On April 7, InsideDefense.com reporter Jason Sherman produced a sensational story on cost growth in the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program titled, “Exclusive: DoD Warns Congress JSF Costs Could Skyrocket To $388 Billion By Summer.” It was the latest in a series of reports Sherman has generated from his distant listening post in New York City detailing what he describes as a rapid deterioration in the health of the F-35 joint strike fighter program. The story got some attention because it was picked up by the Pentagon’s in-house clipping service, but almost none of Sherman’s journalistic competitors chased it, because defense department spokespeople quickly dismissed it as being based on “shaky math.” In other words, the story was wrong.
It isn’t hard to see why it might be wrong. The F-35 effort has encountered no major design or engineering problems in recent years, and is progressing more smoothly than previous fighter development efforts despite being considerably more complicated. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin expects that the price it will charge customers in the U.S. and abroad for the Air Force version of the plane (the most common version) will be roughly the same as it charges for the latest variant of the venerable F-16 fighter, or about as much as Boeing charges for an F/A-18 Super Hornet. It’s true the program is running a little late — about 13 months on the development side, and six months on the production side — but the notion that this would lead to the kind of cost escalation Sherman describes seems wildly improbable.
Of course, long-term cost projections are always based on unprovable assumptions, not only about program performance but also inflation, production rates and other factors that influence pricing. In the case of Sherman’s reporting, though, something else appears to be going on. One of his competitors describes the April 7 story as “dishonest reporting,” suggesting that “somebody walked him through the math” in the latest version of the Pentagon’s F-35 Selected Acquisition Report to arrive at a conclusion that isn’t actually supported by the document. This reporter says that Sherman’s story failed to “lay out the extrapolations” on which his sensational headline was based, which presumably is why department spokesperson Brian Whitman told a gaggle of reporters the story was based on “fuzzy math.” So it appears that the story reflects the agenda of some person or faction within the Pentagon trying to discredit the program, an impression that is reinforced by the failure of Sherman’s story to report other, less negative interpretations of the data.
Reporters often get into such situations when they are covering beats remotely and only have a handful of useful sources. There’s a tendency to write the story the way the source wants to see it, for fear that the source might go away if you don’t. But at some point, the one-sidedness of the reporting that results begins to raise questions about journalistic ethics, and now other reporters are starting to raise red flags. This is a sore point with me because for years people have been casting aspersions at whatever I write about the F-35 simply because I am a consultant to Lockheed. However, I also advise many of Lockheed’s competitors, and it’s ridiculous to believe that the New York Times or Reuters would keep calling me if I was producing biased, misleading material. We are all under constant pressure to stick with the facts in order to maintain our credibility. So it isn’t surprising that other journalists complain when they see that a reporter is only reflecting one point of view in an important debate.