Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Smith Controversy

I've been watching from afar as the controversy over W. Thomas Smith Jr.'s reporting from Lebanon has developed (rather than provide a link farm, here is his Wikipedia entry, which is very thorough).

Full disclosure here. I know Tom both as a journalist and a friend. He has taught with us as an adjunct instructor at the University of South Carolina. He is a smart, committed journalist. He also is a proud, committed military man who is iconic evidence of the idea once a Marine, always a Marine. I have seen the two intertwine.

I'm not in a position to judge the veracity of his reporting from Lebanon for National Review Online. I covered the military for several years, but mine was all domestic service. I don't presume to know the pressures of working in a war zone. I urge you to follow all the links from the Wikipedia entry and draw your own conclusions.

(Oh, OK, I can't resist. Here are a few to make it easier:
One of Smith's Lebanon dispatches from which his description of 200 heavily armed Hezbollah malitiamen has been disputed. Another about capturing a Hezbollah flag.
The National Review Online editor's note repudiating it.
Smith's farewell letter from NRO.
A Columbia Journalism Review column criticizing Smith)

I am dismayed on two fronts, however.

First is Smith's lack of acknowledgment of the controversy on his Web site and a full accounting. If nothing else, he should be referring to the Wikipedia entry. But he owes the public more than that. If you have your own site as a journalist, you owe the public to use it to its fullest -- good or bad. I hope he corrects that rather than simply leaving the paeans to his previous work.

Second are media commentary programs like On the Media. Hearing OTM's segment today actually prompted me to write this. The segment features an interview with military historian Robert Bateman who condemns Smith in the same vein as Scott Thomas Beauchamp, the soldier now accused of making up things in his blog posts for The New Republic. Perhaps. But nowhere does OTM indicate any attempt to get Smith to comment (or Beauchmp, for that matter), and OTM's Web site hardly contains the wide variety of links that would allow a visitor to make a thorough examination of the issue. It falls far short of the complete coverage I've come to expect from OTM. Hopefully the program will update its Web site and remember in the future that good journalism, even commentary, means seeking all sides, or at least telling us you tried to get them.

Update: Smith has now posted his response on his Web site in two parts. It relies heavily on an unedited e-mail from Toni Nissi, general coordinator in Lebanon for the International Lebanese Committee for UN Security Council Resolution 1559 and a further defense by Tom Harb, the group's general secretary. I encourage you to read both parts -- the first laying out the facts as Smith sees them and the second detailing the interaction with other media as this developed.

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