The Plank

What Do John Kiriakou And Lenny Dykstra Have In Common?

The New York Times has a good story today about John Kiriakou and the role he played in shaping the torture debate. In late 2007, Kiriakou told ABC News's Brian Ross
that the captured Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah began cooperating
with his CIA interrogators after "probably 30, 35 seconds" of
waterboarding--leaving the distinct impression that Zubaydah was only
waterboarded once. But we now know, courtesy of the declassified
Justice Department memos, that Zubaydah was actually waterboarded 83
times. Kiriakou wasn't necessarily lying or trying to cover for the CIA
when he gave his interview to ABC (in fact, the CIA briefly considered
taking legal action against Kiriakou for revealing classified
information). The problem was, Kiriakou was basing his comments about
Zubaydah's interrogation on reports from the field. That's because, as
the Times article reports, Kiriakou wasn't in the secret Thai
prison where Zubaydah was being waterboarded; he was at CIA
headquarters in Langley.

Amazingly, ABC didn't see fit to
mention this when it broadcast Kiriakou's interview. Now, technically,
ABC never explicitly said that Kiriakou was physically present for
Zubaydah's interrogation, but it never said he wasn't there either. And
ABC certainly included enough other information about Kiriakou in its
piece--that he was "a leader of the CIA team that captured" Zubaydah;
that he himself had "declined to use the enhanced interrogation
techniques"--that it left the distinct impression he was there watching
Zubaydah get waterboarded.

Were Kiriakou's claims about
Zubaydah and waterboarding newsworthy? Definitely. At the time he did
his interview with ABC, little was known about waterboarding, and even
if Kiriakou wasn't physically present for Zubaydah's interrogation, he
was, as a CIA intelligence officer, privy to reports from the field.
The problem, from ABC's perspective at least, is the fact that he
wasn't physically there made his story merely good. The network,
however, presumably wanted a blockbuster--and so it failed to include
that crucial caveat when it reveal Kiriakou's claim. The true
story--which was merely good--had to be sexed up in order to make it
great. It's not fabrication, it's not even exaggeration, but it's presenting the facts in such a way that, by excluding certain details--or maybe just switching off the skepticism switch--a journalist can make a story more compelling to his audience.

I think this happens in all kinds of
journalism--especially magazine journalism, where the need to create a
compelling narrative can lead writers to build up the subjects of their
pieces into something they aren't. I've been thinking about this a lot
lately after reading this article in GQ by the former photo editor of the former baseball star Lenny Dykstra's Players Club magazine. What struck me most about the GQ story is that it completely contradicted a profile of Dykstra the New Yorker did a year earlier. Both pieces go into great detail about Dykstra's eccentricities, but where the New Yorker
portrayed Dykstra as a sort of mad business genius--"an exemplar of the
transition from professional athletics to respectable civilian
life"--the GQ piece shows that Dykstra's business empire was a house of
cards. (A recent story
on, which reports that Dykstra has been the subject of 24
legal actions, including18 since last November, goes even further than
GQ in revealing the charade of Dykstra's alleged success.)

Now, I suppose it's possible that Dykstra simply managed to con the New Yorker writer into believing that he'd moved on to a fabulously successful post-baseball career. But I can also see how the New Yorker
writer desperately wanted to believe Dykstra. After all, it's a great
story. Dykstra's a larger-than-life character, but, frankly, now that
he's retired from baseball, he was only worth writing about if all of
his erratic behavior added up to something improbable, like business
success. Otherwise, he's just another harebrained ex-jock trying to put
one over on people, and that's not really much of a story. (With
hindsight, the warning signs that Dykstra was completely full of it are
pretty obvious.) In fact, the anti-Dykstra GQ story--which was also a
great read--probably wouldn't have been possible without the preceding
pro-Dykstra New Yorker piece, since there needed to be a perception of Dykstra-the-successful-businessman to tear down.

I'm not saying all this to excuse ABC or the New Yorker--although, obviously, ABC's desire for the great story caused more damage than the New Yorker's.
But it is a hazard of the profession--and I think it's something we all
need to keep in mind, both as writers and as readers. 

--Jason Zengerle

For more stories, like the New Republic on Facebook:

Loading Related Articles...
The Plank
Article Tools