Nightline's Bad Journalism 101

ABC News Nightline has weighed in on the A Long Way Gone saga, and the verdict is that all is kosher in Ishmael Beah’s memoir about his days as a child soldier during the Sierra Leone civil war. (The Voice came to a very different conclusion after examining issues with the veracity of the memoir first brought up by a team of Australian journalists.)

But Nightline Correspondent Cynthia McFadden violates the Journalism 101 rule against single source stories, quoting only Beah in the entire segment. Naturally, he defends the accuracy of his work, which has brought him a lot of money and fame.

McFadden deals with the controversy over his book by mentioning in a couple of paragraphs the questions raised about the book. She doesn’t bother to consider the content of the questions, just refers to them in a vague, general sort of way.

Then, McFadden allows Beah to refute the claims, without doing any additional on-camera interviews to back up his account.

"I don’t think it’s possible that I made a mistake," he tells McFadden.

No one is arguing that Beah entirely faked the memoir, but there are serious questions about the timeline that he claims in the book. He writes, for example, that he was a child soldier for two years, but the newspaper The Australian interviewed school officials and found records, indicating he was in school for some of that time.

Moreover, the key battle, which underpins the entire chronology, most likely took place two years after Beah says it did. Thus, the entire timeline itself is suspect. The whole story may have unfolded over months, rather than years. And no one can verify his clinical account of a deadly brawl that supposedly took place in a refugee camp for former child soldiers.

And so, until someone (a former comrade in the army, for example, or an aid worker who witnessed the deadly brawl) comes forward to verify Beah’s claims once and for all, the questions will linger.

What would Ted Koppel think?

And an interesting side note: Last April, Beah’s book was a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. But the judges snubbed Beah and voted to give the award to a much more obscure book by author Elizabeth Samet, who wrote about her experiences teaching literature at West Point.


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