(written with Stacy Herbert)
On May 26, 2004, a year after the invasion of Iraq, the New York Times issued an extraordinary apology for their failure in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, The Times and Iraq
We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged or failed to emerge.
Flash forward to June 12, 2009. Thousands of tweets claim the Iranian elections are rigged. Mousavi supporters fill the streets of Tehran. Within 48 hours, hundreds of thousands of retweets echo and amplify the chants and the cries of mostly anonymous twitterers reporting Iranian state violence. The tweets are homepage news on Huffington Post and Drudge Report. All the diaries of leading blogs are further amplifying the information disseminated by the tweets and retweets.
The Twitter Revolution and the Green Revolution were on! The MSM had failed!
But then. Someone from the Main Stream Media actually reported from on the ground in Tehran - Robert Fisk for the UK newspaper, The Independent
At around 4.35 last Monday morning, my Beirut mobile phone rang in my Tehran hotel room. "Mr Fisk, I am a computer science student in Lebanon. I have just heard that students are being massacred in their dorms at Tehran University. Do you know about this?" The Fisk notebook is lifted wearily from the bedside table. "And can you tell me why," he continued, "the BBC and other media are not reporting that the Iranian authorities have closed down SMS calls and local mobile phones and have shut down the internet in Tehran? I am learning what is happening only from Twitters and Facebook."
You will recall that the SNM were, of course, buzzing with declarations that the main stream media was failing to report the "truth" as evidenced in the almost entirely unsourceable, unchallengeable tweets. One of the top trending hashtags at Twitter was #cnnfail.
Fisk, however, did what good journalists do, he put on his shoes and went out to investigate. Most of the stories circling the socially networked universe, he quickly found, were simply untrue.
Now for the very latest on the fantasy circuit. The cruel "Iranian" cops aren't Iranian at all. They are members of Lebanon's Hizbollah militia. I've had this one from two reporters, three phone callers (one from Lebanon) and a British politician. I've tried to talk to the cops. They cannot understand Arabic. They don't even look like Arabs, let alone Lebanese. The reality is that many of these street thugs have been brought in from Baluch areas and Zobal province, close to the Afghan border. Even more are Iranian Azeris. Their accents sound as strange to Tehranis as would a Belfast accent to a Cornishman hearing it for the first time.
Fantasy and reality make uneasy bedfellows, but once they are combined and spread with high-speed inaccuracy around the world, they are also lethal. Sham elections, the takeover of party offices, a massacre on a university campus, an imminent coup d'etat, the possible overthrow of the whole 30-year old Islamic Republic, the isolation of an entire country as its communications are systematically shut down.
I am reminded of Eisenhower's comment to Foster Dulles when he sent him to London to close down Anthony Eden's crazed war in Suez. The secretary of state's job, Eisenhower instructed Dulles, was to say "Whoah, boy!" Good advice for those who believe in the Twitterers.
While most of the Fisk dispatches from Iran were picked up in the US blogosphere, this one was not. As happened with the NYTimes, certain information would apparently be "allowed to stand unchallenged." Many would argue, however, so what if some of the facts tweeted turn out to be false. It's the fog of war, right? An election was obviously stolen. And clearly there are demonstrations and people protesting. Right?
But where were the protests in the poor area of Southern Tehran asked a former CIA officer, Robert Baer, who was stationed in the Middle East for over 20 years. (The George Clooney vehicle, Syriana, was based on Baer's novel). Here reporting for Time, Baer writes, Don't Assume Ahmadinejad Really Lost
There is no denying that the news clips from Tehran are dramatic, unprecedented in violence and size since the mullahs came to power in 1979. They're possibly even augurs of real change. But can we trust them? Most of the demonstrations and rioting I've seen in the news are taking place in north Tehran, around Tehran University and in public places like Azadi Square. These are, for the most part, areas where the educated and well-off live -- Iran's liberal middle class. These are also the same neighborhoods that little doubt voted for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rival, who now claims that the election was stolen. But I have yet to see any pictures from south Tehran, where the poor live. Or from other Iranian slums.
To challenge such assumptions or ask such questions in the Social Network Media at the moment, however, is tantamount to career suicide, which in the SNM means to be unfollowed and blocked. These questions, therefore, don't get asked - just as they weren't asked by MSM journalists in the lead up to Iraq. Today asking inconvenient questions is supporting the ayatollahs, just as asking questions in the lead up to Iraq was supporting Saddam Hussein. And just as the New York Times had their man, Ahmed Chalabi, we have our man, Mir-Hossein Mousavi:
Back to the New York Times apology:
Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.
Now let's imagine how this paragraph could be applied to the Social Network Media:
Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual tweeters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Bloggers at several levels who should have been challenging twitterers and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops onto the homepage. Accounts of Iranian protesters were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ousted. Tweets based on dire claims about Iran tended to get prominent homepage display, while follow-up tweets (and on the ground articles) that called the original tweets into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.
Yes, there is clearly a massive part of society in Iran who want change, one much bigger than our own change we chose a few months ago. But I imagine the United States, in fact, looked very similar to the outside world in the 1960's and early 70s, a time of violent street protests and demonstrations, student riots, black marches, Stonewall, Kent State, assassinations and more. History, however, has proven that those in the streets in 1960's America were on the right side. Their fight was just and it finally prevailed through internal debate, conflict and resolution.
But, imagine, if you will, had France or the UK or any other outside force, intervened to "help" through either destabilization efforts or with military strikes.
Imagine had change been thrust upon the very sizeable portion of the US population that did not wish to extend freedom to blacks, gays, women or war resisters. Would we today have freely voted in our first black President so soon after Martin Luther King Jr's march?
The New York Times apologized for being a mouthpiece for the Bush Administration. For failing to question the motives of their sources or to investigate claims that would contradict what the American people seemed to want, for, after all, the Fox News audience ruled the day. Try telling their audience that Saddam Hussein, while a madman, was actually defenseless and not intent on harming us. This was a truth perhaps Americans did not want to hear at the time but the truth nevertheless and that is what journalism is supposed to seek.
If social network media is the future of our journalism, then how do we judge truth in 140 characters?
Social networking sites and blogs are naturally emotional and subjective, but a healthy democracy needs also to have a dispassionate journalism that is able to question the motives of sources. Which, importantly, means being able to confirm the real existence and legitimacy of a source. A media that asks "qui bono?" That investigates and exhausts every avenue of the entire story. And, yes, that means even when that alley leads to discovery of information that is terribly inconvenient to our own assumptions or to the geo-politcal outcomes we as individuals may desire.
So, finally, if the NYTimes became a mouthpiece for powerful Washington insiders, then we need to ask have we become the mouthpiece for thousands of anonymous twitterers?