YORK - March 25 - A lack of skepticism toward official U.S. sources
has already led prominent American journalists into embarrassing
errors in their coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, particularly
in relation to claims that proof had been found that Iraq possesses
20, the second day of the invasion, U.S. military sources initially
described missiles launched by Iraq as "Scuds"-- the
U.S. name for a Soviet-made missile used by Iraq during the
Gulf War. They exceed the range limits imposed on Iraqi weapons
by the 1991 ceasefire agreement.
reporters appropriately sourced the Scud reports to military
officials, and cautioned their audience about the uncertainty
of the identification, others rushed to report claims as facts.
NBC's Matt Lauer's report was definitive: "We understand
they have fired three missiles. One of those was a Scud missile.
It was destroyed by a Patriot missile battery as it headed toward
Tim Russert was similarly certain, saying, "Because of
last night's activity, clearly the Iraqis are now trying to
respond with at least one Scud fired at the troops mapped on
the border of Kuwait and Iraq." Fellow NBC anchor Brian
Williams added, "We learned one Scud had been intercepted,
but two missiles had made it to Kuwaiti soil."
On NPR that
day, anchor Bob Edwards was equally sure about what happened:
"Iraq this morning launched Scud missiles at Kuwait in
retaliation for the American strike on Baghdad a few hours earlier."
Correspondent Mike Shuster helpfully pointed out that "these
Scuds are banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions and
have a range of up to 400 miles."
Koppel, "embedded" with an infantry division, reported
matter-of-factly that "there were two Scud missiles that
came in. One was intercepted by a patriot missile." ABC
anchor Derek McGinty had earlier explained that "there
was a Scud attack, one Scud fired from Basra into Kuwait. It
was intercepted by an American patriot battery, and apparently
knocked out of the sky. There is still no word exactly what
was on that Scud, whether or not there might have been any sort
of unconventional weaponry onboard."
Channel's William La Jeunesse was not only asserting that a
Scud had been launched, but was drawing conclusions about its
significance: "Now, Iraq is not supposed to have Scuds
because they have a range of 175 up to 400 miles. The limit
by the U.N., of course, is like 95 miles. So, we already know
they have something they're not supposed to have."
As the day
went on, however, the Pentagon was less definitive about what
kind of missile Iraq was using, prompting some journalists to
back off the story. Associated Press reported on March 22 that
"Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the vice director of operations
for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference
that the Iraqis have not fired any Scuds and that U.S. forces
searching airfields in the far western desert of Iraq have uncovered
no missiles or launchers."
the next day, columnist Peter Bronson (Cincinnati Enquirer,
3/23/03) was still writing, "The Scuds he swore he did
not have were fired at Kuwait, and Iraq was launching lame denials
while the craters still smoked." Apparently the corrections
of the earlier, incorrect reports had not reached even all of
those whose job it is to follow the news.
were also embarrassed on March 23 by an evaporating story about
a "chemical facility" near the town of Najaf, Iraq,
that was touted by U.S. military officials as a possible smoking
gun to prove disputed claims about Saddam Hussein possessing
banned chemical weapons. While journalists were not typically
as credulous of this claim as they were with the Scud story,
and generally remembered to attribute it to military sources,
accounts still tended to be breathless and to extrapolate wildly
from an unconfirmed report.
McWethy promoted the story with this report: "Amidst all
the fighting, one important new discovery: U.S. officials say,
up the road from Nasarijah, in a town called Najaf, they believe
that they have captured a chemical weapons plant and perhaps
more important, the commanding general of that facility. One
U.S. official said he is a potential 'gold mine' about the weapons
Saddam Hussein says he doesn't have."
Brokaw described the story thusly: "Word tonight that U.S.
forces may have found what U.N. inspectors spent months searching
for, a facility suspected to be a chemical weapons plant, uncovered
by ground troops on the way north to Baghdad." NBC Pentagon
correspondent Jim Miklaszewski added what seemed to be corroborating
details: "This huge chemical complex... was constructed
of sand-casted walls, in other words, meant to camouflage its
appearance to blend in with the desert. Once inside, the soldiers
found huge amounts of chemicals, stored chemicals. They apparently
found no chemical weapons themselves, and now military officials
here at the Pentagon say they have yet to determine exactly
what these chemicals are or how they could have been used in
Channel, less cautious than some of its competitors, treated
the report of a chemical weapons factory as fact in a series
of onscreen banners like "Huge Chemical Weapons Factory
Found in So. Iraq."
outlets also hyped the story the next day, as when the Philadelphia
Daily News (10/24/03) reported it as the "biggest find
of the Iraq war" and "a reversal of fortune for American
and British forces at the end of the war's most discouraging
As it turned
out, however, the "discovery" seemed to be neither
a big find nor a reversal of fortune, but simply a false alarm,
and TV reporters began changing their stories. The Dow Jones
news service reported (3/24/03), "U.S. officials said Monday
that no chemical weapons were found at a suspected site at Najaf
in central Iraq, U.S. television networks reported. NBC News
reported from the Pentagon that no chemicals at all were found
at the site. CNN, also reporting from the Pentagon, said officials
now believe the plant there was abandoned long ago by the Iraqis."
On March 25, the New York Times reported that "suggestions
on Sunday that a chemical plant in Najaf might be a weapons
site have turned out to be false."
journalists are generally quick to caution readers, when describing
an allegation made by Iraq, that the information "could
not be independently confirmed." The fact is that information
provided by any government should be treated with skepticism;
reporters might try extending their critical approach to the
U.S. military's statements.
Write to the leading broadcast and cable TV news outlets and
urge them to be skeptical when relaying information from either
side in this war.
please remember that your comments are taken more seriously
if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc firstname.lastname@example.org
with your correspondence.