Friday, December 01, 2006

Government stenographers vs. journalists

The right-wing blogosphere is still whipping up a froth over the the Associated Press' reportage on the immolations of six Sunnis last week in Iraq. What's especially noteworthy about this is their selective credulousness -- especially considering that some of them claim either to be journalists themselves or knowledgeable stewards of journalistic standards.

Military authorities on Thursday went on the offensive, claiming that there is no police captain by the name -- Jamil Hussein -- given by the AP reports. Michelle Malkin typed up the details provided by the military press office:
BG Abdul-Kareem, the Ministry of Interior Spokesman, went on the record today stating that Capt. Jamil Hussein is not a police officer. He explained the coordinations among MOI, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Defense in attempting to track down these bodies and their joint conclusion was that this was unsubstantiated rumor.

He went on to name several other false sources that have been used recently and appealed to the media to document their news before reporting. He went into some detail about the impact of the press carrying propaganda for the enemies of Iraq and thanked "the friends" who have brought this to their attention.

AP did attend the press conference.

Of course, Malkin considers all this further evidence of "reckless" reporting by the AP, though of course she has never been an on-the-ground reporter -- or editor -- herself. And like all the other would-be media critics in this matter, her eagerness to parrot the government line in this case is noteworthy -- especially since they all are notably skeptical of the government when it suits their own agendas.

But as this case demonstrates, defending an increasingly indefensible war boils down to accusing the press reporting on the disaster of treasonous behavior, including running false reports that amount to "carrying propaganda for the enemies of Iraq." Even if it's the military authorities doing so -- and right-wing bloggers taking their reports at face value -- without a trace of irony.

The basic attitude was voiced by Hindrocket at Powerline:
I have infinitely more faith in the U.S. military than in the Associated Press, but that doesn't mean the military is always right or the AP always wrong. It seems that the AP believes it is in a strong position. I'm tempted to say that one institution or the other must emerge from this affair with its credibility damaged.

In cases like this, the truth always will out, even if it is then often conveniently forgotten by those who are proven wrong. Certainly, it is possible -- as the right-wing commenters at Tom Zeller's NYT blog avidly ascertained -- that Hussein "is in fact a fraud, and never existed," though it is far more unlikely than people working outside of journalism might assume.

On the other hand, consider the AP's own reportage: After questions about Hussein arose, their reporters -- who had dealt with him several times over the years in his official capacity at a local police station -- found three more independent witnesses who confirmed the immolations.

The AP had its own response to the military's claims, as E&P reported:
Today brought the Baghdad press conference and the Iraqi official, Brig. Gen. Abdu-Karim Khalaf, charging that Capt. Hussein was not a Baghdad police officer -- and denounding media reports based on unconfirmed sources and what he said were mere rumors. Carroll then responded with her statement.

After stating that AP was "satisfied" with its reporting, she continued: "AP journalists have repeatedly been to the Hurriyah neighborhood, a small Sunni enclave within a larger Shiia area of Baghdad. Residents there have told us in detail about the attack on the mosque and that six people were burned alive during it. Images taken later that day and again this week show a burned mosque and graffiti that says 'blood wanted,' similar to that found on the homes of Iraqis driven out of neighborhoods where they are a minority. We have also spoken repeatedly to a police captain who is known to AP and has been a reliable source of accurate information in the past and he has confirmed the attack.

"By contrast, the U.S. military and Iraqi government spokesmen attack our reporting because that captain's name is not on their list of authorized spokespeople. Their implication that we may have given money to the captain is false. The AP does not pay for information. Period.

"Further, the Iraqi spokesman said today that reporting on the such atrocities 'shows that the security situation is worse than it really is.' He is speaking from a capital city where dozens of bodies are discovered every day showing signs of terrible torture. Where people are gunned down in their cars, dragged from their homes or blown apart in public places every single day.

"At the end of the day, we have AP journalists with reporting and images from the actual neighborhood versus official spokesmen saying the story cannot be true because it is damaging and because one of the sources is not on a list of people approved to talk to the press. Good reporting relies on more than government-approved sources.

"We stand behind our reporting."

The AP is hardly a perfect institution; it makes mistakes like anyone else. It is also famously stodgy and deferential to institutional power, which makes it less likely to commit fraud on the scale that these critics claim. Their track record, especially in recent years, has been solid, particularly on the ground in Iraq.

This is in direct contradistinction from the track record of American military authorities in Iraq.

Remember the toppling of the Saddam statue? You know, the one that was faked for American media consumption?
As the Iraqi regime was collapsing on April 9, 2003, Marines converged on Firdos Square in central Baghdad, site of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. It was a Marine colonel — not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV images — who decided to topple the statue, the Army report said. And it was a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking.

After the colonel — who was not named in the report — selected the statue as a "target of opportunity," the psychological team used loudspeakers to encourage Iraqi civilians to assist, according to an account by a unit member.

But Marines had draped an American flag over the statue's face.

"God bless them, but we were thinking … that this was just bad news," the member of the psychological unit said. "We didn't want to look like an occupation force, and some of the Iraqis were saying, 'No, we want an Iraqi flag!' "

Someone produced an Iraqi flag, and a sergeant in the psychological operations unit quickly replaced the American flag.

Or how about Jessica Lynch?
Some time after Lynch's rescue, several sources alleged the story of Lynch's rescue was distorted and exaggerated by the United States government in an effort to undercut public resistance to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iraqi doctors at the hospital in question claimed Lynch was well cared for by hospital personnel and virtually unguarded at the time that she was rescued by American forces; rather, Lynch's "rescue" was a publicity stunt that was staged, and the subsequent news reports were carefully controlled propaganda, drawing on the captivity narrative genre. Though Pentagon statements claimed that Lynch emptied her rifle fighting off her attackers, later reports and Lynch herself indicated that this was not the case; in fact her rifle jammed on the first round and she did not offer any resistance to her capture. The story is now believed to have stemmed from the mistranslation of an intercepted Iraqi message which referred to one of her male fellow soldiers.

Amended reports by The Washington Post, which initially reported dramatic stories of Lynch's ordeal, indicated that U.S. officials made no attempt to downplay exaggerated or incorrect reports in the media. The dramatic rescue, with heavy force ready for an unknown situation, was videotaped at the request of military public affairs, who knew this would be a popular story. Iraqi doctors caring for Lynch told reporters that they gave Lynch the best care possible while she was kept at the hospital, and that they often bought juice that she asked for using their own money. They also said that they were not only frightened by the dramatic way US forces held them at gunpoint during the rescue, but that the forces also slashed the special sand bed that Lynch was given, the only such bed in the hospital (designed to prevent bed sores for patients suffering from serious burns) before sweeping out again. During the "raid", twelve doors were also kicked in and damaged, and a sterilized operating theatre was contaminated. No reports that the Iraqi hospital would be compensated for the damage were ever published. Doctors also claimed that Iraqi soldiers had left the hospital the morning before the rescue.

... She denied the claims that she fought until being wounded, reporting that her weapon jammed immediately, and that she could not have done anything anyway. Interviewed with Diane Sawyer, Lynch stated, concerning the Pentagon: "They used me to symbolize all this stuff. It's wrong. I don't know why they filmed [my rescue] or why they say these things". She also stated "I did not shoot, not a round, nothing. I went down praying to my knees. And that's the last I remember." She reported excellent treatment in Iraq, and that one person in the hospital even sang to her to help her feel at home.

And then there was Fallujah:
What the US said

Napalm/Mark 77s

The Pentagon denied reports it had used napalm, saying it had last used the weapon in 1993 and destroyed its last batch in 2001. "We don't even have that in our arsenal."

Cluster bombs

General Richard Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said coalition forces dropped nearly 1,500 cluster bombs during the war and only 26 fell within 1,500ft of civilian areas.

White Phosphorus

"[WP was used] very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination. They were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters." US State Department

How the US came clean

Napalm/Mark 77s

It took five months for the US to admit its marines had used Mk 77 firebombs (a close relative of napalm) in the invasion. The Pentagon said their functions were "remarkably similar".

Cluster bombs

General Myers admitted: "In some cases, we hit those targets knowing there would be a chance of collateral damage." It was "unfortunate" that "we had to make these choices".

White Phosphorus

Pentagon spokesman Lt-Col Barry Venable said this week that WP had been used, "to fire at the enemy" in Iraq. "It burns... it's an incendiary weapon. That is what it does."

And let's not forget the case of Pat Tillman:
A report described in the Washington Post on May 4, 2005 (prepared upon the request of Tillman's family) by Brig. Gen. Gary M. Jones revealed that in the days immediately following Tillman's death, U.S. Army investigators were aware that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, shot three times to the head. Jones reported that senior Army commanders, including Gen. John Abizaid, knew of this fact within days of the shooting but nevertheless approved the awarding of the Silver Star, Purple Heart, and a posthumous promotion. The citation report accompanying these awards said that Tillman was killed by enemy forces and contained a detailed account of the alleged battle which Army leadership knew had never taken place.

Jones reported that members of Tillman's unit burned his body armor and uniform in an apparent attempt to hide the fact that he was killed by friendly fire. Several soldiers were subsequently punished for their actions by being removed from their Ranger unit. Jones believed that Tillman should retain his medals and promotion, since he intended to engage the enemy and, in Jones's opinion, behaved heroically.

Tillman's family was not informed of the finding that he was killed by friendly fire until weeks after his memorial service, although at least some senior Army officers knew of that fact prior to the service. Tillman's parents have sharply criticized the Army's handling of the incident; they charge that the Army was more concerned about protecting its image and its recruiting efforts than about telling the truth.

His mother Mary Tillman told the Washington Post, "The fact that he was the ultimate team player and he watched his own men kill him is absolutely heartbreaking and tragic. The fact that they lied about it afterward is disgusting." Tillman's father, Patrick Tillman, Sr., was incensed by the coverup of the cause of his son's death, which he attributed to a conscious decision by the leadership of the U.S. Army to protect the Army's image:

"After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this. They purposely interfered with the investigation; they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy."

He also blamed high-ranking Army officers for presenting "outright lies" to the family and to the public.

And then there were the killings at Haditha:
On November 20, 2005 a Marine press release from Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi said the deaths of the civilians was a consequence of a road side bomb and Iraqi insurgents. The initial US military statement read:

A US marine and 15 civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another.

Soon after the killings, the mayor of Haditha, Emad Jawad Hamza, led an angry delegation of elders up to the Haditha Dam Marine base allegedly complaining to the base captain.

Marines paid a total of $38,000 to families of 15 of the civilians killed. [8]

... On February 14, 2006, a preliminary investigation was ordered by Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, after video evidence was released, which conflicted with the initial US report. On March 9 a criminal investigation was launched, led by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, to determine if the troops deliberately targeted Iraqi civilians.

On March 19, the US military officials confirmed that contrary to the initial report, 15 civilians were accidentally killed due to the US marines and not Iraqi insurgents.

... As of June 2, 2006, news outlets had reported that 24 Iraqis were killed, none as a result of the bomb explosion. The news comes in anticipation of the results of the military's investigation, which is said to find that the 24 unarmed Iraqis—including children as young as two years and women—were killed by 12 members of Kilo Company in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

Of course, Malkin dismissed the original reporting on Haditha as so much "hyperventilation" and attacked "the leakers," and when her story collapsed, she still managed to blame those dirty liberals. Powerline blamed Jack Murtha.

The cold reality, backed up by case after case, is that the information being released by the American military in Iraq for the duration of this misbegotten war has been not merely PR on steroids, but a psy ops operation targeting the Iraqi population only tangentially. Its chief target all along has been the American public.

The first people to come into conflict with such operatations have always been journalists, particularly those trying honestly to do their jobs. This has always been the case, and will always be so.

What's new in the mix is all the Cheetos-stained wretches back home whose "independence" leads them to swallow whole the story offered by government authorities with a proven track record of propagating false information.

And here we thought stenography was a problem with the press corps. It's got nothing on the right-wing blogosphere.

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