Joe Conason’s Journal

I respect Spinsanity enough to praise and cite it in "Big Lies." But this time they stretched to find enough "mistakes" in my book to cobble together an article.


Spinning along with Spinsanity

Honest journalists freely admit — as I must do from time to time in this space — that they commit errors. Writing a book that contains thousands of facts, assertions and interpretations only increases the opportunities for error. The diligent author naturally strives to avoid all mistakes. The prudent author knows, especially if he or she is writing a polemical work, that others will soon be scouring the text in search of gaffes great and small.

Yesterday, the Spinsanity Web site posted the results of Bryan Keefer’s forensic examination of my new book “Big Lies.” Keefer’s findings were mixed. Whoever wrote the headline seems to have realized that he didn’t discover anything major, since it refers to “little mistakes.” He quickly exonerates me of any sins resembling those Spinsanity has charged against Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Michael Moore. (Whew.) He even describes my work as “clear and compelling,” at least sometimes.

I appreciate all that, and I respect Spinsanity enough to praise and cite it in “Big Lies.” And of course I understand that the Spinsanity crew might target my book in order to burnish their nonpartisan credentials. I think it’s flattering to be held to “a high standard of truth.” But this time they stretched to find enough “mistakes” to cobble together an article, and imposed an overarching thesis about my willingness to believe “questionable details” that fit my “ideological disposition.”

Still, I’m grateful that they discovered a few real (if small) errors that can now be corrected in future editions. Clearly, I should have broadened my Nexis search of Andrew Sullivan’s writings sufficiently to find his single reference to Osama bin Laden (which appeared in a London Sunday Times column on the Lewinsky scandal, ironically proving my point). I ought to have searched more carefully to find the list of news organizations that retracted the Clinton/Ken Lay story. I wish I hadn’t mistyped the dates and numbers concerning the coal mine fatalities and Texas child poverty rates, but those mistakes don’t undermine the central arguments in those chapters at all.

I could go on, arguing all the other instances. Instead I’ll just address two examples that Keefer, in his zeal, distorted a bit.

I would invite anyone to read the New York Times and Washington Post articles about George W. Bush’s military record and see how their cursory reporting compares with the serious investigations published by the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and the Dallas Morning News. (One of the Post articles cited by Keefer is merely a Dallas Morning News feed, in fact.)

As for the Government Printing Office issue, Keefer simply declares that the Bush administration’s scheme posed no threat to that agency or to freedom of information. Better-informed people, including professional librarians and government watchdogs, would disagree vehemently with Keefer’s casual assessment. (In part that’s why the GPO’s clearinghouse status was maintained in an agreement last June — after my book went to press.) He’s right that I omitted a citation in the notes, however.

Had Keefer asked me for comment, I would have told him about a couple of other bloopers he missed, which have been nagging at me since readers pointed them out. On page 61, I promoted decorated Navy veteran John Kerry from lieutenant to captain; and on page 67 I awarded Bob Kerrey’s Medal of Honor to Max Cleland, who won other medals after losing his legs and right arm. My argument about those brave men and the conservatives who denigrate their patriotism remains the same.
[4:30 p.m. PDT, Sept. 10, 2003]

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