Letter to NY Times re: alleged spitting incident


February 5, 2007

Byron Calame
Public Editor
The New York Times

Dear Mr. Calame,

On January 28, The New York Times printed an article by Ian Urbina headlined "Protest Focuses on Iraq Troop Increase." As we noted on our Media Matters for America website, the article reported that an unnamed protester spat at the ground near Cpl. Joshua Sparling, a wounded Iraq war veteran, at the January 27 anti-Iraq war protest in Washington, D.C., and that Cpl. Sparling "spit back," and subsequently said of the protesters: "These are not Americans as far as I'm concerned."

Mr. Urbina did not attribute this account to any source, implying that he actually witnessed the events. But his description provides no further details. Did he or anyone at the Times in fact observe the alleged incident? Who was the protester who allegedly spat at the ground near Cpl. Sparling? How far from Cpl. Sparling was the alleged spitter? How far from Cpl. Sparling did the spit land on the ground? Did Mr. Urbina make any effort to talk with the alleged spitter?

Still more questions regarding the Times' reporting on the incident were raised when Cpl. Sparling gave a different account from that in Mr. Urbina's article. Appearing on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, Cpl. Sparling claimed that he "did not" spit back at the protester, and that his comment as quoted in the Times -- "These are not Americans as far as I'm concerned" -- was meant "just for the vulgar people," not all protesters. Additionally, Cpl. Sparling offered additional details into the alleged incident: He claimed that there were actually several protesters who spat at him, and he gave a vague description of one of the alleged spitters -- presumably the one referred to in Mr. Urbina's article. Given Cpl. Sparling's additional statements, will the Times stand by its reporting? Does the Times have any additional details to add? Can the Times confirm or deny Cpl. Sparling's claims of several spitters?

These are important questions that require immediate attention. Since the Vietnam era, the myth of soldiers being spat at, which, while having been discredited, has been invoked repeatedly to tar anti-war protesters. In its account on the Sparling incident, the Times gives credibility to another purported incident -- and to the broader myth -- but without the indicia of solid, clear, and accurate reporting.

It is incumbent upon the Times to clarify its January 28 article, offer what details it can regarding Cpl. Sparling's allegations, and, if necessary, investigate the matter further.


David Brock
President & CEO
Media Matters for America

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