iMediaEthics received a complaint from a reader about the Washington Post’s coverage of the movie Fair Game about Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson.
Fair Game’s website describes it as “a drama inspired by the experiences of real-life undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame” and her husband Joe Wilson.
The reader, Glenn Merritt, explained that for more than a month now, he has sought corrections for two Washington Post stories about Fair Game, the Hollywood feature film based on the lives of Valerie Plame and her husband Joe Wilson.
Merritt, who has “no relationship with Ms. Plame, Joe Wilson, or the movies,” called the Post’s statement of commitment to fixing its mistakes “misleading at best.”
Merritt first wrote to the corrections desk (email@example.com) on Dec. 1, 2010, and sent a reminder e-mail Jan. 2, 2011. Merritt explained that he sent the Jan. 2 e-mail to the Post’s corrections desk, corrections senior editor Milton Coleman and ombudsman Andrew Alexander.
“I’m CCing the ombudsman in an effort to enlighten him as to the persistent failure of the corrections desk to address corrections that reflect reportorial misinformation, contradictions of fact, and bias,” Merritt wrote to StinkyJournalism. “The Post regularly addresses superficial errors within several days of the error.”
Merritt added that he received a Jan. 3 e-mail that his correction request was forwarded to the Style desk.
Washington Post ombudsman Alexander has tackled the newspaper’s corrections system in previous columns. In May of last year, Alexander blogged that the newspaper’s corrections system was finally improving. In his blog post, Alexander noted that the backlog of corrections requests had dwindled. Alexander had previously written in March 2009 calling for the Post’s corrections system to be improved.
As Merritt wrote, the below statements are inaccurate, and also “completely contradict” previous reporting by the Post. The two Washington Post stories in question claim that Joe Wilson accurately “debunked” stuff about Niger, uranium and Iraq.
1. This Nov. 7 article on Fair Game by Walter Pincus and Richard Leiby, contains incorrect assertions about Joe Wilson, Merritt claims. The article stated (emphasis ours):
“Flash back to February 2002, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney questioned his CIA briefer about some intelligence claiming that Iraq sought to buy 500 tons of uranium ore from Niger to build a nuclear weapon. The agency sent Joe Wilson, a former ambassador with experience in both Baghdad and Niger, to run down the allegation, originally obtained by the Italian intelligence service from a note that turned out to be a forgery. Wilson debunked it.”
2. “Hitting ’em where it hurts”, a movie review by Ann Hornaday, states about Joe Wilson:
“Still, when it came to the facts — at least about Niger, uranium and Iraq — Wilson was right. “
Merritt sent more than a handful’s worth of articles by the Post reporting otherwise, including:
1. This July 2004 article by the Post reported that “Wilson’s assertions — both about what he found in Niger and what the Bush administration did with the information — were undermined yesterday in a bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report.” According to the 2004 article:
“the panel found that Wilson’s report, rather than debunking intelligence about purported uranium sales to Iraq, as he has said, bolstered the case for most intelligence analysts. And contrary to Wilson’s assertions and even the government’s previous statements, the CIA did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the Africa intelligence that made its way into 16 fateful words in President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address.”
Further, the Post went on to report that the the intelligence committee’s findings stated that “Wilson provided misleading information to The Washington Post last June. He said then that he concluded the Niger intelligence was based on documents that had clearly been forged because ‘the dates were wrong and the names were wrong.'” However, Wilson reportedly “had never seen the CIA reports.”
2. This Sept. 2006 editorial, which ran on the opinion page, stated that “Nevertheless, it now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame’s CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials.”
In Merritt’s opinion, “Hollywood and the Post now seek to rehabilitate Wilson’s image,” noting that the movie reviewer Hornaday offtered her own opinion about Wilson’s “fabrication-laced editorial ‘whistleblowing.'”
In Merritt’s Jan. 2 reminder e-mail to the Post calling for a correction, he noted that it had been “four weeks” since he first asked for corrections and that a Dec. 3 editorial “Hollywood myth-making on Valerie Plame controversy” reiterated that Wilson didn’t debunk anything.
The editorial, again which appeared on the opinion page and not in the news section of the newspaper, states: “Fair Game, based on books by Mr. Wilson and his wife, is full of distortions — not to mention outright inventions.”
iMediaEthics has written to the Washington Post corrections desk asking for confirmation of receiving Merritt’s e-mails and asking if the Post intended on publishing a correction. We received an auto-reply confirming our e-mail was received.
Merritt explained how he decides when to seek a correction from the newspaper:
“I do not waste the Post’s time on superficial errors. I challenge them on factual distortions that are employed to backup a storyline that would otherwise be undermined.”
StinkyJournalism wrote to the Washington Post’s ombudsman asking for confirmation of receiving Merritt’s e-mails and asking if he had any comment regarding Merritt’s request for corrections.
The ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, explained in a Jan. 11 e-mail to StinkyJournalism that as ombudsman, he is independent from the newspaper and doesn’t speak on its behalf. “Because of my autonomy, I have no involvement in adjudicating correction requests,” he wrote, confirming that he received Merritt’s Jan. 2 e-mail as well as other corrections requests from Merritt.
Alexander also explained that Washington Post senior editor Milton Coleman “plays an oversight role” in the corrections process.
iMediaEthics wrote to Coleman Jan. 13 asking for him to confirm he received Merritt’s e-mail, to see if the Post intended to run a correction and to seek comment. We haven’t heard back from Coleman, but will update with any response.
UPDATE 1/31/2011 2:08 PM EST: After tweeting back and forth with @ronbryn, former executive editor of The Raw Story, about this story, we’re providing links below to news stories Merritt cited in claiming a contradiction in reporting. Merritt noted that two recent Washington Post stories claim Joe Wilson debunked claims about uranium. Here are three additional stories that contradict the recent reports. See below:
1. News article “Plame’s Input is Cited on Niger Mission” by Susan Schmidt, Washington Post staff writer, July 10, 2004, Page A09: “The panel found that Wilson’s report, rather than debunking intelligence about purported uranium sales to Iraq, as he has said, bolstered the case for most intelligence analysts.”
2. Ombudsman Michael Getler, “The Wilson-Plame Affair (Cont’d),” July 18, 2004, Page B06, defended Schmidt’s reporting overall.
“The story, in my view, reflects the points, interviews and conclusions laid out in the Senate study.”
“Wilson takes issue with Schmidt’s reporting that his report on the trip to Niger ‘bolstered the case’ about purported uranium sales to Iraq. But the study concludes that Wilson’s March 2002 report, which noted that the former prime minister of Niger said that in 1999 he was approached by a businessman insisting he meet with an Iraqi delegation (which he did not do), ‘lent more credibility to the original CIA reports on the uranium deal.'”
Also, Getler wrote: “Wilson, in his letter, refers to ‘the Republican-written’ report. It is a bipartisan report. Wilson says ‘the decision to send me to Niger was not made, and could not be made, by Valerie.’ Neither the report, nor the story, says she made “the decision.”
3. Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus, “Husband is Conspicuous in Leak Case” Oct. 25, 2005, “Wilson also had charged that his report on Niger clearly debunked the claim about Iraqi uranium purchases. He told NBC in 2004: ‘This government knew that there was nothing to these allegations.’ But the Senate committee said his findings were ambiguous. Tenet said Wilson’s report ‘did not resolve’ the matter.”