Several months ago one of National Review’s blogs ran posts by contributor W. Thomas Smith, Jr. from Beirut. Smith described several things”a sprawling Hezbollah tent city” with “some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen,” and “4,000 and 5,000 HezB gunmen deployed to the Christian areas”that appear not to have existed. Thomas Edsall has the details here, with more here from David Kenner.
This in itself is no judgment on National Review. While some publications do better fact-checking than others (Mother Jones is one of the best, in my experience), no one can produce 100% error-free journalism.
What does matter is how editors react when problems are brought to their attention. Glenn Greenwald explains what’s happened to date here. National Review’s online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez was alerted to the implausibility of Smith’s claims six weeks ago by two journalists with experience in Lebanon. Yet she appears to have acted only when she realized Edsall would be writing about it. (ADDED CLARIFICATION: Mitchell Prothero, a Beirut photographer, writes here that he contacted National Review “more than six weeks ago.” Harper’s publishes here an email sent by journalist Chris Allbritton on October 6th calling Smith “a liar.” However, it’s unclear who at National Review would have received it. Lopez posts here her version of events, which does not mention Prothero or Allbritton.)
This reminds me of my own experience with Lopez. In October of last year, she wrote a post about the Johns Hopkins study estimating the number of deaths in Iraq since the invasion as 655,000. Lopez printed email from “A Hill Guy” reading:
The article below will be a story today, even though it shouldn’t…Even Human Rights Watch said the earlier report by these same researchers was “certainly prone to inflation due to overcounting.”
This quote was accurate, so far as it went. Marc Garlasco, a military analyst for Human Rights Watch, said it in a 2004 Washington Post article.
However, since then Garlasco has repeatedly disavowed it; e.g., in this Chronicle of Higher Education story:
Mr. Garlasco says now that he had not read the paper at the time and calls his quote in the Post “really unfortunate.” He says he told the reporter, “I haven’t read it. I haven’t seen it. I don’t know anything about it, so I shouldn’t comment on it.” But, Mr. Garlasco continues, “like any good journalist, he got me to.” Mr. Garlasco says he misunderstood the reporter’s description of the paper’s results.
So when I saw Lopez relying on the original Garlasco quote, I sent her a polite email, suggesting she should update the post. I also pointed out there was a real story here: a Capitol Hill staffer, who presumably was involved in America’s Iraq policies, didn’t know basic information about the subject. It wasn’t hard to learn, either: out of the top five results in a Google search for “Garlasco Lancet Iraq”, one is the original Post story and the other four refer to Garlasco’s disavowal.
In any case, Lopez never responded to my email and never updated the original post. As far as I know she’s never addressed her source’s mistake anywhere, much less pointed out its significance.
Still, it’s always best to give people the benefit of the doubt; perhaps Lopez just missed what I sent her. I’ll try her again now, and update this if she’s willing to say anything further about it.