Sunday, October 28, 2007

Jessica McBride and the politics of shoddy journalism

What do you want to do if you're trying to turn a man with a dark past into a plaster saint?

If you're Jessica McBride, you denigrate his detractors!

And so it goes with McBride's article "Cloak and Dagger" in the November issue of Milwaukee Magazine. It tells the pathetic tale of a group of Hmong-Americans and expats who plot the overthrow of the government of Laos only to be nabbed by the Feds. How pathetic was this alleded coup? So pathetic an alleged ringleader turned to Gary George for advice!

In the article McBride comes thisclose to saying that the U.S. government should turn a blind eye to a terrorist plot being hatched on its shores because 30 years ago we supported Hmong guerrillas.

She also does her best to turn Gen. Vang Pao, who led a CIA-backed Hmong army, into a hero. This despite credible tales of his corruption and his involvement in a drug trade that pumped heroin into the arms of American GIs.

Not the easiest mission. To accomplish it, McBride does what comes natural: she attacks. In this case, the target is UW-Madison history professor Alfred McCoy, author of the 1972 book, "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia."

From McBride's story:

For some, there was a dark side to the almost legendary tale of the
Hmong warriors. UW-Madison history professor Alfred McCoy published a
1972 book making the controversial claim that Pao was a warlord and a heroin
trafficker. McCoy says he interviewed French intelligence officials and traced
smuggling trails.

Other scholars - notably the author Jane Hamilton-Merritt
- dispute his findings. She says the Hmong used opium as a medicine, but
didn't have the technical knowledge to turn it into Heroin. Hamilton-Merritt
interviewed more than 1,000 people - Lao, Hmong, French, Americans - and says
"no one could provide any evidence to support McCoy."

Reading this, it's difficult to reach any other conclusion than that McBride did not read The Politics of Heroin.

First off, the Brawler's not aware of any serious dispute that Vang Pao was involved in the production and sale of opium -- opium that was "turn(ed) into heroin" by others. Moreover, McCoy didn't say that the Hmong had the technical knowledge to manufacture heroin. When he discusses the heroin lab Vang Pao allegedly opened in 1970 at Long Tieng, McCoy says it began when "a foreign Chinese master chemist arrived at Long Tieng to supervise production" (p. 281 of the Brawler's 1972 edition). Finally, McBride fails to mention at all the charges that the CIA was involved in this drug trade. Would Jack Bauer have done that?

But McBride's -- and Milwaukee Magazine's -- biggest malpractice is in describing McCoy's sourcing and footwork: "McCoy says he interviewed French intelligence officials and traced smuggling trails."

Given the obvious depth of McCoy's research to anyone who's read the book, it's difficult to see that description as anything other than a willful mischaracterization of McCoy's sourcing (indeed, by saying "says he interviewed" McBride is arguably insinuating McCoy did no such thing; Hamilton-Merritt's claims don't warrant that qualifier).

For instance, McCoy's claim of the Long Tieng drug lab is attributed to an "interview with Chinese merchants" (footnote 134, p. 428). And his claim that Vang Pao was buying opium that was being picked up by Air America UH-1H helicopters that were "probably destined for heroin laboratories in Long Tieng or Vientiane, and ultimately, for GI addicts in Vietnam" (p. 263) is attributed to interviews with "local officials, opium farmers, and soldiers who confirmed Air America's role in the local opium trade (footnote 71, p. 425)." Moreover, McCoy and his co-authors visited Long Pot district, an opium growing area, from August 18 to August 23, 1971.

McBride could challenge the veracity of McCoy's claims head on. Instead she tries to undermine them by mischaracterizing their underlying support -- even blaming it on the French! This is a flagrantly unethical act - one that would, at a minimum, result in a stern talking-to by an editor at any credible newspaper.

That said, it's possible that this characterization is an editor's fault.

Either way, the Brawler suspects that Milwaukee Magazine owes McCoy an apology.

(Capper offeres his thoughts on the article here.)

UPDATE! The story is now online here.

1 comment:

  1. Her attempt at journalism is..."almost legendary." Wow. Hard to watch her try to lift heavy things. God help her students.