Sunday, July 01, 2007

A candidate for the Green Helmet Award?

This story comes via Confederate Yankee, a consistently interesting blog and, I have to add, comments that often take the story forward. The background to this is a Reuters report that the number of civilian casualties in Iraq fell sharply in June, causing U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver to say that he was cautiously optimistic.

Not everyone likes even cautious optimism and certain sections of the drive-by media prefer to produce stories of sectarian atrocities. Well, so what, you might say. The media lives by sensationalism and if that sensationalism involves a story of twenty people being decapitated in a village, so be it.

The trouble arises, as we know, when the story is unsubstantiated and the source is a highly unreliable one. This is how Confederate Yankee describes the beginning:
The Associated Press, Reuters, and a small Iraqi Independent news agency called Voice of Iraq released stories Thursday about the massacre of 20 men near Salman Pak, who were supposedly found decapitated on the banks of the Tigris River.

But something seemed inherently wrong with the accounts I read from the Associated Press. The only two sources for the Associated Press article were anonymous police, not located in Salman Pak, but from Baghdad (more than dozen miles away) and Kut (more than 75 miles away).

Because of this odd sourcing, I asked Multi-National Corps-Iraq and the PAO liaison to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior to investigate.
He discussed the story in an earlier posting adding rather acerbically:
I'm not Associated Press reporter Sinan Salheddin, nor am I Kim Gamel, AP's Baghdad news editor, but if I was investigating a story about a 20-corpse mass murder in—let's say, Manhattan—then I'd try to find a local police officer at the scene to interview about the case.

I wouldn't rely on a desk sergeant in Staten Island who merely heard reports of other officers being dispatched to check to see if there was such a crime, nor would I rely on a beat cop in Albany who is only reporting rumors of what he heard from friends of relatives in Queens.

But the Associated Press didn't rely on the local police. Instead, they blatantly presented hearsay as the truth, and as a result, ran a story about a brutal massacre that currently appears to have never taken place.
This is not the first time that Associated Press, for one, produced stories, whose source was dubious to put it mildly, that all pointed in one direction – horrific mass murders in Iraq.

For a while the investigations produced no results and I mean just that. The headless bodies could not be found and neither could any witnesses to the atrocity.

Yesterday the Multi-National Force Iraq (MNFI) published a rebuttal, which included the following:
Anti-Iraqi Forces are known for purposely providing false information to the media to incite violence and revenge killings, and they may well have been the source of this misinformation.

“Extremists promote falsehoods of mass killings, collateral damage and other violence specifically to turn Iraqis against other Iraqis,” said Rear Admiral Mark Fox, spokesperson for MNF-I. “Unfortunately, lies are much easier to state, the truth often takes time to prove,” said Fox.

Not all media reports can be immediately substantiated by Government of Iraq or Coalition Forces. They must go through a process to verify such claims, to include checking with various Iraqi Ministry’s, local police and security forces. Meanwhile, extremists have achieved their goal of spreading false information aimed at intimidating civilians and destabilizing Iraqi security.
Fair enough but have we not been told endlessly that the MSM differs from those pesky bloggers and, of course, from the military authorities in that it tries to substantiate all its stories, checks and double checks and there is no supporting evidence, says so? So we have, so we have.

What has happened since? Well, AFP that for reasons unknown managed not to carry the story gloated. Both Reuters (who managed to report that there were more than one thousand peace demonstrators near Kennenbunkport ahead of the Bush – Putin meeting) and AP have now produced a different headline: “Iraq: US military says reports of beheaded bodies were false”.
On Thursday, many Iraqi and international media outlets aired news of the bodies, quoting unnamed Iraqi police. The decapitated bodies had allegedly turned up on the banks of the Tigris River near Salman Pak, 24 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of Baghdad.

Iraqi police officers frequently talk to media only on condition of anonymity, because of security concerns.

At the time, the Interior Ministry tried to send troops to the area to confirm the discovery, but the visit was called off because the area was too dangerous.
Reuters added a rather plaintive paragraph, which oddly enough did not appear in the original story that had showed absolute certainty in the truth of the story with no suggestion that it had not been verified.

Verifying reports in Iraq is very hard for journalists, who have been systematically targeted by different militant groups and rely extensively on local sources for information.
So the story was given by somebody who was nowhere near the scene of action and refused to give his name or explain who he was. It could not be confirmed because the situation in the area is dangerous but it was published anyway. Terrific.


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