December 15, 2014

STEPHEN L. CARTER: Why The CIA “Torture Report” Is Like the Rolling Stone Rape Debacle.

By not talking to relevant CIA personnel, the staff weakened what was in most other respects a thorough and troubling examination of poorly conceived and poorly run program. But one needn’t be a supporter of the enhanced interrogations — I’m certainly not — to find unpersuasive the proffered explanation that CIA officials could not talk to the committee while a criminal investigation was pending. The investigation closed in 2012. Had the committee wanted to interview CIA officers closely involved in the program, there was plenty of time to do so, even if it meant postponing the date for finalizing the report. If, on the other hand, there are pending criminal matters to which the public isn’t privy, then releasing the report with all the accompanying hoopla is sure to poison the jury pool.

Why, then, didn’t the staff members speak to ranking intelligence officials, either in the CIA or elsewhere in the executive branch? Perhaps we see at work a malady that has become all too common: a reluctance to disturb the narrative.

Nowadays, narratives are all the rage, and inconvenient facts and testimony are generally left out of the story. This is exactly what got Rolling Stone magazine in trouble. Even back when I was a college journalist, we never ran a controversial story without seeking a response from the other side. But Rolling Stone, in its vivid account of a rape alleged to have occurred at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus, did exactly that. No comments from the accused; no comments from the fraternity; no comments from the accuser’s own friends. The accuser supposedly placed these limits as a condition of writing the story. Why on earth did the magazine go along?

Surely the same explanation applies. To do otherwise would have disturbed the narrative. Sexual assault is said to be rampant on campus, and Rolling Stone had a powerful story to tell. Adding even routine denials, to say nothing of the sort of widely varying accounts that a serious investigation would surely have unearthed, would have reduced the power of the tale.

It’s hard to believe that the magazine would have stumbled into the same thicket of unprofessional journalism had it been reporting on, say, a source’s allegations that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative organizations. Possibly the story wouldn’t have run at all; certainly it would not have run without a serious effort at verification.

Journalistic standards, like Congressional ones, are amazingly flexible depending on who is being targeted.

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