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The media fog of war

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By Michelle Malkin  •  November 27, 2006 02:00 PM

***4:30pm Eastern update: when it rains, it pours…here’s a third must-read from milblogger John Noonan raising questions about AP stringer Bassem Mroue…more from Lorie Byrd on media malpractice…***

***8:58pm Eastern update: more questions for the AP…see Allah and See-Dubya: “Who is Qais al-Bashir?”…more here…still no word from AP in response to my query this morning…***

***All of Curt’s latest updates here at the Flopping Aces back-up siteGateway Pundit has a round-up and chronology busting the Associated (w/t) Press for using bogus source Capt. Jamil Hussein…***

***11pm Eastern…yet another story challenged at Flopping Aces, with e-mail confirmation from CENTCOMsee Dan Riehl…Bruce Kesler, who has long diagnosed MSM stringeritis, weighs in…

One of the top stories over the Thanksgiving holiday came from the Associated (with terrorists) Press, which reported on six Sunni civilians burned alive as they left Friday worship services. The shocking dispatch received massive, global coverage:

burnedphilly.jpg
(Hat tip: Steve H.)

burning-sunnis.jpg

The conflict between Sunnis and Shias is 1,400 years old. But did the killings the AP alleges took place really happen? Look, there’s no denying blood is flowing in Iraq. But how much and whose and at whose hand? Self-appointed “spokesmen” in Iraq are skilled in the art of media manipulation. They–like many in the American media–have a vested interest in exaggerating the violence as much as possible.

Curt at Flopping Aces has one of two must-read posts on the unreliability of MSM war coverage relying on foreign stringers in Iraq. The claim of the burned-alive Sunnis comes from a single source, one Capt. Jamil Hussein. Be sure to read the official military press release, which notes that an Army patrol was “unable to confirm media reports that six Sunni civilians were allegedly dragged out of Friday prayers and burned to death. Neither Baghdad police nor Coalition forces have reports of any such incident.”

Also take note of an intriguing e-mail Curt received from someone identified as a CENTCOM staffer in response to his questions about Hussein:

Unfortunately, we do not have a direct contact into the MOI (Ministry of Interior) so we cannot provide you with that. We have to work through a CF organization called the CPATT (Coalition Police Assistance Training Team), an MNFI organization that seems to be made up of retired police officers.

Since September we have been engaging CPATT to verify the legitimacy and employment status of various MOI/IP spokesmen. Our contact at CPATT has been quite helpful, however, I know helping us is not his full-time job. Interestly, MOI has apparently issued an edict that no one below the level of Chief can speak to the media. We have reminded AP of this but without proof that these spokesman are not employees, they have pretty much ignored us. (If you were a reporter, would who give up a primo source because of rank? Probably not.)

I personally engaged CPATT about Capt. Jamil Hussein’s legitimacy within an hour of seeing the burning alive story — which we cannot verify from any source, but how do you prove a negative.

The staffer goes on to list a number of shady Ministry of Interior “spokesmen” quoted by the AP and other press whom the military is tracking and trying to verify.

Writes Curt: “Every name mentioned by Centcom has been quoted by the MSM for their stories. It’s dishonest reporting basically. They are relying on secondhand and sometimes thirdhand information to state a fact.”

It’s a habit that has produced decades of Theater of Jihad productions, from Pallywood to Fauxtography.

Which leads me to the second must-read post published over the Thanksgiving holidays from Patterico on a separate but related news item involving the Los Angeles Times and its possible reliance on unconfirmed enemy propaganda from an Iraqi stringer with ties to the insurgency. First, read this blog post at An Oar in the Water by Brian Duffy, who received an e-mail from a soldier disputing the LA Times’ Nov. 15 claim of an “airstrike in the restive town of Ramadi killed at least 30 people, including women and children.”

Now, read through Patterico’s thorough, methodical investigation. The key points:

* The soldier claimed that there were no airstrikes in Ramadi that day, while the L.A. Times stringer claimed there had been an airstrike. When I checked into it, the weight of the evidence indicated that the soldier was right and the L.A. Times was wrong.

The military flatly denies that there was an airstrike — a denial that the L.A. Times has failed to report to this day. Several other media reports state that civilians died from small-arms fire and tank fire, and not an airstrike.

* The soldier claimed that only insurgents were killed in the fighting, while the L.A. Times claimed that women and children were killed. Once again, the soldier’s claims appeared to be true, and the L.A. Times claim false.

Other than the L.A. Times report, there is no evidence that women or children were killed in the attack. The available evidence, including other media reports and information through a contact at a Ramadi hospital, indicates that the bodies brought into a Ramadi hospital were all adult males. This fact is suggestive of the possibility that those killed were insurgents, not innocent civilians.

* The soldier claimed: “No houses were destroyed and only one courtyard wall was damaged”; by contrast, the L.A. Times stringer claimed that “at least 15 homes were pulverized by aerial bombardment.” There are no media reports with reliable firsthand accounts of pulverized homes.

Indeed, I found only one story (published by Reuters) in which a journalist claims to have been on the scene to report observations of the damage firsthand, and he said: “One small structure was burnt out in that street.” Once again, the objective evidence seemed to favor the claims of the soldier.

I also learned that one of the doctors quoted in the L.A. Times story has been quoted in other stories over the years — always telling the media that the U.S. killed women, children, and innocent civilians. Apparently, this doctor has never seen a terrorist or insurgent killed by U.S. forces — or if he has, the media isn’t interested.

I learned one fact that didn’t gibe cleanly with the soldier’s account: most news reports, and my own independent investigation, tended to corroborate the allegation that 30+ people died in Ramadi that night. However, according to all accounts (excepting that provided by the “Times correspondent in Ramadi”), those killed were adult males, killed by fire from tanks — not women and children killed in an airstrike. The fact that 30+ people died, if true, does not necessarily demonstrate the soldier’s account is false. Rather, it suggests that he may have been unaware of the full extent of the carnage caused by the shelling from the tanks.

In the end, I was unable to determine whether the e-mailing soldier was correct when he claimed that the L.A. Times is relying on propaganda supplied by a stringer with ties to insurgents.

However, I can say this: the journalists at the L.A. Times 1) have utterly failed to report the full extent of the military’s side of the story; 2) very likely got some basic facts about the incident wrong; and 3) have done an extremely poor job of explaining the possible limitations on their knowledge — what I like to call “telling the reader what you don’t know as well as what you do know.”

In addition, after talking with numerous sources who are knowledgeable about Iraq, I came away depressed about the poor quality of information we are getting out of that country. Embedded writers and bloggers like Bill Roggio, Michael Yon, Michael Fumento, and Bill Ardolino will continue to be absolutely critical to understanding what is going on in Iraq, and I encourage you to support embedded bloggers as much as possible.

Milbloggers are weighing in on the Times’ flawed story here and here. See-Dubya ties the Times and AP stories together:

In both stories, the worst scenario is that the Western press is negligently or carelessly (I’m not ready to believe knowingly) passing along terrorist propaganda disguised as news. But even the best case scenario in each one involves some notable journalistic malfeasance. With Patterico, the LA Times story quite clearly refused to include CENTCOM’s denial that the Ramadi airstrike ever happened. At FA, an e-mail from a CENTCOM media guy explains that the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior has recently cracked down on unofficial spokesmen within the national police, and that no one below the rank of Chief may speak with the media.

I have contacted the Associated Press for a response to Curt’s post and to the CENTCOM staffer’s e-mails. I’ll update with any response.

What sayeth the LA Times? Contact the reader rep here.

While bloggers and a few mainstream journalists questioning sloppy war coverage (see Neil Munro’s devastating piece in the National Journal) continue to try and hold the MSM accountable, what are media watchdogs whose job it is to police the industry doing?

Churning out pabulum like this, defending the use of dubious Iraqi stringers with terrorist ties.

Journalists in the legacy press are too busy trying to write the Bush administration’s obituary to notice that they are writing their own.

MSM credibility, R.I.P.

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