December 30, 2005
WaPo's Preemptive Strike Against Bill Roggio

By Jack Kelly

It was the journalistic equivalent of a drive-by shooting. The targets of Washington Post reporters Jonathan Finer and Doug Struck were two of journalism's favorites: Web loggers and the U.S. military.

"Bloggers, Money, Now Weapons in Information War," read the headline over their story, which appeared last Monday. "U.S. Recruits Advocates to the Front, Pays Iraqi TV Stations for Coverage," the subhed said.

"Retired soldier Bill Roggio was a computer technician living in New Jersey less than two months ago when a Marine officer half a world away made him an offer he couldn't refuse," the story began.

The insinuation of the headline and the lead is that Mr. Roggio was recruited and paid by the Marines to write favorable things about military operations in Iraq.

Drive-by shootings are notoriously inaccurate, and the story by Mr. Finer and Mr. Struck, which ran last Monday, contained so many errors it should be an embarrassment to the Washington Post.

Here are the facts: LtCol. Christopher Starling, the operations officer for the 2nd Regimental Combat Team, 2nd Marine Division, did a Web search for stories on Operation Matador, which the 2nd RCT had conducted in Western Iraq. He was intrigued by the analysis of the operation Mr. Roggio made on his Web log, Fourth Rail, and called it to the attention of the regimental commander, Col. Stephen Davis.

"They called my site the command chronology for Western Iraq," Mr. Roggio said. "They basically said I'm the only person who's discussing the operations in context."

Col. Davis suggested to my friend Bill that he should come out to see the situation for himself. So Bill took a leave of absence from his job; raised $30,000 from readers of his blog (I contributed a small amount) for travel expenses, hazard insurance and to buy body armor, and obtained press credentials from the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine.

The Marines were happy to show Bill whatever he wanted to see, but contributed nothing to defray the expenses of his trip; made no suggestions about what he should write, nor censored his reporting in any way. Bill was treated no differently than any other embedded reporter, though doubtless the Marines respected him more than they do most journalists.

Messrs Finer and Struck erroneously described Mr. Roggio as a "retired" soldier (Bill spent four years in the Army Signal Corps and two in the National Guard, but would have had to have served at least 20 to retire); implied Bill was still in Iraq (he'd been home a week when the story appeared); misidentified from whom he had obtained press credentials, and misrepresented the embed process. This last error was egregious, since Mr. Finer had himself been embedded with the Marines, and ought to know the procedures.

"Mainstream media giants like the Washington Post repeatedly claim to have layers and layers of editors and fact checkers to make sure only verified facts get into the daily newspaper. This process is allegedly why (journalists) are superior to bloggers in getting it first and getting it right," said Mark Tapscott, a former journalist who now works for the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

"Finer and Struck are experienced journos, but their reporting in this instance contained so many errors of basic fact that one wonders how on earth this example of their work made it into print," Tapscott said. The answer, as Mr. Tapscott well knows, is that editors are less vigilant in fact checking stories which advance their agenda.

The errors about Mr. Roggio's whereabouts and his media affiliation are minor. Erroneously describing Bill as a "retired" soldier is significant only in that it indicates a fundamental ignorance of the military appalling in two reporters who are based in Baghdad. The misstatement of the embed process likely was deliberate, because had it been described accurately, the premise of the story would have been shown to be false.

Journalists don't like bloggers because they fact-check journalists. Bloggers like Bill Roggio and Michael Yon, a former Special Forces soldier who embedded with a Stryker battalion in Mosul, expand the threat posed by the new media. They're reporting news, and doing it better than "professional" journalists are.

Messrs. Finer and Struck weren't reporting news when they slimed Bill Roggio. They were launching a preemptive strike against a new, but increasingly muscular, competitor.

Jack Kelly is national security columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

Jack Kelly

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