A funny thing happened in journamalism.
Late Sunday, NY Times reporter James Risen (who has in the past done some commendable work, such as breaking the Bush wiretapping story), let loose a with a flashing, five siren headline about the recent “discovery” of Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, supposedly valued in the neighborhood of $1 trillion. Startling revelation. Earth-shattering expose. Game-changing development. How could the US leave now, what with all that ore in need of liberation from the cruel grip of third world mountaintops, and won’t someone think about the Afghan people?
Except, not really.
Turns out, Afghanistan’s mineral wealth had been well documented for years, dating back to when the Soviets were taking their turn pissing away vast amounts of wealth pushing Sisyphus’ boulder up and down the Khyber Pass for no good reason other than that to stop would embolden the Afghans to claim victory.
In fact, details of Risen’s “breaking news” had been reported repeatedly over the past half decade, as documented by several astute bloggers, as well as a few hybrid types like Josh Marshall, Blake Hounshell and Marc Ambinder. Not only that, but the value of the minerals is exaggerated, and the logistical hardships in extracting them considerable, and thus there’s not really much of a story, or incentive to stay and keep up the fight.
These journalists/bloggers went on to note that, given the stale nature of the facts in the piece, and the rather loud headline and lede, the story looked like part of the Pentagon’s efforts to buttress sagging support for a pointless war that even an easily distracted, and reflexively jingoistic, American public is finally souring on. You can only kill so many brown people for so long before the thrill leaves your leg and you begin to yearn for new and bigger things to blow up.
Looks like Risen got played by the old pros in the Pentagon, which is no great sin. Happens to the best of them, and Risen, as I mentioned, is certainly better than average. Prudence would counsel that Risen should either walk back the story, dig deeper into the motives of those that fed it to him, or just kind of pretend the whole thing didn’t happen.
But when you’re a very serious journalist working at the New York Times, prudence can suck on this:
New York Times reporter James Risen is fighting back against critics who have cast a skeptical eye on his Page One story yesterday about Afghanistan’s mineral deposits. In an interview with Yahoo! News, Risen dismissed suspicions that the story was part of an orchestrated campaign to rescue the troubled American effort there and derided critical bloggers as pajama-clad layabouts with no reporting chops. […]
Risen’s piece quickly drew fire from online reporters and writers (including this one), who pointed out that many of the story’s purported revelations about Afghanistan’s mineral reserves had been previously reported. They also questioned the timing of the story, coming as it did on the heels of a series of troubling reports about the stability of the Karzai government and one day before Gen. David Petraeus was scheduled to testify before Congress about the war. […]
Risen didn’t take kindly to the blogospheric criticism. “Bloggers should do their own reporting instead of sitting around in their pajamas,” Risen said.**
“The thing that amazes me is that the blogosphere thinks they can deconstruct other people’s stories,” Risen told Yahoo! News during an increasingly hostile interview, which he called back to apologize for almost immediately after it ended. “Do you even know anything about me? Maybe you were still in school when I broke the NSA story, I don’t know. It was back when you were in kindergarten, I think.” (Risen and fellow Times reporter Eric Lichtblau shared a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Bush administration’s secret wiretapping program; this reporter was 33 years old at the time.)
Risen defended the article against claims that Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was largely a matter of public knowledge prior to his story. “If it wasn’t news, then why didn’t anybody write about it?” he asked.
In fact, McClatchy Newspapers reported last year that “the region is thought to hold some of the world’s last major untapped deposits of iron, copper, gold, uranium, precious gems and other raw materials.” In February, Agence France Presse quoted Afghan president Hamid Karzai, citing a U.S. Geological Survey study, claiming that his country had $1 trillion in mineral assets. Just last month, Karzai repeated the claim at a U.S. Institute of Peace event, saying the value was between $1 trillion and $3 trillion.
“But no one picked up on it,” Risen said. He explained that he based his report on the work of a Pentagon team led by Paul Brinkley, a deputy undersecretary of defense charged with rebuilding the Afghan economy…
So was the story a Pentagon plant, designed to show the American public a shiny metallic light at the end of the long tunnel that is the Afghan war, as skeptics allege? Risen said he heard about the Pentagon’s efforts from Milt Bearden, a retired CIA officer who was active in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The men co-authored a book, “The Main Enemy,” in 2003, and Bearden is now a consultant working with Brinkley’s survey team.
Several months ago, Milt started telling me about what they were finding,” Risen said. “At the beginning of the year, I said I wanted to do a story on it.” At first both Bearden and [Paul Brinkley, the guy at DOD tasked with rebuilding the Afghan economy] resisted, Risen said, but he eventually wore them down. “Milt convinced Brinkley to talk to me,” he said, “and Brinkley convinced other Pentagon officials to go on the record. I think Milt realized that things were going so badly in Afghanistan that people would be willing to talk about this.” In other words, according to Risen, he wasn’t handed the story in a calculated leak. Calls and e-mails to Brinkley and to Eric Clark, a Pentagon public relations contractor who works with him, were not immediately returned.[emphasis: mine. childish defensive name calling: Risen’s]
What kind of defense is that anyway? He claims the story wasn’t fed to him by the Pentagon, he just based it on a Pentagon report fed to him by Milt Bearden who, as Steve Hynd documents in his pajamas, is up to his eyeballs in spookery and various strands of international rat-fuckeration. Risen dismisses the argument that the story was timed to address waning public support, but then cites that very fact as a reason the story was put together and pushed.
And then he blames bloggers for having the temerity to even make an attempt at deconstructing a story written by Him (actually resorting to the “do you know who I am” argument), even though the story was so flimsy that it didn’t need deconstruction as much as a gentle nudge before it came tumbling down.
**Bonus Foul Mouthed Blogger Fun Fact: John Cook, the guy who interviewed Risen for the above excerpted story, posted the following on Twitter:
NYT’s Jim Risen just told me bloggers criticizing his Afghan minerals story are “jerking off in their pajamas.” Yahoo worried abt language.
Yeah, well, sometimes we have to pleasure ourselves Jim because, unlike your exalted self, we don’t have access to the Pentagon reach-around.