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MURDER HE WROTE? Yours truly, Rhonda R. Shearer as depicted in Science magazine, alongside, former Papua New Guinea (PNG) World Wildlife Fund employee and indigenous person Daniel Wemp. Jared Diamond claims in his dramatic tale published by The New Yorker last year, that Wemp was a blood "thirsty" "killer" responsible for organizing "about 30 killings" during 1992-1995 -- an account for which Wemp served as his sole, unverified source.

This is #1 in a series of iMediaEthics blog posts that will respond to Jared Diamond’s and New Yorker’s exclusive statements to Science magazine, published May 15, 2009…

Judging by the quotations attributed to Jared Diamond in last week’s breakthrough news report in Science magazine, “‘Vengeance’ Bites Back At Jared Diamond,” denial is not just a river in Egypt.

Michael Balter, who scored the interview exclusives with both Diamond and New Yorker editor David Remnick, wrote that “Diamond insists that he followed good journalistic practice” when writing the now infamous April 21, 2008 essay “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?

(Read the Associated Press report for a good summary of the controversy regarding the charges of inaccuracy by iMediaEthics and the Handa and Ombal tribesmen, Hup Daniel Wemp and Henep Isum Mandingo, who are now suing Diamond and The New Yorker for libel in the New York State Supreme Court).

Diamond’s primary source, Wemp, denies both the factual claims and quotations Diamond attributes to him. Even journalists reporting on far more trivial matters than capital crimes fastidiously corroborate their information: they call this fundamental practice the “two-source rule.”

The sad truth is, however, using one source to detail the unpublished history of Papua New Guinea tribal warfare when your source is not a historian but your paid employee/driver, is hardly “good practice” for a UCLA freshman, let alone a UCLA full professor and scientist with multiple awards.

Diamond told Balter (emphasis mine) that he “confirmed that some of the people Wemp named had been involved in a tribal war” with “some younger members of his [Wemp’s] tribe” but makes no mention of checking with these other Handa about other facts, such as numbers people killed, dates, tribal names or locations. (The lack of verification is why Diamond’s essay is riddled with errors, such as mistakenly referring to villages as tribes or calling Henep Isum Mandingo an Ombal when he is a Henep tribesmen. See our 10,000-word report on iMediaEthics).

“ ‘The complaint has no merit at all,’ Diamond told Balter who interviewed Diamond for Science in “his office at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is a professor of geography.” The key defense for Diamond was that he took lots of “detailed notes” during the May 2006 interview that he had with Wemp. (The New Yorker fact checker, Chris Jennings, said these were the only notes provided by Diamond).

The Society of Professional Journalism’s (SPJ) Code of Ethics states: “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.”

Reporting on a war requires, at the very least, testing facts with sources from both sides. Diamond admits, without apology, that he spoke only to Handas (Daniel and some unnamed “younger members” not sourced in the original New Yorker report) and no Ombals, who he wrongly describes as enemies of long standing.

The cardinal journalistic value cited in the SPJ code requires that all the indigenous individuals Diamond named as criminals be contacted before publication. The code states: “Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”

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Diamond told Balter that he left all that up to Wemp. And yet, Wemp had no idea, as Diamond himself admits, that there would be a New Yorker story naming him and others as being connected to heinous crimes.

Balter wrote that Diamond “did not try to get permission from [Isum] Mandingo and the others.” He quotes Diamond: “I trusted Daniel’s judgment about what was appropriate to discuss.” Diamond’s abdication of responsibility to contact people he plans to name as murderers and rapists is a clear departure from what he claims as his “good journalistic practice.”

Here are the quotations from Diamond’s piece, whose odd numbers suggest precision. Diamond writes in his New Yorker essay (emphasis mine) that “seventeen other men had been killed” in the years before the alleged 3-year war. He goes on the say “it took three years, twenty-nine more killings…before Daniel succeeded in discharging this responsibility.” Later he writes, “In total, about thirty people were killed in those six battles.” It all sounds so real. In fact, the use of odd numbers like 17 and 29 killed suggest a precision in the research. But the truth is that this “war” did not last three years and it did not involve six battles that killed 17 or 29 people. Four people were killed in three months of fighting in 1993. We verified these facts with dozens of people, including police, missionaries, tribal members (from both sides) and government officials.

The public deserves better than the illusion of exactness. The numbers of dead and all other facts—except the names of indigenous peoples—Diamond tells Balter are unverified.

Mako John Kuwimb who is both a Handa and Ombal, a lawyer and a PhD candidate in law at James Cook University, Queensland, Australia, sent Diamond and The New Yorker a detailed, 26-page report in response to the factual errors as well as the actual history of the sole Handa and Ombal dispute in 1993.

Bent but unbowed, Diamond bravely told Science magazine “that he still considers Wemp’s original account to be the most reliable source for what happened” even after Wemp and Kuwimb have informed him that all his facts are wrong except for people’s names.

Surely the public, the scientific and the UCLA community deserve better, and the tribes and tribesmen deserve retractions and apologies from Diamond and The New Yorker.

 

UPDATED 05/18/09: 10:51pm
UPDATED 05/20/09: 10:12am — Check out this blog post by a journalist who outlines the basic journalism standards he learned in J-School. Go to this very helpful context –what the blogger, Jeremy Porter, calls ” tried and true principles of journalism” for judging Diamond’s claim that he adhered to good journalism practice

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’17 killed,’ ’29 more killings’: Jared Diamond ‘stands by’ New Yorker revenge story and gives the illusion of precision

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10 Responses

  1. Rhonda Roland Shearer says:

    What is our point? You do not understand that it is a serious problem to call named individuals and tribes killers and rapists when it isn’t true? You might think so if it were you or people you knew and loved. Think about it. You seem to be saying, by analogy, that just because there are killings and rapes in New York City, that it is okay for Jared Diamond and The New Yorker to publish, without fact checking and without it being true, that "John Green" and "Joe Green" who live in New York, are killers and rapists? Of course you don’t believe this. Well, the same applies to brown people in far off places named Henep Isum Mandingo, for example, who was, in fact, not a warrior, but a responsible member of his community and village peace officer. It is an outrage to publish that he led a tribal war, whose members raped Huli women along a highway and more– when it is all untrue. Jared Diamond and New Yorker failed since July 2008 until April 2009 to properly admit errors and apologize. These tribal people have rights and should not be expected by you or anyone else to just sit by while being falsely accused of serious crimes.

  2. Klaus Stiefel says:

    Yes, I understand that calling someone a murderer if he’s not is a problem.

    But:

    1. It seems that Diamond acted without malice, and there are conflicting statements about the consensus for publishing, facts and the fact-checking that occurred (it seems at least incorrect that there was none, I gather).

    2. Is a 10 m $ (~ a millenium of a PNG salary) lawsuit and a media campaign realy the way to settle this? This seems more like an effort to draw attention to your organisation than anything else. Why dedicatea whole series of essays to this (some of which are quite interresting) if it is only about some misrepresented facts? Would you run essays about peace-making in NYC if "Joe Green" had been falsely accused of murder? Would you have done the same thing if these claims had been published by an unknown writer or in a smaller publication? I doubt it.

    Lawsuits over huge sums (American custom), vastly enriching a class of economically parasitic laywers, are often as inappropriate as solutions to conflicts as Axe-fights(PNG highland custom).

    In case you are wondering, I came here from the Science-link.

  3. Rhonda Roland Shearer says:

    1. The New Yorker admits that they did not fact check specific facts. They checked with experts about general aspects –"could it be true." Alex Golub at SavageMinds.org was one of the experts they called and he said that they only asked him very general questions for about 10 minutes. Private people who sue for libel only have to prove negligence not malice. New Yorker admits they did not contact any of the named folks before publication. They also admit their only source for the facts was notes from one interview with Wemp, May 2006 and that Wemp did not know he would be featured in the New Yorker.

    2. The 10 million figure mentioned is a convention–a standard number used in lawsuits all the time that has to do with the limits of this particular court. This is not our lawsuit. Wemp and Isum are suing. This is a serious case with many important aspects to be explored –not just factual errors. Again, the fact that The New Yorker, with its famed fact checking dept, would name people as criminals with no verification is astonishing. If you look at our cases, we do not limit what we do to famous publications or people.

    3. Since the New Yorker and Diamond refuse to apologize, Wemp and Isum have no choice but to use the court system. No one should expect another human being to just accept false accusations of crimes in my view.

  4. David Zeegen says:

    I have been trying to follow this since Stinky Journalism first broke the story. Not a lot happened, but now I am glad to see that the publisher and Mr. Diamond have responded to the allegations.

    To Klaus Stiefel, I find it hard to relate at all with your point of view.

    First of all, I don’t believe the quality of “acting without malice” exempts Mr. Diamond from the repercussions of his actions, especially since the nature of the case proves that he was fully aware of his actions. (See this latest SJ article about Mr. Diamond’s specific numbers 17, and 29.)

    Secondly, if the court case proves that Mr. Diamond in fact lied his way through the article in question, then in my opinion, the $10 M lawsuit and media campaign really was the way to settle it. I cannot think of any other way the truth would come out in such a situation as this, except by a civil lawsuit. And do you not think it a big deal in general that a prize winning and best selling author would be shown to be a liar in his non-fiction writing? I think it’s a huge deal.

  5. Klaus Stiefel says:

    Why do they have no choice but to use the court system? Why not get the word out in PNG that Diamond can’t be trusted? I am neither personaly familiar with the PNG highlander nor the US conflict resolution system (I have never been in a courtroom or in PNG, though I’d like to visit the later) and I assumed 10 m $ means that this is the sum asked for by the suing parties not some convention. What good would be served if that sum would be payed to someone in rural PNG? That would not create huge social inequalities & conflicts? Culturally insensitive to think that. I know it is not you who is suing, but your actions certainly helped bring the suit about. As I said, I think the only people likely to profit from this are your organization and a lot of laywers.

    To David Zeegen: Diamond might have been gullible, but it is a stretch to call him a liar. And I am not convinced at all of lawsuits as a path to the the truth! Cases are abound where simply the financially more powerfull party wins.

  6. Rhonda Roland Shearer says:

    So how exactly does letting people know in PNG that Diamond was wrong help change the record? People like you will only believe that Diamond told lies when proven in court.

    The court case will produce documents –the fact checkers records, the now infamous May 2006 notes, as examples–that will reveal the truth.

    It is frankly ridiculous to think that a full professor and trained scientist at a major university with numerous awards and honors, who has spent time in PNG since the 1960’s was duped when he knew he only talked to one source –his paid driver! As I mentioned above, talking to one source (a driver with a 10th grade education) about unpublished murders would not be an adequate method of research for a freshman let alone a full professor.

  7. Klaus Stiefel says:

    See, you are misunderstanding me. 1. I don’t think that. Diamond is always right. 2. Decissions by US courts don’t serve as my standard of truth. I don’t care about the (US court) record, and I would assume most people in PNG do neither. They care about the social standing of an individual (incl. frequent visitors) there. Geting out the word about the story there would influence that standing.

    I get the impression that he was sloppy, but did not intentionally lie (the Science article says that he talked to additional people), but that is not my point here. My point is that this lawsuit is not to the benefit on any of the highlanders involved. Neither the procedure itself, wording of the verdict nor the possible payment will realy be to their benefit. Instead it will only give you a lot of media coverage and some laywer a new vacation home. It surprises me that you, while you seem to be campaigning for cross-cultural sensitivity, are so tied to the (quite imperfect, I think) way of legal conflict resolution of your culture.

    Best Regards,

    Klaus Stiefel, Uruma City, Japan

  8. Rob Geurtsen says:

    I fully support the ideas of Klaus Stiefel.

    Why is the rumble in the media jungle is only coming from Diamond, TNY and Shearer’s organization and affiliates?

    The foundation of the discussion is the unpublished 40.000 word report by initiated and produced by Shearer c.s. The 10.000 word published summary is again produced by the same party. And then there is a very informative letter from Mako J. Kuwimb to Lisa Hughes of TNY.

    That one was written as it appears with the legal fight in mind and written after the 40.000 word report from Shearer’s organization was finished. Kuwimb letter is a fantastic factual account that I highly appreciate as a reader from TNY. Hup Daniel Wemp and Henep Isum Mandingo go unnoticed in this rumble in the jungle.

    Who will benefit from this rumbling and tumbling? Who will benefit from the 10M claim? The readers of TNY? By the way among others that’s me, that is how I got here. The subjects of Diamond’s story, or the folks mentioned in Kuwimb’s account?

    What is the conflict about? If I take Shearer as the instigator than the whole ‘Vengeance is Ours – case’ is proof of Diamond’s idea that Vengeance is ours. I just fail to see who or what will benefit from her investigation. It seems she takes poisition as defender and informer of the uninformed. Maybe she does prove "Vengeance is Ours".

    However Shearer will somehow get her share because of in the way she operates in the public domain. Personalized rhetoric like: "People like you will only believe that Diamond told lies when proven in court", doesn’t come across very well. Yukki.

    The "Vengeance is Ours – case" however has far more interesting points. In this case anthropology and legal issues come together and can proof that for the future jurists need to inform themselves through anthropologists about the cultural difference and how these are to be weighed in legal clashes.

    We don’t owe that to Shearer c.s. it is probably typical for the world ever since the Europeans decided to spread around the globe, only it might intensify with communication and other inetractions increasing in intensity and frequency.

    Cheers to all.

  9. Rhonda Roland Shearer says:

    The people in the PNG, depend on village courts and compensation. To save his reputation and to be able to go public events and public roads again Wemp must pay compensation. This is a truism according to experts. Read my report. Dr Haley comments on this very point. Your alternative to court is for Wemp to somehow (you don’t say how) let the community know the situation is not his fault by "Getting out the word about the story there would influence that standing." The word is out. It was on the front page of the National paper only because it was a 10mil lawsuit. Those are the headlines papers print.

    But how does getting the word out pay his debt of compensation payments to the community? He has been in hiding since July 2008 and has not been able to continue his work at home (showing films). You may not like lawsuits–but it is a human right to seek justice when falsely accused of crimes and that is what they are going to do.

    Anthropologist Polly Wiessner (who works in PNG) spoke to Michael Balter, for the May 15, 2009, Science report. Balter writes: “She [Wiessner] thinks that Diamond should travel to PNG and engage in some restorative justice of his own. ‘Diamond has been wonderfully respectful of PNG and has done so much to raise the image of the country in the world, until that story…He should be taken to a village court; he should apologize; he should say that he was told this story and he should have checked it; and in compensation, he should give some money to each tribe, for their schools, a health center, or some community project.”

  10. Rhonda Roland Shearer says:

    You took what I said out of context. I wrote: "So how exactly does letting people know in PNG that Diamond was wrong help change the record? People like you will only believe that Diamond told lies when proved in court. The court case will produce documents –the fact checkers records, the now infamous May 2006 notes, as examples–that will reveal the truth." In other words, a court process will reveal truth for anyone who is doubting the lies (that Wemp and Isum are killers or if New Yorker really did a stellar job of fact checking).

    The truth will be known and revealed through objective facts–documentary evidence.

    Since Diamond tells Science magazine that he still stands behind his report– where he writes that Wemp and Isum and the two tribes are murderers and rapists, despite all the evidence presented here on StinkyJournalism.org (and by Kuwimb’s report that you and we cite), where is Diamond claiming he was duped or fooled? This speaks for itself.

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