NRO Joins TNR in Walk of Shame

Another day, another reporter making stuff up

It looks like war-time fabrication isn’t just the domain of The New Republic anymore. The National Review’s W. Thomas Smith, a regular contributor and author of the magazine’s milblog The Tank, has been caught reporting fabrications fed to him by sources during a trip to Lebanon this fall. According to several critics—and Smith and the NRO themselves—Smith fell for the falsehoods his sources fed him completely, without ever bothering to try to corroborate or confirm them independently, while making it sound like he had witnessed more than he really had.

At issue are two posts in particular that Smith wrote while in Beirut. On September 25, he wrote that he “passed by the sprawling Hezbollah tent city — some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen — positioned between the parliament and the Serail, basically the headquarters of the prime minister, his deputies, and all the cabinet members.” Then, on September 29, Smith reported that “between 4,000 and 5,000 HezB gunmen deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in an unsettling show of force, positioning themselves at road intersections and other key points throughout the city.”

Turns out, the latter incident looks to have been completely made up, while the former is a gross exaggeration.

Writing at the Huffington Post, Thomas Edsall broke the story over the weekend, and interviewed four reporters either currently in Lebanon or with extensive experience reporting from the country. Beirut-based reporter Michael Prothero told Edsall that:

In his [Smith’s] wildly entertaining postings, he describes kidnap attempts, an armed incursion into Christian East Beirut by 5,000 armed Hezbollah fighters that was missed by every journalist in town, he also notes the presence of 200 armed Hezbollah fighters in downtown Beirut ‘laying siege’ to the prime ministers office…In a word, this is all insane.

Beirut-based journalist Chris Allbritton also told Edsall that Smith is “a fabulist,” and that his claim “that 4,000 Hezbollah gunmen took over East Beirut at the end of September simply never happened. Every journalist in town would have pounced on that story, and he’s the only one who noticed?”

Another Beirut-based journalist, David Kenner, weighed in over the weekend:

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Lebanon knows that these events didn’t happen…If 4,000 - 5,000 Hezbollah foot soldiers really did deploy to Christian areas of Beirut in September, Lebanon would be tumbling over the precipice into civil war. Christian politicians and security experts would be screaming from the rooftops, not making off the record statements to one foreign journalist/blogger.

In an attempt to douse the firestorm of criticism on Friday, Smith posted on The Tank a weak-kneed defense of his reporting. With reference to his claim of having seen “some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen,” there’s this explanation:

Though the tents were very large and many of them closed, I saw at least two AK-47s there with my own eyes. And this from a moving vehicle on the highway above the camp. And in my way of thinking, if a guy’s got an AK-47, he’s “heavily armed.”

Did I physically see and count 200 men carrying weapons? No. If I mistakenly conveyed that impression to my readers, I apologize. I saw lots of men, lots of them carrying walkie-talkie radios, and a tent city that could have easily housed many more than 200.

Not exactly the impression the original post left, right? Even better is his claim that “My detractors’ argument that they had never seen weapons in the camp does not mean there is an absence of weapons.” Well, sure. But it doesn’t mean that you can just assert that they’re there, either. Doing so is generally referred to as fabrication, and it’s not something that journalists are encouraged to do.

With regard to his assertion that between 4,000-5,000 Hezbollah gunmen had “deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut,” Smith hedges, saying that he should have “caveated the reporting by saying that I only witnessed a fraction of what happened (from a moving car),” with the gaps filled in by his sources. In this sense, by “caveat” Smith seems to mean that he should have told his readers that he could offer no confirmation of his claims other than what he was told, (and never checked) and what he briefly glimpsed through the window of a moving car. In other words, Smith took an isolated incident (which in light of subsequent events, we can’t be sure even happened), and extrapolated it by a factor of about 4,000, with no evidence to back it up.

In another effort to get in front of the story, on Sunday NRO’s Web editor Kathryn Jean Lopez tried to make clear that the episode is not entirely Smith’s fault. Rather, we can blame those lying Arabs who mislead him. She quotes “one of our sources” as telling her, “The Arab tendency to lie and exaggerate about enemies is alive and well among pro-American Lebanese Christians as much as it is with the likes of Hamas.”

Nice touch. If NRO’s reporter didn’t exaggerate his own fake stories, this racist slander might even have more bite.

In the same post, she tells her readers that Smith’s reporting is, shall we say, nuanced. “While Smith vouches for his sources, we cannot independently verify what they told him. That’s why we’re revisiting the posts in question and warning readers to take them with a grain of salt.” A grain of salt? It speaks to the corrupt intellectualism Lopez is employing here (representing a publication that was the home of so much anti-TNR venom during the Beauchamp affair), that she now advises her readers to treat the falsehoods NRO has published as something merely to be taken with a grain of salt. This is capped off beautifully when Lopez later wrote that Smith is “a smart, reliable reporter with a great patriotic spirit and sense of service.” While he may be smart, patriotic and service-oriented, she would have done herself a favor by leaving “reliable reporter” out of the mix.

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