Fact and fiction at the Wall Street Journal

Liberal pundit Roger Wilkins gets slammed for a quote deemed insensitive to U.S. troops. Just one problem: Wilkins never spoke those words.


Eric Boehlert
April 2, 2003 5:18AM (UTC)

Given the high stakes and the emotions involved, it was probably only a matter of time before the war in Iraq sparked a stateside press feud along partisan lines. One of the first features a Wall Street Journal media critic who accused a well-known liberal pundit of fearing that news accounts from embedded journalists would personalize soldiers, and indirectly, boost support for the war. But the evidence shows that the Journal writer badly misquoted the pundit, and the paper is weighing an apology and a published correction.

In Friday's column, "Embedded and Otherwise," the Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz detailed a panel discussion about war coverage that had taken place on PBS's "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" on March 22. Specifically, she focused on a part of the discussion that dealt with the effects of having reporters live and travel with military units. "The most interesting concern thus far," Rabinowitz wrote, "came from commentator Roger Wilkins, who mused on the Lehrer show that the journalists would get too close and feel for the military men who would seem to them, after all, to be 'fellow human beings.'"

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The attention-getting quote was paraphrased and blown up inside a graphic box accompanying the story: "One critic worried that reporters might come to view the military as fellow human beings."

Indeed, the quote is inflammatory, suggesting U.S. troops should not be seen as human beings. That's certainly a radical notion for any mainstream pundit to take. But Rabinowitz, a member of the Journal's far-right editorial board, drove the point home by mocking Wilkins' "fellow human beings" quote.

"Now there's a serious worry," she wrote, "and for a certain quarter of the political culture, it probably is. Working and living with soldiers in combat could, after all, give young journalists a picture of the armed forces very different from the ones they gleaned from their universities and other centers of culture inveterately hostile to the military. The nation is likely to survive the threat."

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Wilkins, a regular guest on "NewsHour," served in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson and now sits on the board of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and teaches history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Contacted by Salon, Wilkins insisted he never uttered the words that Rabinowitz attributed to him. "That quote came out of her head, not my mouth," he said. "She got it dead wrong."

The archived "NewsHour" transcript found online backs him up. Neither Wilkins nor anyone else on the panel expressed concern that embedded reporters would make U.S. troops seem to be "fellow human beings." What Wilkins did express was admiration for the Pentagon's plan to embed reporters, suggesting that as journalists got to know soldiers better it would inevitably lead to better coverage for the Pentagon. "Well, essentially these [reporters] are in the same foxhole," he told host Jim Lehrer, "and that has to color how you approach the war."

"The notion I would not want troops to be seen as human is absurd," Wilkins said Monday. "I care about those kids over there in the desert. I teach kids who are 19, 20, 21 years old. Of course I wish them well."

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He saw politics at play from the Journal's editorial team, which regularly ridicules supposed liberal, anti-military bias among journalists and academics. "A lot of neoconservatives are fighting a rear-guard action against the Vietnam War culture," said Wilkins. "And they would see people like me who were against the war in Vietnam as someone who would be against our troops, or having an anti-American bias," says Wilkins.

The notion that journalists today don't respect the troops, or don't see them as human, does seem far-fetched. The truth is the press more often treats U.S. troops almost reverently, producing countless human-interest stories about their sacrifices and triumphs, both on the battlefield and back home. MSNBC, for instance, features an in-studio monument, "America's Bravest Photo Wall," where families send in photos of troops and the news channel pins them up on a wall, giving viewers a sketch of the U.S.'s fighting forces. And one MSNBC station I.D. features swelling music and dramatic photos of U.S. troops, with the on-screen message "Honoring America's Bravest. Far from Home, Close to Our Hearts."

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If there's any second-guessing going on in the press, it's of Pentagon war planners, rarely the troops on the ground.

Contacted Monday morning, Rabinowitz conceded the quote in question did not show up on the printed transcripts for the "NewsHour," but told Salon she was standing by her story. "I do not invent quotes," she explained. "He said it ... I'm not surprised Roger doesn't remember saying it."

Rabinowitz, who writes a media log for the Journal's Web site and who won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary in 2001, said she did not tape the "NewsHour" program and threw her notes away, but remembered circling Wilkins' name on her yellow pad when he made the utterance. She said it was possible that she misattributed the phrase to another "NewsHour" guest, former Washington Post reporter Haynes Johnson. But since Johnson's father covered World War II with the troops as a reporter himself, it's doubtful he would be concerned that today's embedded journalists would make soldiers appear to be "fellow human beings. "If it turns out that I had a fugue of some kind," Rabinowitz said, "I'll apologize."

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She suggested Wilkins said the phrase in passing while others were speaking and that's why it did not show up in the transcripts, and that the "NewsHour" representative was going to review the tape and report back to her. But a check of the complete audio file that "NewsHour" posted online confirms that neither Wilkins nor Johnson -- nor anyone else -- ever said what Rabinowitz reported.

Reached a second time Monday, Rabinowitz, after reviewing the audio portion, agreed that neither Wilkins nor Johnson had made the "fellow human beings" quote on "NewsHour."

"What could have happened, I don't know," she said, adding that she definitely heard that phrase from a TV pundit that night but was doing a search of the electronic database Nexis/Lexis to determine where she heard it. "I certainly didn't dream it up."

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If the Journal determines Rabinowitz mistakenly attributed the quote to Wilkins, a correction will run. "He'll of course get an apology," she says, "and he will have earned it." [On Tuesday, Rabinowitz determined the quote in question came from Syracuse University journalism professor Robert Thompson who appeared on "NewsHour" the same night as Wilkins, but in a different segment. "The danger to the embedding process," Thompson said, "is that when you are part of the troops that you're going in with, these are your fellow human beings."]

Perhaps it'll be the first dispute of this war to be solved diplomatically.


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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