misinformation, was it disinformation, what was it? I don't know if you can say that clearly one way or another. When you look at the initial account as it appeared in The Washington Post, which was just sensational like you wouldn't believe, the things they had her doing, there are a lot of quotes in there from people who aren't identified and it's not really clear who told them what they were hearing so you can make an argument that somebody knew something was wrong and they were feeding them false information because they needed a positive story this time.

But at the same time, you've got to say in that case that the press, without really having confirmation about what had happened over there, jumped on this because it was just a better story. And that's where a little disinformation with some bad journalism, if it was disinformation, can just lead to something that's just ridiculous. And that story -- there were initial stories that came out the day after the Jessica Lynch account happened that said, whoa, whoa, whoa, that's not really what happened. We talked to other people. They say that this is what happened, and those were buried deep inside the paper. And they were forgotten because the better story was put up front. And it wasn't because they were doing whatever the government told them to -- it was just a better story. And that's another thing I think you have to look out for just as a journalist -- get your facts: A nice story is great but, being right is more important in the end.

QUESTION: Yes, two questions if I may. I'm Jyri Raivio, Helsingin Sanomat, Finland. Was the story of the WMD in Iraq before the war, was it misinformation or disinformation? And another thing about 9/11 -- do you still come across with this huge urban legends around 9/11 and what can you do about those?

MR. LEVENTHAL: No, I think with the case of WMD, that's not something I've looked at because it sort of deals with what the U.S. Government knew and so on. But I have read the newspapers and I think it's a case where U.S. intelligence community plus all the other intelligence communities that were looking at this simply had it wrong. I mean, they make mistakes like everyone else does and I believe that that's what was the case here.

Big bureaucracies, you know, they're inherently cautious and they're not -- I mean, the view out there is that big bureaucracies like the CIA or the U.S. Government is involved in these huge conspiracies. What I've found it to be is the bigger a bureaucracy, the less possible it is to be engaged in a conspiracy because you've got to bring so many people in on it and it's just not practical for a variety of reasons. So I don't believe that was anything but a genuine mistake.

And the second question on the 9/11 conspiracy theories -- there are an enormous amount of -- for example, here's a book, it was a bestseller in France. It's been published in English, 9/11 the Big Lie. It was called the "amazing fraud" or "astounding fraud" -- I can't remember the title in French. But it was a bestseller, it said that no plane crashed into the Pentagon, it was a remotely piloted cruise missile with a depleted uranium warhead, done for all these obscure reasons to, you know, start a war in the Middle East or something. And you know, it doesn't ever explain what happened to the American flight 77. If it didn't crash into the Pentagon, where did all those people go? You know, so these things are shot full of, you know, there's huge gaps in logic and reason, but you know, there's a lot of people who believe this kind of nonsense and it's a problem.

There's another one -- the rumor that 4,000 Jews didn't show up for work the day of the World Trade Center. And this started immediately, within days after 9/11 and I addressed it on the website. I think, part of it had to do with a -- there was a report in Jerusalem Post that Israel's foreign ministry had said they thought there were 4,000 Israelis in the vicinity of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, probably, you know, in New York and Washington, and then that 4,000 figure got snatched or used by the people in the conspiracy theory. I've heard that, you know, this is widely bandied about and what I did simply was go to some of the sites that have the list of the victims and you can, you know, there's many Jewish victims and if you run the numbers, you'll find that it's about 10 or 15 percent of the victims were Jewish in the World Trade Center, which is about the same percentage of the Jews in the population of New York and the greater New York area. I mean, there's no list of exactly who was there that day, but there's no reason to believe that anyone wasn't warned.

So you just have to address these things with logic and reason and facts. And in fact, our Embassy in Stockholm wrote us and said that a high school student had heard this story from one of their teachers, that there were no Jews at the World Trade Center and they contacted the Embassy and they gave them this material, several months ago before it was on the website but we had it on in an internal website. And the student went and gave a presentation. He said that the other students liked it but the teacher was, you know, didn't think it was that great. So, but I thought it was wonderful that the kid had all the facts and which is what it takes to try to combat these stories.

QUESTION: Ki-Yon Kuk, The Segye Times, Korea. This question to Todd Leventhal. You told us that the United States Embassy in other countries are monitoring local press, right? If you found something wrong information, how do you respond to that information?

And one more if I may. You are in charge of counter-misinformation team, focusing on foreign media. Do you have any other department focusing on domestic media?

MR. LEVENTHAL: No. There's no --


MR. LEVANTHAL: Yeah. There are people outside the government who would focus on the issues for the domestic media, but within the government -- no, I mean the Public Affairs people at the State Department, if there's something that comes up that's, you know, a crazy story, they would respond to it issue by issue. But they don't have a specific unit dedicated to this with regard to the American press.

With regard to our activities of our foreign embassies, you know, it basically depends on embassy by embassy. They'll all monitor the media but it's up to them -- really, it's their judgment as to which stories they can profitably respond to. And some of it's personality. Some people are all pumped up about this and want to go out and knock down these false stories. Some people say, "Well, you know, what can you do about it?" So, it -- some of it has to do with personalities also, but they will -- if they get the information from us, basically, they would write a letter to the editor or they might visit the newspaper or radio station and have a little conversation about it. However, they -- you know, we leave that up to them. Our job is just to find out what the facts are and we leave it up to them how to handle the local media, because that's their expertise.

QUESTION: Parasuram of the Press Trust of India. Several years ago I went to the Goldwater headquarters in San Francisco, when he was contesting the presidency, and there the person in charge told me that I really sympathize with you people in Washington. And I asked why and she said "Your brain is being spoiled by The Washington Post and the New York Times." So then I asked her, "Which paper would you recommend," and she recommended the Oakland Tribune. I pointed out that by the time the Oakland Tribune came to Washington, it was too late.

I was wondering whether this administration has any list of friendly papers, any enemy papers, unfriendly papers. There have been rumors, which you must have heard, that this administration favors Channel 5 over the other channels.

MR. CHINNI: Do you want to do that?

MR. LEVANTHAL: It's domestic, kind of.

MR. CHINNI: Yeah. I think that within every administration, this administration and others, there are favorite media and there are not-so-favorite media and I think that this administration has made it very clear that it -- you know, it's denied seats on some planes of some administration officials to some major newspapers. And it's pretty clear that they just don't -- they don't like what those organizations are doing and there are other places they go to and they have a story.

Now, when you say that they lean toward Channel 5, I assume you mean like Fox. There is, I think, obviously -- you know, there are favorites among people in the administration and they'll tell you that even when it concerns what channel they have on in the White House. There was actually a little -- there was a story for a little bit about what news channel they had on, because it's what news channel they preferred to watch. Whether there's actually a list of enemy papers or -- I don't think they even need to do that. I think they know who their friends are and they know who their friends aren't and that's part of politics in America.

QUESTION: This is about excellence in journalism. I was curious about what you will think of these two events. One was -- even though American media is very good in backgrounding a story, when the great heroes of Swift Boat campaign appeared on television and it was reported in the media, nobody recalled that during the time of Mr. Nixon, it was the same gentleman who had come out against Kerry when he was a young veteran.


QUESTION: And actually, Kerry's -- the conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff -- the transcript is available -- (inaudible) fellow and he is doing our work and that kind of thing. So he was in cohorts with the administration at that time. After so many years, he emerges again in more or less the same role, against the same person, and this bit of information was missing from most of the papers. So I was wondering whether this habit of backgrounding didn't seem to help.

And secondly, during wartime, I think women get very good treatment and it was the first Gulf War when Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter posed for what she was not and I don't think that story came out much later, in spite of the fact that perhaps, it could have been detected much earlier.

MR. CHINNI: I don't even know, what is the Kuwaiti -- I don't know that.

QUESTION: Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter was paraded in New York in the UN as a victim of Saddam Hussein.

MR. LEVENTHAL: Hill & Knowlton public relations firm put that together.

MR. CHINNI: Really?


MR. CHINNI: There's money to be made.


MR. CHINNI: With the Swift Boat Veterans, actually, those stories were out there. I mean, I read some of them. I read some of them myself. I mean, they're out there. We've gotten to -- and this is something we actually deal with over where I work is when we talk about the American news media at this point, it's not really clear what we're talking about anymore. It's a big animal. It's enormous. And it has all sorts of different parts and I think if you want to find the background stuff, you can find it. It's out there. I think that it's treated differently in different newspapers and it's treated differently on television.

I'll tell you right off the bat, I think 24-hour cable news, all of them, they don't do the job. I mean, they don't do the backgrounding job and there's a bunch of reasons for that, but -- you know, one of them is it's -- they need -- cable news is bad sometimes with stories like this, because what they do is they have a story of the day, okay? There's a story that dominates the news cycle and they talk about it. It's what they primarily talk about all day long, so what do they do?

Well, they'll have on somebody from this side and they'll have on somebody from that side and then, well, we've got this guy here and he says this and we've got this guy here and he says this, and they just go back and forth and they talk and then the person in the middle, the journalist says -- who is -- the person who is supposed to be a journalist says "Well, there you have it, there's a lot of disagreement out there." And that's not being a journalist, okay? Because that's like saying you have two people standing at either side of you and one person says, "The moon's made of green cheese," and the other guy says, "No, the moon isn't made of green cheese," and it's like, "Well, there you have it, two -- you know, a difference of opinion." It's like no, it's not, you know, the moon is or isn't made of green cheese and it's not.

And what happens with -- what happened, I think, with the Swift Boats story and what happens with a lot of stories like this is the background stuff gets lost. It appears in some places. It may appear in the New York Times, it may appear in The Washington Post, it may appear in the Wall Street Journal or the Chicago Tribune. But it doesn't appear in other -- it doesn't appear in other newspapers around the country and it certainly doesn't appear on the 24-hour networks. Even though they've got 24 hours to do their job, that's something they just don't feel is necessary.

So, I think that stuff was out there, but it's a question of when you talk about the American news media, it's such a big thing; what part of it are you talking about? There are still responsible news organizations in America. There are still a lot of them, but increasingly, the things that are getting attention and the things people are gravitating towards -- sadly, I mean, Americans -- the things Americans are gravitating towards don't do such a good job and that's a real problem, because what it means is stories like this -- you know, there are going to be a lot more -- in every election, there are going to be a lot of Kerry Swift Boat stories.

I mean, actually, a good example, post-election for the Bush Administration, the spin coming out of the left was that Ohio was somehow stolen in some way. The Republicans stole Ohio and that's how -- they didn't steal Ohio. They won Ohio. They got more votes and they won Ohio. But for -- you know, the blogs were out there churning and it becomes a point and everybody talks about it. And you just -- the responsible media have to stay responsible and the other folks out there, I don’t know what we can do about them. We've got to try to bring them around as best we can.

MR. LEVENTHAL: I'm talking about one of my favorite stories that's glorified as news here about the creation of Taliban by the Americans while they were supporting the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. You are saying it's a myth. In a couple of hours here in Washington, three hours, there will be a book presentation, a book that has just won a prestigious journalism award where the author, a reputable journalist from the Washington Post, said it's not a myth, basically.

So, my question to you is, how do you know it's not a myth, especially in matters of this type where presumably, a lot of this is still under official secret, under seal of secrecy?

MR. CHINNI: You're referring to Steve Coll's book, Ghost Wars, I believe, which I read and is an excellent book and is actually part of the reason that I came to the conclusion I did. I mean, he's done some very good research, but basically, the facts in this are -- well, it's a well-known fact that the United States funded the Afghan resistance along with the Saudis and the Egyptians and the British and the Chinese. So, there were a number of people there.

Now, was Usama Bin Laden, who was very active in the services bureau that day, was he our guy? No, he was not our guy. I mean -- and if you look at Steve Coll's book, you'll see an interview with the former -- I think Deputy Chief of Staff of Saudi Intelligence which intimates that he was working very closely with the Saudis, which would make sense. So, I think -- and what I found with every account that I've gone over, and I've research this in some depth, is that we were funding -- we were dealing with the Afghan (inaudible) and the Afghans. They were fighting the war. The Afghan Arabs, as they were called, played a minor, minor role. They had their own sources of funding from Arabs, from the Arab communities in the Persian Gulf, and we didn't have anything to do with them, so we didn't create them.

But it's a nice myth. A lot of people believe it, but the facts don't support it.

MR. MACINNES: We're going to go to New York now for a question.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Adriana Sadeanu. I'm a news correspondent for Capital Business Weekly, Romania. Speaking about excellence in journalism, I totally agree with what has been said at the -- being right is more important than being the first. But my question is about those very complex or difficult situations where journalists can not get -- I mean, real time -- you know, the official confirmation of some very important investigative stories. How -- in your view, how journalists should deal with this situation where -- you know, I'm talking about -- like, cases like that CBS story about President Bush's military record or other stories like this where it's very, very difficult to find people who are willing to tell it on the record or to confirm the on-the-record things.

And now, you have the question as a journalist, at least in my view, of -- you have to inform the people correctly. I totally agree with this, but on the other hand, you have to raise questions. So should you, as a journalist, just -- you know, stay and wait for somebody to confirm it officially -- a story even if you have sources that confirm this particular information? Or should you just -- you know, push authorities in many cases which are not willing to disclose information -- very sensitive information? Just one detail to add in order to make clear what I wanted to say, is that I was very surprised that in the CBS story, I read the report and that -- that had been made by that commission and I totally -- I mean, I saw their evidence that -- the way that the investigation has been conducted. It was not very good. Of course, the journalist did not seem to respect the rules, the basic rules.

But on the other hand, I was also surprised that nobody asked -- you know, nobody took the story and tried to investigate it further. I mean, the story just died. Even -- on the other hand, it hasn't been proved that those documents were false. So, you know, we are talking about the way we inform public opinion, because public opinion is more important than everything and we have -- you know, the duties to inform public opinion correctly, but what if we can not?

MR. LEVENTHAL: That's a good question and CBS is an interesting case. I think it's pretty clear the documents they had are false. I think that -- you know, this is actually one thing I thought the blogs handled pretty well and it was -- you know, I can't believe there was a discussion. I mean, you know, there was a discussion for weeks -- for a couple weeks there about fonts, you know, like the types -- like, what was available in IBM's electric -- you know, typewriter back in the times of Vietnam, which is interesting and -- at the same time, interesting as it's being talked about and incredibly boring as a topic.

But I think that -- you know, that's -- and the larger question is, is the story still true. I don't know. You know, I think we all have feelings one way or the other about what we believe, but if you can't prove it, you can't prove it and you can't go with a story that you can't prove. So, I mean, the fact that CBS did what they did, even -- I think the feeling among a lot of people was there might have been some -- you know, there was some smoke there and there might have been some fire. But they just destroyed the topic and they ruined it for everybody by not doing their job properly.

I mean, even if there's something there, it's like nobody's going to listen to the story anymore. And on the mere question about, if you can't get somebody to comment on something -- look, you give representatives in the government as much opportunity as you can, okay? You give them -- you know, you want them to be able to respond and you want to get their point of view as best you can, but if you can't get it, you can't get it and you say "Look, I've been trying for two weeks. This guy won't comment. I'm going to have to go with no comment." So, you go with no comment.

But the problem that CBS had in that case is they didn't do their job on the other end of it, because -- you know, the answer is that you go with no comment and then look, I have all this documentation that proves something. Well, you got to make sure the documentation's right and I just don't think they did that. And that's -- the key thing is you've got to make sure the reporter you have is right. You don't need government sources for a report to be right, but you had better make sure that the reporting you have is solid and I don't think -- you know, they just didn't do it in that case.

MODERATOR: Nadia, last question?

PARTICIPANT: Well, she has one more.

MR. MACINNESS: A follow-up? I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Oh, okay, so. Just one detail, please. Shall we quote a source when the source or sources -- can we write a story based on sources, even though sources we know are very -- don't lie to us.

It happened to me in the past to write and quote sources and I was -- is not to say sorry for being, not being modest -- but I was right at the end of the day. But I took the chance, I took the risk, I knew very well the source and it was a very sensitive subject about the fraud, financial fraud. Nobody wanted to come to be the first to come and say, look, this is -- we have a problem here and some billions were just took by some people there.

So, you know, and we have a story with Bechtel Company in Romania, which took a contract from the government with no auction. So nobody will tell you if it was right and we're talking about billions from public funds. So you have the right as a journalist, at least to ask questions and to, you know, to do -- otherwise, after weeks, if you prove, if that story that you didn't write because you didn't have the official confirmation but you had the information and the right sources, proved to be right, then the public opinion will come against us and say, why you didn't tell us about this? Why did journalists didn't inform us about?

So you know, it's a very sensitive -- you are, you know, on the edge somehow but, my question, is, do you think that you, a journalist, should quote sources when of course in the case where you are very, very sure that those sources, not only one or two, but those sources gives you the right information and the same information. Should we quote them in order to respect and do our duty to inform public opinion about sensitive issues? Or should we wait?

MR. CHINNI: That's a good question. In the end, that's being a journalist, right? I mean, in the end it's about, you know, you've got to verify -- you've got to do the best you can to verify the information you have. And if you verified as best you can, if you think it's correct, if you think it's accurate, then by all means go with it and then face repercussions if it's wrong.

But, you know, you got to do everything you can to make sure what you have is right. I am definitely not saying that the government has to agree with you to go up a story** my God, that's not what we do in this country, you know. It's part of what you do, you become a journalist because you want to challenge the government. That's one of the reasons you do it. You want to challenge all sorts of authority, want to raise questions -- authorities and every -- you want to question a lot of things about society.

But you just got to, you got to verify. You got make sure the information you have is right and you've got to have a -- I will say this about being a journalist and what comes with things like this. You have to have a system. It can't just be, "I really, really think" or, "I really, really know." You, yourself, as journalist or the organization you work for have to have something in place that tells you when you go with something. Because -- and you have to have something like that set up beforehand, because if you don't, in the heat of the moment, you're going to find yourself facing a question where, "I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do, let's just go with it" or "no, no, let's stay off," you know, you have to try to have this things* as best you can laid out in advance, so that you have some kind of system in place to tell you when you can go with the story and when you can't.

QUESTION: In writing.

MR. CHINNI: In writing, yeah, if -- please, yeah, if you can do that.

MR. LEVENTHAL: In writing --

MR. MACINNESS: All right. I think one last question (inaudible).

QUESTION: There have been many reports in the past that the standard of journalism in America is becoming sloppier and journalists are less professional, they don't check their sources, they make up sources as we've seen in case of Jayson Blair in the New York Times. And in fact, when it comes to WMD, I mean, we see at the time that (inaudible) -- the Washington Post and New York Times have apologized, for their readers basically, for not checking the information.

When the country's dealing with a situation like a crisis and they've been scared or intimidated by authority or whether they're not going to get that interview with the President, whatever, so they go along with it -- the stories that's been published. I mean, I've been accused of being less patriotic, for example, where do you see this taking us through? I mean, if this is really the case, where do we go from here and we're talking about the print media, let alone the cable networks and televised media, which is more of a sensational and (inaudible) interested in news that related (inaudible)?

MR. CHINNI: Well, what -- the organization I work for, when we first formed, the reason we formed was we felt journalism was lost. And the way we thought, the way looked at it was journalism had become lost in this larger thing called communication, that's really not clear what made journalism -- journalism anymore. And what made a journalist a journalist. So we've been around the country and we basically talked to journalists about this. What is it that separates journalists from other things? What makes journalism and what sets journalism apart?

And we came up with 10 things and I wish I could remember them all right now -- but they're in a book we wrote called The Elements of Journalism and the first thing -- the first, I know some of them off the top of my head, you know -- the first thing is that journalists has an obligation to the truth, first and foremost. Your job is to tell the truth and that, you know, you can't worry about if you're going to anger somebody or piss somebody off. Your job is to go out there and tell the truth, because that's -- a democracy can't function without that, you know, particularly it's like, people in this country have to vote on things. They have to know what's going on. To do that, they have to understand things. Journalists are vital to the proper functioning of a democracy. If they don't do their jobs right, the thing won't work and -- we can't be worried about whether or not people like us. Again, that's not why you become a journalist. It just isn't. It can't be and we've got to get away from that. We've got to go back and rediscover what journalism is supposed to be about.

MR. MACINNESS: Thank you both for a very interesting discussion.

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