On Friday (5/18/12) we noted that the New York Times and Washington Post had long pieces about a drug war shooting in Honduras that reportedly killed four innocent bystanders, including two pregnant women. The story got increased attention here in the U.S. because of the apparent involvement of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Honduran officials and sources claimed the dead were civilians. The Times and Post, though, granted anonymity to U.S. officials to claim that the dead were maybe not civilians at all; in fact, according to some of these unnamed officials, the whole town where the shooting occurred was involved in the illegal drug trade, and it was downright suspicious that a boat would be out on the water at that time of night.
On Saturday (5/19/12), Times reporter Damien Cave, the author of one of the pieces we criticized, offered another take, which included a hospital interview with one of the shooting victims. He also reported that, contrary to the story peddled by anonymous U.S. officials, it would not have been all that unusual for boats to be out in the early morning hours.
It’s a strong piece that sheds considerable light on a story that is obviously still unfolding. The headline is unfortunate–“From a Honduras Hospital, Conflicting Tales of a Riverside Shootout”–in the sense that it suggests equal weight be given to the version of events as presented by U.S. officials.
Cave, it should be noted, appeared in the comments section of the FAIR Blog to argue this: “Instead of judging me and one story, try to keep paying attention to the story as it unfolds.” Fair enough. But the problem with the first story still stands. Why grant U.S. officials anonymity to spin their side of the story? Times readers who are following this story might have a hard time figuring out who to believe: Officials from their own government or the eyewitnesses and survivors. The main reason for that confusion is the fact that news outlets gave those officials space to tell their story without any accountability.
Another Times reporter, Michael Powell, also weighed in on the original blog post to say that Cave “wrote a riveting piece, first-hand, that directly challenges the U.S. government’s account.” That is true, but the first piece did almost exactly the opposite–which was, of course, the point of FAIR’s critique.
Powell dismissed the importance of the piece’s reliance on anonymous U.S. sources:
I am all for being as explicit as possible about sourcing, but would you have slept better if it had said because of government policy on talking to reporters or whatever?
A report that is heavily based on spin coming from anonymous U.S. officials is not a detour on the road to getting at the truth. That is why outlets like the Times, at least in principle, say they try to avoid using anonymous sources–out of concern over being used to transmit official deceptions. If these papers would follow their own rules on anonymity, their readers would be lied to less often.
There’s that thing everyone says about journalism being the first draft of history. But the first draft of journalism is just as important. The Times deserves credit for publishing a more thorough report that challenges the official story coming from the U.S. government. But that doesn’t undermine the critique of the first story; it bolsters it.