Nicholas Schmidle's The New Yorker piece on what happened the night the Navy SEALs stormed into Osama bin Laden's compound is drawing scrutiny from all sides. The Washington Post's Paul Farhi started it last Tuesday with an article that explained how Schmidle got the scoop. Among other revelations, Farhi drew attention to the fact that Schmidle didn't actually get any firsthand accounts from Navy SEALs on the mission in order to tell his presumably firsthand account of that night. Almost a week later, Women's Wear Daily's Zeke Turner has pulled together some of the most vociferous criticisms in a Monday column:
Max Boot, a former Wall Street Journal columnist and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, found it "troubling that a supposedly reputable magazine such as the New Yorker is passing along second-hand (at best) reports as if they had come straight from the horse’s mouth." C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown, wrote that disclosing that no SEALs were interviewed "is critical to allowing readers to determine how much credibility they should put into this account." Paul Craig Roberts, a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury and former editor at The Wall Street Journal called it "a story planted on Nicholas Schmidle."
And Turner also provides The New Yorker editor David Remnick's explanation. "The piece does not say that Nick interviewed the SEALs," Remnick told WWD in an e-mail. "In all, he interviewed officials with direct access both in the military, intelligence and in the White House; some of those officials are quoted by name, some not--hardly unusual. All of these sources were known to Nick's editors and spoke extensively with two experienced New Yorker fact-checkers."
This latest spat debate about sourcing and long-form nonfiction hearkens back to a spat of sorts in 1980 between innovators of the form John Hersey and Tom Wolfe. And the outcome helps to illustrate exactly how readers come to trust reporters and what it takes to keep that trust.
In an essay for The Yale Review, John Hersey lashed into Tom Wolfe's treatment of the truth in his 1979 classic, The Right Stuff. Not doubting Wolfe's story-telling prowess for a moment--"Wolfe's style-machine has never run more smoothly than in this book"--Hersey challenged Wolfe's license to tell the truth. While all the story's main characters signed off on the story as well as how they were portrayed in The Right Stuff, Hersey suspected that the little liberties Wolfe took in coloring outside the lines time to time added up to a sloppy, if sometimes glamorous portrait of the truth. Hersey pointed out how small, easily verifiable facts left unchecked affect the story as a whole. The ambiguity that lets sources think that they "came out pretty good" in the story slackens the writer's grip on the reader's trust. It makes for "zippy entertainment," Hersey said at the time, but inevitably "leaves us with serious doubts."
An attempt to apply Hersey's lesson from reading Wolfe to the current challenge of reading Schmidle brings us to a simple conclusion: Clearly, readers don't like being left out of the loop. Just as realizing Wolfe's simple errors--providing the wrong model of John Glenn's car, messing up the date the compass was invented--eroded readers' trust, exposing Schmidle's potentially sketchy sourcing brings scrutiny to the larger story. Even for those readers who read Remnick's defense of the piece and the fact-checkers who double-checked every claim therein, the critics win the yelling contest by sheer numbers. Even if the White House and the Navy stand by Schmidle's version of the events, those same critics can cite John Glenn to argue how sources can be swayed into believing the journalist's version of the story rather than the other way around.
Inevitably, it's difficult to understand why Schmidle didn't just offer a disclaimer somewhere in the article. It would've deflected the vast majority of the complaints. What's left unsaid can sometimes be as bad as what's misstated. As Hersey argues in his essay, "The minute a writer offers nine hundred ninety-nine out of one thousand facts, the worm of bias has begun to wriggle."