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May 19, 2016

If Only Rhodes Had Waited, Like Phil Caputo

At 8 minutes and 14 seconds into this video, legendary war correspondent Phil Caputo confesses to misleading his readers while covering Lebanon's civil war. He made this confession while speaking at Moth Radio Hour in 2009.

Earlier this month, Ben Rhodes a speechwriter at the National Security Council, admitted to creating an “echo chamber” to promote a controversial agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.

In the story published by the New York Times Sunday Magazine and written by David Samuels, Rhodes speaks about how he was apparently able to generate sympathetic media coverage (and internet buzz) over the deal with Iran, a country that many Americans regard with suspicion.

Rhodes stated that one reason why he was able to manipulate the discourse over the Iran deal was the incompetence and naiveté of American journalists. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” Rhodes said. “They literally know nothing.”

Rhodes’ shocking admission and expression of contempt for American journalists prompted a lot of condemnations. Most of it was directed at Rhodes for the methods he used to promote the Iran deal, but there was another strain of criticism as well. This strain of criticism was directed at Rhodes for rubbing the con in the face of the people he fooled.

Maybe Rhodes should have waited a few decades before telling his story. If he had waited, his story would have elicited applause and laughter.

That’s how it worked out for legendary war correspondent and author Phil Caputo. In 2009, Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize winner, appeared on Moth Radio hour and told the audience that he had misled his readers while working as an international correspondent in Lebanon in the 1970s. Rather than being booed off the stage, Caputo was rewarded with laughter and applause.

Caputo made his confession while speaking at a Moth event at Cooper Union in New York City on Sept. 10, 2009. It begins at 8:14 into the video posted at the top of this entry.

His story begins with a Telex message from the foreign desk asking him when they were going to see his interview with PLO commander Abu Rashid. Reporters at a competing publication (that Caputo calls “Scoop Magazine”) were able to get an interview with the commander, why hadn’t Caputo?

Caputo’s first thought was to think that his foreign editor was crazy. “Of all the dangerous places you could go in Beirut, Lebanon, the most dangerous you could go were the neighborhoods and the refugee camps that were controlled by the Palestinian Liberation Organization,” Caputo said. “To go into one of those places was a suicide mission. I couldn’t figure out how 'Scoop Magazine' had done it.”

Fortunately, Caputo was friends with the correspondents at the magazine so he goes over to their office and asks them if they could help set up an interview with this Abu Rashid. In response the two correspondents laughed at Caputo’s request. And then one of the reporters leans back in his chair and says, “Go ahead,” prompting a look of bafflement from Caputo. Then the other reporter for "Scoop" tells him that the reporter sitting in the chair is Abu Rashid.

Upon hearing this part of the story, the audience at Cooper Union laughed uproariously. When the laughter died down, Caputo continued his story. It turned out that the two journalists writing for “Scoop” had been getting messages from their bosses asking for interview with a PLO commander. Eventually, after continued pressure from their editor, they invented Abu Rashid.

As I said before, there were a lot of things you were supposed to do to go get a story, anything to get a story, but there was one thing you were never supposed to do and I did it. I interviewed Rick, AKA, Abu Rashid. [Rick was the pseudonym Caputo gave to the journalist.]

Again, there’s more laughter from the audience when they hear this story, but here is where Caputo’s story gets even more disturbing.

I’ll say in my own defense, a lot of other correspondents did the same thing. [More laughter.] In the ensuing days, the fabulous Abu Rashid became the most quoted PLO commander in the entire Middle East.

Actually, I’m kind of glad you’re laughing as far as journalistic ethics go it was pretty shocking. You weren’t supposed to do a thing like that and I have to say that I felt pretty ashamed of myself.

Things would have gone so much better for Rhodes if instead of speaking with David Samuels, he told his story to Moth Radio. Or maybe he should have told his story to Phil Caputo.

Posted by dvz at May 19, 2016 01:47 PM

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