The New York Times has a good story today about John Kiriakou and the role he played in shaping the torture debate. In late 2007, Kiriakou told ABC News's Brian Ross that the captured Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah began cooperating with his CIA interrogators after "probably 30, 35 seconds" of waterboarding--leaving the distinct impression that Zubaydah was only waterboarded once. But we now know, courtesy of the declassified Justice Department memos, that Zubaydah was actually waterboarded 83 times. Kiriakou wasn't necessarily lying or trying to cover for the CIA when he gave his interview to ABC (in fact, the CIA briefly considered taking legal action against Kiriakou for revealing classified information). The problem was, Kiriakou was basing his comments about Zubaydah's interrogation on reports from the field. That's because, as the Times article reports, Kiriakou wasn't in the secret Thai prison where Zubaydah was being waterboarded; he was at CIA headquarters in Langley.
Amazingly, ABC didn't see fit to mention this when it broadcast Kiriakou's interview. Now, technically, ABC never explicitly said that Kiriakou was physically present for Zubaydah's interrogation, but it never said he wasn't there either. And ABC certainly included enough other information about Kiriakou in its piece--that he was "a leader of the CIA team that captured" Zubaydah; that he himself had "declined to use the enhanced interrogation techniques"--that it left the distinct impression he was there watching Zubaydah get waterboarded.
Were Kiriakou's claims about Zubaydah and waterboarding newsworthy? Definitely. At the time he did his interview with ABC, little was known about waterboarding, and even if Kiriakou wasn't physically present for Zubaydah's interrogation, he was, as a CIA intelligence officer, privy to reports from the field. The problem, from ABC's perspective at least, is the fact that he wasn't physically there made his story merely good. The network, however, presumably wanted a blockbuster--and so it failed to include that crucial caveat when it reveal Kiriakou's claim. The true story--which was merely good--had to be sexed up in order to make it great. It's not fabrication, it's not even exaggeration, but it's presenting the facts in such a way that, by excluding certain details--or maybe just switching off the skepticism switch--a journalist can make a story more compelling to his audience.
I think this happens in all kinds of journalism--especially magazine journalism, where the need to create a compelling narrative can lead writers to build up the subjects of their pieces into something they aren't. I've been thinking about this a lot lately after reading this article in GQ by the former photo editor of the former baseball star Lenny Dykstra's Players Club magazine. What struck me most about the GQ story is that it completely contradicted a profile of Dykstra the New Yorker did a year earlier. Both pieces go into great detail about Dykstra's eccentricities, but where the New Yorker portrayed Dykstra as a sort of mad business genius--"an exemplar of the transition from professional athletics to respectable civilian life"--the GQ piece shows that Dykstra's business empire was a house of cards. (A recent story on ESPN.com, which reports that Dykstra has been the subject of 24 legal actions, including18 since last November, goes even further than GQ in revealing the charade of Dykstra's alleged success.)
Now, I suppose it's possible that Dykstra simply managed to con the New Yorker writer into believing that he'd moved on to a fabulously successful post-baseball career. But I can also see how the New Yorker writer desperately wanted to believe Dykstra. After all, it's a great story. Dykstra's a larger-than-life character, but, frankly, now that he's retired from baseball, he was only worth writing about if all of his erratic behavior added up to something improbable, like business success. Otherwise, he's just another harebrained ex-jock trying to put one over on people, and that's not really much of a story. (With hindsight, the warning signs that Dykstra was completely full of it are pretty obvious.) In fact, the anti-Dykstra GQ story--which was also a great read--probably wouldn't have been possible without the preceding pro-Dykstra New Yorker piece, since there needed to be a perception of Dykstra-the-successful-businessman to tear down.
I'm not saying all this to excuse ABC or the New Yorker--although, obviously, ABC's desire for the great story caused more damage than the New Yorker's. But it is a hazard of the profession--and I think it's something we all need to keep in mind, both as writers and as readers.Jason Zengerle