Victim or villain? Times and Post analyze Bowe Bergdahl

Afghanistan Prisoner Swap
Bowe Bergdahl

Update: June 3. The Times and the Post change places today, with the Times running a story on Bergdahl’s dubious record in Afghanistan and the Post publishing an article on the problems Bergdahl may have re-integrating into his life in Idaho.

Is Bowe Bergdahl a victim or a villain? In their sidebars to the main story this morning, The New York Times and The Washington Post tell dramatically different tales about the Army sergeant, who was released by the Taliban in Afghanistan on Saturday after five years as a prisoner of war.

The Times’ story, headlined “Mentally, G.I. Has Long Path Back to Idaho,” by Mark Landler, is sympathetic to Bergdahl. Noting that the soldier was subjected to tremendous stress during his captivity, and possibly torture, Landler writes that Bergdahl will require a great deal of physical and psychological treatment in order for him to be able to reclaim his life. Landler:

It is not yet clear whether Sergeant Bergdahl was tortured by his captors, as were many prisoners of war in North Vietnam. But given the ruthless reputation of those who held him, experts said it was likely, at a minimum, that he faced unremitting fear.

Bergdahl may even have lost some of his ability to communicate in English after years of exposure to terrorists who spoke nothing but Pashto, former Times correspondent (and former captive) David Rohde is quoted as saying.

By contrast, the Post’s article, by Dan Lamothe and Kevin Sieff, focuses on the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009, questioning whether Bergdahl deserted his unit (touched on only briefly by the Times) and if the subsequent search may have placed U.S. forces in danger (mentioned not at all by the Times).

In print, the Post’s headline is relatively mild: “Among some peers, resentment lingers.” The online version is a scorcher: “Mixed reaction to Bergdahl’s recovery by service members who consider him a deserter.”

Particularly rough is a quote from Javier Ortiz, a former Army medic who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Ortiz tells the Post:

I had a responsibility while I was there to the guys I was with, and that’s why this hits the hardest. Regardless of what you learned while being there, we still have a responsibility to the men to our left and right. It’s terrible, what he did.

The Post also quotes from a long, pseudonymous comment posted below a profile of Bergdahl by the late Michael Hastings that was published in Rolling Stone in 2012.  The comment reads in part:

The Taliban knew that we were looking for him in high numbers and our movements were predictable. Because of Bergdahl, more men were out in danger, and more attacks on friendly camps and positions were conducted while we were out looking for him. His actions impacted the region more than anyone wants to admit.

The use of unverified comments on the Post’s part is extraordinary, as is its quoting from a series of tweets by @CodyFNfootball that went on in a similar vein following Bergdahl’s release. The Post justified it by saying:

The Washington Post contacted the individual running the Twitter account but received no reply. Like the Rolling Stone comment, however, the tweets included enough specifics about Bergdahl’s unit and location to be regarded as potentially credible by many discussing the case.

The comments, of course, were already widely available online, and they match up with other reporting by the Post. (They also match up with Hastings’ largely sympathetic profile of Bergdahl.) So I have no problem with the Post’s using them as long as everyone understands that they may not be what they seem to be.

As for which story we’ll be talking about more in the days to come, the edge has to go to the Post. The Obama administration was already facing criticism, as Jonathan Topaz reports in Politico, for cutting a deal with the Taliban to send five Guantánamo prisoners to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl.

At the very least, the Post’s reporting (and not just the Post’s — see this, by CNN’s Jake Tapper, for example) raises serious questions that demand answers.

The stories behind the Taliban story

With the election in Afghanistan just days away, GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news service, has weighed in with a first-rate multimedia presentation on the Taliban.

Reported by executive editor Charles Sennott and photographed mainly by Seamus Murphy, the package includes text, videos, a slideshow, a historical timeline, a Google map, and podcasts posted to the public radio program “The World.”

For Sennott, a former reporter for the Boston Globe, the project is something of a reprise. In 2006, Sennott was one of the principal journalists who helped put together a package on the war against terrorism, published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. His “Reporter’s Notebook” of multimedia dispatches from Afghanistan and Pakistan was something of a pioneering effort.

In the GlobalPost series, Sennott draws on his long experience in the region, interviewing sources he first met years ago. And he offers some nuance that leaves you feeling uneasy.

Take, for instance, Sally and Don Goodrich, a Vermont couple whose son, Peter, was killed in one of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center. The Goodriches rebuilt their lives by founding a girls school in Afghanistan, in an area that has since been overrun by the Taliban. Not long ago they were presented evidence by U.S. military officials showing that some of their closest Afghan friends were Taliban collaborators. Sennott writes:

Sally described the scene that day, saying, “I am getting up from the table, leaning forward and I said, ‘These men gave me back my life.’ And [Army Brigadier General Michael] Ryan leaned toward me and he said, ‘And they are taking the lives of my men.'”

Powerful stuff.

“Life, Death and the Taliban” is grounded in the news but not dependent on it. As a result, it’s a resource that is likely to be as valuable three or six months from now as it is today. More than anything, it explains the human dimension behind an incredibly complex story.