New York

The Case Of The Planted Question

by

So it turns out that one of the tough questions that greeted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a Q&A session in Kuwait this week was planted by a reporter.

The DoD and conservative press rejoiceth!

Reports of the exchange between Rumsfeld and several soldiers were front-page news for the New York Times and other papers on Thursday. The Boston Globe called it an “extraordinary public confrontation.” The Defense Department could only claim that the back-and-forth was no big deal, and chide the media for blowing the event out of proportion.

Then the media site Romanesko published an email from Lee Pitts, a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, in which Pitts boasted that he had worked with Specialist Thomas Wilson, the soldier who asked Rumsfeld why troops had to hunt for scrap metal to use as armor on their vehicles. Wilson was one of two soldiers with whom Pitts discussed questions for the defense secretary.

“Beforehand we worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor their vehicles going into combat have,” Pitts wrote. “While waiting for the VIP, I went and found the Sgt. in charge of the microphone for the question and answer session and made sure he knew to get my guys out of the crowd.”

Wilson’s question drew applause. Rumsfeld seemed startled; he eventually delivered the line: “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Pitts’ e-mail drew derision from the New York Post, which editorialized that “there was a little bit more—and a whole lot less—to the story than what immediately met the eye. For one thing, Rumsfeld was set up.”

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said Wilson had raised an important issue, but “Town Hall meetings are intended for soldiers to have dialogue with the Secretary of Defense. It would be unfortunate to discover that anyone might have interfered with that opportunity, whatever the intention.”

Of course, Wilson’s was not the only tough question (See this transcript). There were also queries about combat pay, the military’s stop-loss policy, differences in benefits for National Guard members versus Army soldiers, and equipment shortages in the Guard. (Friendlier questions concerned Disneyland, the Super Bowl, Afghan elections, and relations with NATO.) And even if Wilson’s question was planted, his fellow soldiers’ applause suggests it was a subject dear to their hearts. Rumsfeld’s reaction spoke for itself.

But those qualifiers aside, Wilson’s question was planted. In coverage of the incident Friday, media critics split on whether this was an ethical lapse. This seems a no-brainer: Reporters aren’t supposed to stage-manage the news. And when they do, they should at least admit it—in something other than an e-mail. As the Society for Professional Journalists’ code of ethics advises:

    Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.

In the Times Free Press coverage of the Q&A event on Thursday, there was no mention of Pitts’s hidden role.

“In hindsight, information on how the question was framed should have been included in Thursday’s story in the Times Free Press,” wrote Tom Griscom, the paper’s publisher and executive editor, in Friday’s editions.