CSI is a CBS-TV crime drama that follows “Crime Scene Investigators” – like William Peterson, Ted Danson, Elizabeth Shue and others – as they solve murders using science and analytical skills.
ESI is my own ethical-sense investigative process used in researching and examining stories like the three-part series, Conspiracy Theory. (Think of me as Ted Danson… with darker hair.) The purpose of this commentary is to explain to readers exactly how I go about examining various stories from an ethical perspective and how you, yourselves can check the content of chain e-mails and other stories.
In the first part of Conspiracy Theory, I laid out the parts of the original e-mail that I received from a reader that I was going to examine. Example:
“June 2009, aggressive West Point graduate, four-star General Stanley McChrystal assumes total command of Afghanistan operations. His career has been spotless except for near-disciplinary action in his role in the cover-up of athlete/special forces Pat Tillman [who, it was later determined] had been killed not by ‘devastating enemy fire’ but by ‘friendly fire.’ That information [was kept] out of the posthumous Silver Star award and family was never told, initially.
“When it unraveled, nine in the chain of command, including General McChrystal, were interviewed prior to disciplinary action. The Army dropped the entire thing after several months, and nobody was held responsible.”
From an ethical perspective, I was looking to see if this story was accurate and fair. I began, easily enough, by doing an Internet search of “Pat Tillman.” I found several links, but began by reading a synopsis on Wikipedia – an online encyclopedia of current and past events, people and issues. My rule for Wikipedia is simple: there must be reference links to the information given and those links must be credible. i.e.: Network news organizations, The New York Times, Washington Post, you get the idea. However, if there are discrepancies between credible sources, I look for more sources to verify basic facts.
In the case of Army Special Forces soldier Pat Tillman, killed in a “friendly fire” incident in Afghanistan, there were many sources including a documentary film and a CBS News 60 Minutes story.
Regarding the accuracy behind General Stanley McChrystal’s involvement in the cover-up of Tillman’s death, I typed that phrase into the search bar and, again, came up with several links. After reading a number of them, I settled on an interview by Jon Stewart with author Jon Krakauer, a recognized journalist and author, who talked about the issue in his book,Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, a comprehensive biography of the former pro football player. In that interview, Krakauer states that General McChrystal “was instrumental, the point man, for this cover-up.”
Despite the fact that Krakauer has been a reliable journalist in the past, I wanted to check this statement myself. Additional sources confirmed a Senate subcommittee where, in fact, McChrystal owns up to his involvement in the initial lies told by the military about the death of Tillman.
Throughout this process, I kept a record of all the stories I pulled along with original source links. If I use any of this information, I typically supply a link to the original source so that readers can read and judge for themselves, how I reached a conclusion.
Point: While I gather a great deal of background information, I don’t necessarily use all of it. For purposes of clarity and conciseness, I typically settle on two to three sources. For the Tillman story, I used the Krakauer interview, McChrystal’s own testimony from a Senate committee, as well as the Department of Defense Inspector General’s report to conclude that all of the information in the reader e-mail was, in fact, fair and accurate. I also relied on aspects of the documentary, The Tillman Story, and the CBS News 60 Minutes story. I extracted quotes from the documentary and watched the entire 60 Minutes story to conclude that the Army had initially covered up the truth about Tillman’s death.
The Tillman story has been out there for some time and only required about 5-6 hours for me to go through all the details. The majority of time was spent reading through the Inspector General’s report about the cover-up.
The process of checking the truth behind the death of journalist Michael Hastings took considerably more time requiring me to ask not only is the reader e-mail accurate and fair, but are reporters acting in a responsible manner in the dissemination of the information they’re putting forth to the public.
After searching, “the death of Michael Hastings,” I literally discovered pages of links. I clipped and read more than 80 story links including video stories on Hastings. While there was plenty of information available through a page on Michael Hastings on Wikipedia, I relied on my own searches to put together as complete a picture as possible as to what actually happened concerning his death.
In an effort to be fair, I must push aside any preconceived notions, political motives, rumor or speculation. That’s not to say that I did not look into these theories; I did. My purpose was to see if there was some element of truth, then search for additional verification.
While I came to San Diego-6 reporter Kimberly Dvorak’s stories of a possible conspiracy with an open mind, I began to see a little bias in how she reached her conclusions.
Bear in mind, my research into Hastings’ death had absolutely nothing to do with his reports on both General McChrystal or an upcoming report on CIA Director John Brennan. My focus remained on the facts surrounding his death.
As I mentioned in the concluding part of Conspiracy Theory, I spent most of August searching, clipping, reading and cross-checking a variety of stories regarding Hastings’ death. At one point, I typed an entire paragraph into my search bar:
“June 16-17 2013, Michael Hastings e-mails friends that ‘the FBI are talking to my staff’ and ‘I am working on a big story on the CIA’ and intimated that he was frightened and warned them of the FBI. He had received death threats several times from unknown sources since 2010.”
As discussed in part two, this comes, verbatim, from a web site called dancingczars.wordpress.com. No other source had this exact wording. Dancing Czars is a blog site ( as this site is). However, much of the site focused on too much unverifiable information. Simply put, Dancing Czars is not in the same credibility league as any of the network news shows or national newspapers.
After reading through at least 80 stories regarding the death of Michael Hastings, the only stories that contained a credible fact pattern were those that I itemized in the conclusion. The Los Angeles Times, FOX News, The Hollywood Reporter, Mother Jones, Politico, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, even Alex Jones’Infowars all carried police reports and the Los Angeles coroner’s autopsy results. Mother Jones’ reporter Gavin Aronson’s report on Kimberly Dvorak’s report meticulously documents inaccuracies in her reporting.
The collective sum of all this information led me to my conclusion that while the reader e-mail was, in fact, accurate when it came to information about the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman and the actions of General Stanley McChrystal, the speculation about a conspiracy into the death of journalist Michael Hastings just did not add up.
I have received e-mails in the past from a variety of readers who ask me to search out and verify the truth behind a chain e-mail they’ve received. Politifact.com conducts such a fact check on politicians and issues alike. To date, of 145 chain e-mails checked by Politifact, 83 (57 percent) were deemed “Pants-on-Fire” false, 23 percent were rate “False,” and 7 percent were rated “Mostly False.” According to Politifact, 87 percent of chain e-mails are simply wrong.
While the ethical value of fairness does ask us to keep an open mind, it also asks us to exclude speculation, rumor and innuendo. “In pursuit of the ethical value of fairness,” ethicist Michael Josephson writes, “process is vital. A fair person scrupulously employs open and impartial processes for gathering and evaluating information necessary to making decisions.”
In judging information that comes to us, it’s important to do our homework; to search out and determine just what is true from what is not, particularly if we are basing judgments on that information.