Navy, Meet Fact Checkers; Fact Checkers, Meet Timely Queries

A New York Times Magazine piece dropped the ball when it came time to fact-check some of the claims one of its subjects made.

It looks like the U.S. Navy isn’t too happy with a recent New York Times Magazine story, and there’s been a bit of back and forth between the Navy and the Times over some fact-checking issues. On March 18, the magazine published a piece by Sara Corbett that profiled a group of female veterans of Iraq who, due to their combat experience, are having trouble adjusting to life back in the States.

Problem is, one of the women featured in the story — who claims to have survived an Iraqi IED attack — never actually set foot in Iraq. In a correction that ran yesterday, the Times says that it has come to light that Amorita Randall, a Navy Seabee who told Corbett that she had been in combat in Iraq in 2004 and had survived an IED attack on a Humvee she was riding in (killing the driver, she claimed), was actually in Guam at the time.

The Times, while admitting its failure to find this out, wiggles a bit in its correction note, saying that the paper tried to confirm the story with the Navy before publication, and received a tepid confirmation that Randall was in Iraq, even though the Navy could find no record of the IED attack she mentioned.

The Times fact checker called the Navy a scant three days before the magazine went to press, and just a few hours before the magazine’s deadline, according to the paper’s correction,

a Navy spokesman confirmed to the researcher that Ms. Randall had won a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal with Marine Corps insignia, which was designated for those who served in a combat area, including Iraq, or in direct support of troops deployed in one. But the spokesman said there was no report of the Humvee incident or a record of Ms. Randall’s having suffered an injury in Iraq. The spokesman also said that Ms. Randall’s commander, who served in Iraq, remembered her but said that her unit was never involved in combat while it was in Iraq. Both of these statements from the Navy were included in the article.

In other words, her story looked sketchy, but the fact that she had been given a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and her commander “remembered her,” was enough for the Times to go on. Corbett also called Randall after the fact checker talked with the Navy, and Randall “stood by her account.”

The story went to press on March 9, and three days later the Navy informed the Times that it had discovered that only part of Randall’s unit had deployed to Iraq, and that she had stayed in Guam. Also — oops! — Randall had received the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal due to a clerical error.

And the Navy isn’t happy about how this has all played out. Navy Captain Tom Van Leunen told the Air Force Times on Sunday that the three days the New York Times gave them to check out Randall’s story wasn’t enough time to confirm her account, and that the Navy had provided enough information “to seriously question whether she’d been in Iraq.”

The Air Force Times continues: “Aaron Rectica, who runs the magazine’s research desk, disputes that. He said that by deadline, the Navy had not given the Times any reason to disbelieve Randall’s claim of service in Iraq. Rectica said the Navy only told the paper that Randall’s commanders believed she’d been in Iraq but that no one in the unit had been in combat.”

There you have it. The Navy says it gave the Times enough to question Randall’s story, while the Times says that the Navy didn’t give it enough to justify cutting Randall from the story.

Rereading the Times piece, it’s clear that Corbett and her editors were somewhat skeptical of Randall’s account, so much so that Corbett writes, “According to the Navy, however, no after-action report exists to back up Randall’s claims of combat exposure or injury. A Navy spokesman reports that her commander says that his unit was never involved in combat during her tour … It was difficult to know what had traumatized Randall: whether she had in fact been in combat or whether she was reacting to some more generalized recollection of powerlessness.”

Now that we know that Randall never served in Iraq, these quotes offer some pretty major red flags that the paper’s editors should have paid more attention to. It doesn’t help matters that, like the above passage, Sunday’s correction equivocates too much, saying that “it is now clear that Ms. Randall did not serve in Iraq, but may have become convinced she did.”

“May haves,” “generalized” recollections and someone convincing herself of something are pretty thin rationalizations for failing to nail down the facts. While Corbett wasn’t wrong to believe Randall initially, the holes that emerged in her story once some reporting was done, and once the fact checker was unable to verify her claims, should have caused Randall to be cut from the piece. There is little doubt that Randall is haunted by something, but the Times had enough by the time it went to press to doubt her story, and to suspect that whatever gave rise to her condition, it wasn’t combat.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.