Jonn Lilyea got some interesting e-mails earlier this week. A couple of his readers of his Web site had heard a “Marketplace” story about a former Army sniper who was struggling in this bad economy. “Both heard it commuting,” says Lilyea, and when they got home, they sat down and pinged Lilyea with links to the piece.
Those links were not endorsements. Quite the contrary.
Lilyea, a 56-year-old retired U.S. Army sergeant, runs a Web site — This Ain’t Hell — that exposes the distinct American species that falsely claims to have served in the U.S. military. The site has cultivated a community of sleuths who tip off Lilyea whenever the media surfaces some fellow with a tale that just doesn’t sound right.
Such was the case with the “Marketplace” story, a first-person testimonial from Leo Webb, who in a short segment managed to claim 17 kills as an Army sniper, a spell in the Chicago Cubs’ farm system, and a moment in which he witnessed a killing outside a Rite-Aid pharmacy. “When one of these phonies pops up, [his sleuths] start looking for e-mail addresses and phone numbers and start hammering them,” says Lilyea, who lives in West Virginia. “My readers are a vocal bunch.”
After getting the tip, Lilyea posted a screenshot of the “Marketplace” piece on his site, plus some analysis pointing to the flimsiness of the story. Un-SEO headline: “Smells like BS.”
The next day, one of Lilyea’s readers sent an e-mail to an editor at San Francisco radio station KQED, which had originated the Webb story. According to This Ain’t Hell, this is the response that came back:
Mr. Webb has been subsequently placed in a VA live-in care facility specializing in PTSD so I’m unable to seek his response to your comment at this time.
It wasn’t long before both KQED and “Marketplace” were issuing retractions. Here’s “Marketplace’s” version:
Editor’s Note: A commentary by Leo Webb, ”Returning veteran has few marketable skills,” prompted questions from listeners about Webb’s account of his service as an Army sniper in Iraq. A subsequent investigation found that the Army has no record of Webb. Webb also said he pitched for a Chicago Cubs minor-league team. Inquiries to the Cubs and to Minor League Baseball found no record of Webb. Marketplace has an obligation to provide accurate information. That was not met in this commentary. It has been retracted and the text and audio have been removed from the web site.
Lilyea says he’s “85 to 90 percent sure” that it was his readers who forced the retractions. To confirm the claim, this blog has reached out to American Public Media (home of “Marketplace”) and to KQED and is awaiting responses.
In the meantime, Lilyea will wait for the next faker to emerge. When he launched This Ain’t Hell six years ago, he focused on Iraq war opponents who lied about having served in the military. The Internet, however, insisted that he cast a wider net. “My readers decided I should out phonies everywhere,” says Lilyea. “They’re the ones who click my ads and get my income in, so I go where they send me.”