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THE MASSEY MESS: "ERROR IN JUDGMENT"

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By Michelle Malkin  •  November 14, 2005 09:05 AM

Two newspapers, the Modesto Bee and the Sacramento Bee, did the right thing this weekend and published lengthy explanations of how and why they came to publish the unverified claims of former Marine Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey, the anti-war Left’s favorite slanderer of American troops.

David Holwerk, Sacramento Bee editorial pages editor, wrote:

We should have done more to check the truth of Massey’s charges before deciding whether to publish them. We didn’t, and the responsibility for that is mine.

It was an error in judgment, and The Bee’s readers are entitled to an explanation of how I made that error.

The chain of events began in April 2004, when Paul Rockwell submitted an article to The Bee. Rockwell is a librarian and freelance writer who lives in Oakland. His work had appeared in Forum twice before – once in July 1999 and again in June 2001. He sent the article on Massey to Bill Moore, who was then editor of the Forum section.

The article was a lengthy question-and-answer interview with Jimmy Massey, a Marine staff sergeant from North Carolina. In it Massey claimed to have witnessed and participated in the killing of innocent civilians in Iraq.

That’s the kind of story that gets an editor’s attention. It’s also the kind of story no editor just slaps in the paper.

I asked Moore a number of questions and asked him to take steps to check Massey’s credibility. Moore contacted Massey to verify that Rockwell had quoted him accurately and to obtain a copy of Massey’s discharge papers. Moore also checked with the Pentagon to verify that Massey had been where he claimed to be when he claimed to be there.

The answers to those questions jibed with Massey’s story. He was in Iraq at the places and times he said he was. His record with the Marines was what he claimed it had been. He was a decorated combat veteran. He had been honorably discharged.

So far, so good. The problem is that we didn’t go far enough. Before we published the story, we should have called the Marine Corps for response. We also could have attempted to speak to other members of Massey’s Marine unit and to check whether any reporters were embedded with Massey’s company. But we didn’t.

Nonetheless, after some internal discussion, I decided that Massey was a credible source with a riveting story to tell and that we would publish the story, which we did on May 16, 2004. The story sparked a number of letters, some questioning the credibility of Massey’s story. We published five letters about the story – two of them critical – and that was that, until about three weeks ago.

That’s when [St. Louis Post-Dispatch] reporter [Ron] Harris called. He told me he was working on a story about Massey and identified himself as having been embedded with Massey’s unit in Iraq. He told me that neither he nor other embedded journalists had seen any evidence of the atrocities Massey alleged and that other members of Massey’s unit had told him the incidents never occurred. He also told me the Marine Corps had investigated Massey’s allegations and had concluded they were baseless.

He said a number of news organizations had published some version of Massey’s accounts. (Among the ones he named are the Associated Press, USA Today and the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union, along with smaller newspapers around the country.) And he asked how The Bee had decided to publish the interview with Massey with no other sources, no response from the Marine Corps and no independent corroboration.

After I looked up the story, I told him the truth: It was clear in retrospect that we hadn’t done due diligence with the Jimmy Massey interview.

Holwerk notes that Massey is standing by his accounts of atrocities and accusing Harris of “retaliating against him for calling attention to what he says was Harris’ inaccurate reporting while embedded in Iraq.” Holwerk won’t say which side he believes, but offers readers a list of Web links to both sides of the Massey Mess.

Judy Sly, op-ed editor of the Modesto Bee, wrote:

We relied on our colleagues in Sacramento but should have done our own verification. Sacramento did confirm with Massey the responses in the commentary, but it did not seek a response from the Marine Corps.

Around the country, other media are guilty of the same failures.

This week, columnists and others have picked up on these failures and the discrepancies noted in the Post-Dispatch story. Today, the attention is as much on the media as it is on Massey’s allegations.

We’re making readers fully aware of all this for two reasons: First, we want to acknowledge the damage done to our credibility because we failed to check out adequately the information that appeared in our publication. Second, we want to assure you that we have learned from this experience and will beef up procedures to prevent a painful repeat…

Good for Sly and Holwerk. They and their papers deserve praise for prompt and straightforward explanations of the Massey Mess. Still no word, though, from the Associated Press or Washington Post.

Write AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll at kathleen.carroll@ap.org.

Ask the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz.

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Update: The New York Post’s editorial on anti-war liars and those who love ‘em is dead-on.

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Previous:

The media and the unhinged Marine
From John Kerry to Jimmy Massey
Jimmy Massey: A slanderer and his MSM enablers
An anti-war smear artist exposed
Jeremy spoke in Canada today

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