Last week, journalists around the country realized what everyone in Nashville had long speculated: The Tennessean's Tim Chavez is a paranoid, half-cocked columnist who writes on subjects he knows little about.
Last week, journalists blasted Chavez after the columnist claimed that reporters are overplaying the violence in Iraq to boost the campaign of John Kerry. In a column envisioning the most well-coordinated stab at subterfuge since the conquest of Troy, Chavez suggested that NBC aired staged footage of child casualties. He also implied that the media covered up an insurgent massacre of hundreds of women and children in Najaf, because news of such an event would have strengthened the Bush administration position.
"Media emphasis on Iraq in chaos has coincided with John Kerry making the same pitch to voters," Chavez wrote last Wednesday. "It makes you wonder, just as we did on the authenticity of Dan Rather's reporting. And now America knows about Rather's ruse."
Actually, Chavez's commentary was a lot like Rather's reporting: wrong, one-sided and generated by a clumsy political agenda. Based on a few unsubstantiated e-mails from soldiers in Iraq, Chavez wrote that the mission is going far better than the press would have you believe, particularly in the Iraqi city of Samarra. At the time, Samarra was overrun with insurgents, and it took a bloody offensive last week to root them out. But Chavez wrote that Samarra was among many success stories the press neglected. Too bad, he wrote, that the public is treated to "bad journalismby a news media acting in concert with Kerry."
On Sunday, Chavez apologized for his incorrect assessment of the situation in Samarraand his delusional view of the mediabut the backlash had already reached a fever pitch. Unfortunately for him, Chavez's initial Iraqi column reached a nationwide audience when popular columnist Jim Romenesko posted it on the journalism Web site poynter.org.
"Tim, your piece is a disgrace," wrote Alex Berenson, who covered the battle of Najaf for The New York Times, in one of many e-mails to the Web site. "You ought to apologize for it to the correspondents who are risking their lives on the ground in Iraq."
On the same day that Chavez wrote his initial blast, friends of Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi, who was based in Baghdad, posted an e-mail she had sent to them. "The Iraqi government doesn't control most Iraqi cities, there are several car bombs going off each day around the country killing and injuring scores of innocent people, the country's roads are becoming impassable and littered by hundreds of landmines and explosive devices aimed to kill American soldiers, there are assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings."
Unlike Chavez, Fassihi is writing about what she has seen with her own eyes. Meanwhile, Chavez lives and works in Williamson County, which resembles a war-torn land only in the sense that it has been ethnically cleansed.
Chavez's column also included some incendiary accusations that he clearly didn't bother to vet. Among them: that NBC broadcasted "staged and probably old footage" of kids being carried into a hospital. Chavez attributed this to Tennessee Marine Lt. Col Jim Rose, with whom Chavez had an e-mail exchange. But Rose didn't actually say that; one of his intelligence guys told Rose that. So basically, Chavez is claiming that NBC is fabricating news to inflame public opinion against the war based on a thirdhand account from someone the columnist doesn't know.
As one journalist pointed out on Romenesko's site, Gannett's own ethics policy says that its newspapers "will hold factual information in opinion columns and editorials to the same standards of accuracy as news stories." That clearly didn't happen here. Imagine if City Hall reporter Brad Schrade wanted to write a story based on an e-mail he received from someone he never met who was recounting a conversation he had with someone he didn't name that contradicted the prevailing perception of Mayor Purcell's administration? It seems convoluted, but that's exactly what Chavez did. Blame his editors before him.
His boss, Tennessean managing editor of opinion Sandra Roberts, is none too pleased by the controversy. "His columns will receive more scrutiny from here on out," she says, adding that another editor handled the Chavez column because she was out of town.
Chavez also relayed another shocking anecdote from Rose. After the battle of Najaf at a sacred shrine, Rose wrote, "HUNDREDS of dead women and children were brought out after Sadr left. They (Sadr supporters) rounded them up during the battle and brought them in to be executed."
Alex Berenson, the New York Times reporter, dismissed the account as outrageous. Berenson was at the shrine after the battle ended and wrote in his e-mail to Romensko that the lieutenant's account is "entirely false."
"Tim, let me ask you directly: Have you ever been a reporter? Do you have any idea what makes a good story? The massacre of hundreds of women and children inside a sacred Muslim shrine would have been front-page news worldwide for days. We didn't report it because it never happened."
Desperately called Chavez, but he hung up before we could talk about his column. Hopefully, he was finalizing his travel plans to Iraq. After all, if the press is getting it all wrong, then why doesn't he board a plane to Baghdad and tell us what's really happening?
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