Unvetted war story slips past producers

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A commentary created through an experimental radio project of the New America Foundation turned a harsh spotlight on the editorial vetting process at Marketplace, which broadcast a first-person account Jan. 30 [2012] of a man who falsely claimed to be a heroic Army sniper.

Whatever the editorial process at Marketplace missed, there were similar shortcomings at San Francisco’s KQED-FM, which also aired the piece, and at the big liberal foundation, whose media project was focused on inclusivity rather than excluding fakers.

The two-minute piece by a man named Leo Webb, part of a commentary series titled “My Life Is True,” turned out to be largely untrue.

As soon as it aired, the first-person commentary sounded like a load of bull to readers of This Ain’t Hell, a blog that critiques media coverage of the military and takes special glee in exposing phony war stories.  It took only some basic fact-checking and a sharply worded blog post to set off an online spanking for producers of Marketplace, American Public Media’s flagship drivetime broadcast, and KQED, one of pubcasting’s top news stations. Both news outlets retracted the piece Feb. 1 and apologized for airing it.

Bloggers found no record of Webb’s military service, nor of his run as a minor-league baseball pitcher, which Webb mentioned in the commentary.

The incident left Douglas McGray, a journalist and senior research fellow in the New America Foundation’s media program, feeling nauseous.  “We’re totally sick about what happened with this one,” McGray said. “It’s horrifying, really.”

McGray has reported for the New Yorker, This American Life and the Atlantic Monthly, but neither he nor Anne Stuhldreher, a senior policy fellow and series co-creator, has produced for public radio before. They saw the project as a way to help people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to tell stories of their own lives on public radio. “We thought it would be nice to open the door a little wider to people who might not think to pitch something to public radio or know how to do it,” McGray said.

“Everyone was proceeding in good faith with this experiment to try to get these voices on the air,” Stuhldreher said. She met Webb at an Occupy Oakland protest and his story seemed credible, she said.

For each of the eight commentaries produced for the series, McGray and Stuhldreher helped contributors shape their ideas into scripts and pitch them for public radio broadcast. The foundation also produced a companion website, mylifeistrue.org, with streaming audio and illustrations of each contributor. But no one thought to vet the commentaries for their adherence to journalistic standards.

“It’s hard to apply a rigorous fact-checking scheme to their commentaries as they’re written,” said Stuhldreher. “It’s more editorial than we had in mind.”

They first pitched the commentaries to KQED’s Perspectives, which began producing and airing them last year, according to Scott Walton, spokesperson. Webb’s piece was the latest in the series and aired on KQED Jan. 11.

After receiving a separate pitch, Marketplace began airing the entire “My Life Is True” series last month as a regular feature of its Monday broadcasts until problems with Webb’s commentary were exposed after broadcast.

Deb Clark, Marketplace executive producer, acknowledged in a statement that queries from listeners had prompted a deeper examination of Webb’s story, which had “likely been fabricated.”

“Our responsibility to listeners, members, partners and ourselves is to provide accurate, trustworthy information, in context, without conflict of interest,” Clark said.  “We didn’t meet that obligation in this instance, and for that we apologize. We’ve retracted the commentary completely, and we’re using this experience to learn how we can do our jobs better.”

KQED is re-examining its vetting process for Perspectives commentaries, according to Walton, who said that the Webb commentary was the first to be retracted in the series’ 13-year run. “We know that public media is a public trust. Once we discovered the problems, we took it down immediately and apologized.”

The New America Foundation’s “My Life Is True” site, meanwhile, erased all traces of the commentary.

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Copyright 2012 American University


New America Foundation’s “My Life Is True” project, minus the piece supposedly written by a war veteran.

Bloggers at This Ain’t Hell But You Can See It from Here doubted Leo Webb’s story because, among other things, he used a generally naval term, squadron, for his Army unit.

Marketplace posted this note after airing the Webb commentary: “A commentary by Leo Webb, ”Returning veteran has few marketable skills,” prompted questions from listeners about Webb’s account of his service as an Army sniper in Iraq. A subsequent investigation found that the Army has no record of Webb. Webb also said he pitched for a Chicago Cubs minor-league team. Inquiries to the Cubs and to Minor League Baseball found no record of Webb. Marketplace has an obligation to provide accurate information. That was not met in this commentary. It has been retracted and the text and audio have been removed from the web site.”

Beginning of the first-person story discovered to be false, as posted on KQED.org

A military blogger preserved the KQED.org version of the “phony” commentary, a portion shown above.

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