The duty of journalism is verification

Edit: The Washington Post has since updated their article to include a statement from Caleb as well as some background about him, but the reference to him as a supposed extremist remains.

Last year in Aleppo in Syria there was a rather unusual sight to be seen. In the midst of grinding, street-to-street combat between loyalist and rebel forces, a solitary Ford F-250 mounting a ZU-32-2 and advertising a Texas based plumbing company was seen driving around the battle field. The bizarre juxtaposition didn’t go unnoticed, and after an image of the truck was tweeted by Caleb Weiss, it went somewhat viral, even making the Colbert Report.

Caleb Weiss Twitter

Unfortunately for the previous owner of the truck, the old adage that all publicity is good publicity didn’t hold up against association with Islamist rebels. He started receiving calls and even death threats, to the point that some employees wouldn’t return to work. A year on, the Texas plumber has filed a lawsuit against the company to which he originally sold his truck for failing to remove the decals as they promised. The suit alleges that “shock, fear, anxiety, mental anguish, humiliation, and degradation,” has impacted “the Plaintiffs and their employees, family members and relatives” since their business was improperly associated with Islamist rebels half a world away.

Personally, I don’t doubt that to be true. That people would go out of their way to make venomous, anonymous threats based upon an innocent mistake seems all too likely. My initial reading of the case is that the company which had promised to resell the truck sans identifying information made quite a mistake and will have to pay up. However, I’m not a lawyer, and whatever might happen legally is not my concern. What bothers me is that in a suit which highlights the ill-effects of misidentifying someone as a member or supporter of Islamist rebels, someone else is misidentified as a member or supporter of Islamist rebels. Caleb Weiss, who sent the original tweet showing the plumbing truck in Syria, is referred to as a “member of Ansar al-Deen, a jihadist group operating near Aleppo in Syria.” It’s simply not true, he’s actually an American who interns with a Washington D.C. think tank, and is easily find-able online. He is himself aware that he’s been named as such, and after he contacted the law firm which misidentified him, they’ve apparently promised a retraction.

Which is fine, because the substance of the suit had very little to do with who Caleb Weiss was, or what he did. It appears to be an innocent mistake on the part of whichever lawyer drafted the brief. Unfortunately, much like the situation with the Texas plumber, the mistake has since propagated beyond a single utterance. In their reporting of the recent law suit filed on behalf of the Texas plumber, The Washington Post transmitted the original claim that Caleb Weiss was a member of Ansar Al-Deen by referring to him as “a supposed extremist.” Because I knew he’s not, and because that fact is easy to verify, I contacted the reporter in the hope that they would correct it. The conversation did not go as I might have wished, and that it did not revealed a serious failing in journalistic integrity.

My initial message was simple enough, I pointed out that The Washington Post had referred to Caleb Weiss as a supposed extremist, and asked by what basis they supposed him to be an extremist. I then attached some information and who he is, and how to find him, as well as direct links to social media profiles, in the hope that they would verify their claims rather than slandering an innocent man.

To this, the response I received was rather bizarre. To begin with, the reporter claimed that referring to Caleb Weiss as a supposed extremist was justified because someone else had already done so (the lawyer who drafted the law suit, who I might note had already admitted their mistake), and besides they didn’t even use Caleb’s name, so what does it matter? The second claim there is especially nonsensical, because the statement that he was a supposed extremist comes literally immediately after an embedded image of his twitter profile, which includes both his name and a picture.

Washington Post Caleb Weiss

As to the idea that calling Caleb Weiss a supposed extremist was justified, because he was already previously accused, I can only say that it is a betrayal of journalistic duty. The point of journalism is to verify, as Carl Bernstein said, it is to “find the best obtainable version of the truth.” To take the subjective opinion of a lawyer in an adversarial filing (that Caleb Weiss was a member of Ansar al-Deen) uncritically is a total abdication of a journalist’s responsibility to question and dig until the truth is found. Especially in an instance when verification is literally two minutes work, I wonder why it wasn’t done.

In this instance, the failing is minor. Caleb Weiss seems more bemused than alarmed, but I believe that there is a principle at stake. Lazy journalism costs lives. It might seem to be hyperbole, but it is an acknowledged fact, as when the majority of American media took statements from George Bush’s administration about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as revealed truth, and so doing fueled the rush to war. In his retrospective on this failure, the newly minted public editor for the New York Times, Daniel Okrent wrote on the duties of journalism. He wrote that “a newspaper has an obligation to convince readers why it believes the sources it does not identify are telling the truth,” and he is critical of “that automatic editor defense, ”We’re not confirming what he says, we’re just reporting it’” as a subversion of the duty to convince and verify. In all things, big or small, journalists must remain critical of what they are shown and what they are told, because it is their duty to verify, because they are trusted to verify.





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