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Last week, The New Yorker ran a play-by-play about the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It was quickly accepted as one of the most impressive pieces of magazine journalism so far this year — ASME bait and bound to be a major motion picture screenplay. The piece, “Getting Bin Laden: What happened that night in Abbottabad,” by Nicholas Schmidle was dripping with the details. But one detail — that Schmidle didn’t actually speak with a single Navy SEAL on the raid — was missing. In the week after the piece ran, that omission opened a floodgate of speculation about whether the story was as complete as it appeared to be.
Last Tuesday, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi was the first to report that the New Yorker’s story was an amalgam of second-hand accounts, cobbled together from interviews with, for the most part, anonymous, sources from the intelligence community, the defense department and White House. Furthermore, the writing, structure and otherwise rigorous sourcing in the piece, Farhi suggested, led some readers to believe that Schmidle’s reporting was based on firsthand accounts.
Policy wonks picked up the Post story and ran, taking to the blogs to try to poke holes in the New Yorker piece. 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.” “The White House clearly blessed the dramatic reconstruction of the mission,” Maureen Dowd wrote Sunday in the Times. Some critics also attacked Schmidle’s age, 32, and his family — his father is Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidle Jr., the deputy commander of U.S. Cyber Command.
But there are also defenders of the piece as a triumph in magazine writing. Andrew Rice, a seasoned hand at long form journalism and a distant acquaintance of Schmidle, took issue with the bloggers’ claims the piece was too detailed to be accurate. “As someone who occasionally does narrative journalism, and knows exactly how hard it is to weave together an account like this, I’m pretty offended,” he told WWD.
But it is a reasonable question why the story doesn’t mention explicitly that no SEALs were interviewed. “You have to follow some kind of rules for your readers so your readers can make judgments about the credibility and the authority of what you’re writing about,” said one investigative reporter, who requested anonymity. “This was beyond fuzzy.”
One possible explanation for the omission would be that Schmidle talked to one or more of the SEALs off the record, but that possibility has been ruled out. For one thing, SEALs don’t talk, as has been widely noted. For another, the investigative reporter pointed out, “Off the record means off the record. You can’t publish any of those details. So maybe he talked to them on background. Well, then, if you talked to them on background then you can’t say in a blanket statement that you didn’t talk to any of them because that’s not true.”
“I would not give a blanket statement that I didn’t talk to any of the 23 SEALs for the story if I talked to them off the record,” the reporter added. “I would simply say I’m not going to discuss my sources.”
New Yorker editor David Remnick didn’t accept the premise that the piece would encourage readers to think SEALs had been interviewed. “The piece does not say that Nick interviewed the SEALs,” Remnick wrote 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,” Remnick continued. “All of these sources were known to Nick’s editors and spoke extensively with two experienced New Yorker fact-checkers.”
One former New Yorker fact-checker said the process for vetting a piece of this nature boils down to comparing secondhand accounts of the raid against each other, looking for inaccuracies. It’s up to the story’s editors — in this instance Remnick and features editor Daniel Zalewski — to decide if the sourcing on the story is sufficient.
The piece might seem to some readers like a complete account of the events, but, as Remnick wrote, ultimately, “It cannot answer every question about this episode.”