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Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Open letter to ‘journalist’ Michael Webster

Posted by James McPherson on June 17, 2010

Mr. Webster:

I am writing because, particularly as a journalism professor, I am troubled by the inaccuracy of an article you wrote this week, an article that, combined with a similarly misleading Fox News story, got quite a bit of attention in the conservative blogosphere. During the past couple of days I have made it a point to go to a number of conservative websites that have quoted from or repeated your piece or the Fox report, but of course I cannot know them all–and naturally, some of them are unwilling to run comments that contradict their opinions, anyway.

You call yourself an “investigative journalist,” yet it seems you did little or no investigation when it came to a report that happened to correspond with your political bias. For your June 14 piece titled, “The U.S. Gov: giving parts of Arizona back to Mexico,” you quoted some odd “reliable informant known to us as ‘Duck Hunter,” yet apparently didn’t even bother to pick up a phone to check with park officials.

As a result, you and Fox (though since neither of you is particularly good about attribution I can’t tell if one of you picked it up from the other, or if “Duck Hunter” served as the initial source for both)–published misleading articles based on a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report that came out in October 2006. For context, you’ll remember that was when George W. Bush was president and when John McCain–the senior senator of Arizona, the state you’re writing about–opposed a fence on the Mexican border.

By the way, if you had bothered to risk a less dramatic story by sending an email or making a phone call, you might have found out the same thing that another generally conservative writer did, after he was embarrassed by the Fox News report. Quoting a park source:

“The news coverage is out of proportion and a great misunderstanding. The Fish & Wildlife Service is working to correct the situation. We were not consulted about the television or other coverage.

“The refuge is open as always.  Erroneous information came out on Fox News and this has led to expansion of misinformation in Web blogs.

“The southernmost half-mile of the refuge has been closed to the public and refuge staff since 2006 so that Border Patrol can be unimpeded in their patrols. It also helps ensure public safety to not be in that area right along the border, just in case. There is less immigrant traffic along the southern boundary of the refuge now as a result of the 12-foot fence.  There is some drug traffic in the mountains to the east of the refuge.  But we are seeing fewer impacts from immigrant traffic than before the fence.

“The closure involves 3500 acres, which is 0.02% of the refuge.  The remainder of the refuge’s 118,000 acres is open to the public . . . . Hiking, camping, bird-watching, hunting . . . as usual.   The refuge is definitely open and no additional closures have been instituted since 2006.    Likewise the Arivaca Lake and Ruby Road areas are open as always. … You’re welcome to visit!”

You can see that full report here.

I honestly do not know why your pieces are so widely repeated, but, judging by your vita, I know that you take pride in the attention your work receives. I hope you also take enough pride in your work to print the clarification that is clearly in order.

James McPherson

Next day update: I sent the letter above via email to Webster yesterday before I posted it here. So far I haven’t heard back from him either via email or via my blog, nor has he apparently responded publicly elsewhere. But the moderator for one of the sites that carried his column reports the following today:

I have had some communication from Michael Webster regarding this article. His position is that he stands behind every word he has written.

The issue as to whether or not Fox news reported this or didn’t….is not relative to Mr. Webster’s writing, in our opinion.

The article is Mr. Websters view of this situation.

My response, on that same site:

I have no problem with his opinion, of course, just with his distortion of facts and his laziness or carelessness in not following up with other sources–egregious behavior for someone claiming to be an “investigative journalist.” In fact, apparently in part because of his behavior, the park now has the correct info prominently posted on the front page of its website.

5 Responses to “Open letter to ‘journalist’ Michael Webster”

  1. mcauleysworld said

    UPDATE: From the official website of the U.S. Fish & Wild Life Service 06/16/2010
    Visit a landscape of rippling grassland flanked by mountains, and riparian zones rich in bird life. Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge provides approximately 118,000 acres of habitat for threatened and endangered plants and animals. The semidesert grassland supports the reintroduction of masked bobwhite quail and pronghorns.

    Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge Remains Open

    June 2010
    Recently there were reports in the news stating that the Buenos Aries National Wildlife Refuge was closed. This information is not correct. In early 2006, a small section of land (about 3% of the refuge) along the border was closed to visitation. However, no new restrictions are in place and the majority of the refuge remains open. Today, we are seeing a decline in violent activity in the southern most area thanks to ongoing cooperation between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Customs and Border Protection. The Refuge will reopen the lands along the border at such time that it is determined to be safe for visitors.


    McAuleysWorld: Let me see, “The Refuge will reopen the lands along the border at such time that it is determined to be safe for visitors” means the lands are in fact, still closed. Unless you are using some type of new math, 3% of 118,000 acres equals 3540 acres. Please note that the “Federal Fish & Wildlife Service” is in agreement with the Secretary of Homeland Security who claims the border has never been safer, well actually the Fish and Wildlife staff just say it is relatively safere, but not safe enough to reopen the “closed” section of the park. On the other hand the County Sheriff, as reported above, has a significantl;y different take.

    You can decide.

  2. James McPherson said

    Thanks for the comment. Any opinion on Webster’s (and/or Fox’s) sloppiness or intent to mislead?

  3. minutewoman1776 said

    “Journalist” James McPherson:

    I can’t help but notice that throughout your letter, you mention that Mr. Webster only checked with his source ‘Duck Hunter’, but not with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. I am curious as to how you know this to be true, then state it as fact when you, by your own admission, have not spoken with Mr. Webster. Because Mr. Webster did not copy and paste the canned response you received, does NOT prove there was no attempt by Mr. Webster. In my opinion, this makes you guilty of doing the same thing you accuse Mr. Webster of, “little or no investigation,” when it comes to proving YOUR point.

    Additionally, what response do you expect from the Dept.? We all know that this would not be the first time a governmental organization presented one thing to the public, when practice was actually very different.

    Finally, your, so-called, ‘open letter’ is, CLEARLY, nothing more than the lame attempt of a “journalism teacher” hoping to lure some of the followers/fans of a widely known, followed, and respected Investigative Journalist like Michael Webster, to his own blog. This “advertorial” is not free in most publications. I am sure, if you really wanted to draw on some of Mr. Webster’s fans, he would have no problem selling you advertising space on one of his many websites.

    In closing, only one thing comes to mind:

    Those who can, do. Those who can’t… Well, you get the point.

  4. James McPherson said

    Heather, sorry for the slow response; I’ve been out of town.

    “I am curious as to how you would know this to be true.”

    I’m actually giving Webster the benefit of the doubt, assuming he’s just careless or lazy and not a blatant liar.

    “does not mean there was no attempt by Mr. Webster”

    True, but any responsible and credible journalist would have noted making an attempt, even if it was unsuccessful.

    “Additionally, what response do you expect from the Dept.?”

    Perhaps the one they apparently gave everyone else?

    “We all know that this would not be the first time a governmental organization presented one thing to the public, when practice was actually very different.”

    Yes, but what would be the point in this case? Your conspiracy-theorist tendancies are showing.

    “Those who can, do. Those who can’t… Well, you get the point.”

    Indeed I do. And in fact I was a journalist for years, writing for publications with a much wider readership than these blogs have. In fact, there is little to be gained from the limited coatjails of any blogger or pseudo-journalist, and if you’d read more than the “letter” on my blog, you’d see that I have virtually nothing to gain from doing so.

    I do find it interesting that Webster apparently chooses not to defend his own work in this case, even on his own self-promoting blogs. I’m sure he appreciates your efforts, though. Thanks for the comment.

  5. […] July 22, 2010 · Leave a Comment Talk about the blind leading the blind. Or dumb and dumber. Paul Babeu, the Arizona sheriff most famous for posing as a “border sheriff” in John McCain’s goofy “complete the danged fence” ad, apparently gets his own information from… wait for it … Michael Webster. […]

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