July 23, 2007

Near Certainty

For his sake, I hope that Franklin Foer, editor of the New Republic, is merely suffering from unfortunate phrasing:

The magazine granted anonymity to the writer to keep him from being punished by his military superiors and to allow him to write candidly, Mr. Foer said. He said that he had met the writer and that he knows with “near certainty” that he is, in fact, a soldier.

Considering the explosive allegations made in Thomas' claims against both American soldiers and the Iraqi Police, Foer meant "absolute certainty," didn't he?

(h/t reader AMac)

Update: Yes, he did.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at July 23, 2007 10:12 PM

So an Editor offers a source a pledge of anonymity, say to protect him from retaliation from superiors. Society benefits: the public is well served, because information that would have remained hidden is brought into the open, improving the debate and leading to better policy. Further, future whistleblowers in similar situations will be inclined to accept similar pledges.

So far, so good.

Now consider the case where the source is a liar, and the important information he disclosed is false. Is the Editor nonetheless morally bound to honor his vow to protect the source's identity? Society suffers--false information has poisoned the public policy debate. In addition, future fabulists will be inclined to take similar guarantees--because they hold even after discovery.

Perhaps the stronger case is that the Editor is morally obliged to reveal the liar's identity. A full exposure of circumstances corrects the record, helps other journalists avoid similar pitfalls, and serves as a disincentive for future truth-challenged individuals to use the Fourth Estate to spread disinformation.

Can the argument be made that an Editor in these straits should honor a promise of anonymity, on the grounds of either personal morality or advancing the common good?

Posted by: AMac at July 24, 2007 12:00 AM

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me--which is to say, The New Republic pushed this detritus because Foer and co. wanted to believe it was true. I'm hard pressed to come up with another explanation. What held true for Rather during the "fake-but-accurate" embarrassment seems to be the case here as well.

Posted by: Nathan Tabor at July 24, 2007 12:15 AM

Wasn't Jesse MacBeth a "soldier" (or "Marine"), too?

One wonders how they knew, with whatever degree of certainty they now claim, that the fellow was a soldier?

Army ID? Showed up in BDUs? Has an Iraqi email address?

One would think you could provide said information without revealing the source.

Unit, service record, MOS, etc.?

Posted by: Lurking Observer at July 24, 2007 09:04 AM

"Update: Yes, he did."

This is interesting. Actually, the NYT did not state that TNR knew. It stated that Foer had met Thomas and knew with "near certainty".

Assuming, the NYT got the quote right, Foer had some tinge of doubt and this TNR statement doesn't necessarily change that. What it may be telling us is that Foer was not the first connection for Thomas to the TNR, but via some other TNR editor. It then came under Foer, who vetted with the meeting which during the interview fell back belatedly to a "near certainty", for reasons as yet unknown.

I would think that if Foer was momentarily pushed back by the all the criticism and it so influenced him that he guardedly stated "near certainty" to the NYT but regained his composure of thought afterwards, then TNR would have written that Foer was absolutely certain.

It may be that TNR is absolutely certain, but that may be the result of a consensus of editors at TNR taking as their own, another editor's level of certainty over that of Foer's.

I am still interested in when and how Foer met Thomas. Did Foer actually go to Iraq to "meet" him. Right now, I think that unlikely.

Was Foer's meeting an internet video hookup and could it have been confirmed by independent vid, say, on you-tube or via a press story showing he is there? Maybe.

But, if Foer met Thomas prior to Thomas leaving for Iraq, why was it necessary and what was the purpose? Was it to finalize his sending back what are now these dispatches?

Posted by: Dusty at July 24, 2007 09:43 AM

"near certainty" is code speak for: we swallowed what he said hook line and sinker without checking anything.

Posted by: Purple Avenger at July 24, 2007 10:33 AM

When Foer saw 'near certainty' in print, he no doubt recognized that it was the equivalent of saying, 'The guy said he was in the army and I believed him.'

Since his career - and possibly the magazine's future - depends on this story being credible, he upgraded his certainty to 'absolute'.

It's not, of course. Absolute certainty would be based on documentary evidence which he could already have presented in defense of the story, or at the very least characterized. And he's only 'certain' the guy is a soldier, which is the least and easiest threshold that TNR has to get over.

But who knows, it might work. AP published rumors and falsehoods from their source 'Jamil Hussein'. They successfully transformed the debate into a question of whether their source existed at all. When they produced him, they celebrated their vindication. But the stories were still false.

Maybe that's what Foer has in mind.

Posted by: lyle at July 24, 2007 12:00 PM

CY, the NYT has escalated the 'certainty' controversy now that it has edited out the "near certainty" from their original reporting without noting the correction or why it did so.

Check it out; it's gone.

Ace has some questions.

Posted by: Dusty at July 24, 2007 01:15 PM

With "absolute certainty" we have "soldiers" in Alaska too. Just saying...

Posted by: Purple Avenger at July 24, 2007 05:47 PM

no he didn't

Posted by: Capitalist Infidel at July 24, 2007 06:10 PM

"No, he didn't" what, CI? Have questions?

Posted by: Dusty at July 24, 2007 08:08 PM

CY claims that Foer was merely suffering from "unfortunate phrasing." My link shows that the New York reporter is standing by the quote. What Foer did was call the Times with his "new quote" to cover for him and the Times complied.

Posted by: Capitalist Infidel at July 25, 2007 09:13 AM

K, thanks.

Posted by: Dusty at July 25, 2007 03:59 PM