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Questioning Reports Out Of Iraq

(Getty Images/Wathiq Khuzaie)
A number of right-leaning bloggers are criticizing the Associated Press for a pair of stories from Iraq. The first story, a version of which ran on CBSNews.com, stated that suspected members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia "grabbed six Sunnis as they left Friday worship services, doused them with kerosene and burned them alive near Iraqi soldiers who did not intervene." The source for the story was police Capt. Jamil Hussein. CENTCOM has issued a press release disputing the legitimacy of the source and the story, and asking for a retraction or correction if the organization does not have "a credible source."

From the press release: "We at Multi-National Corps - Iraq made it known through MNC-I Press Release Number 20061125-09 and our conversations with your reporters that neither we nor Baghdad Police had any reports of such an incident after investigating it and could find no one to corroborate the story. A couple of hours ago, we learned something else very important. We can tell you definitively that the primary source of this story, police Capt. Jamil Hussein, is not a Baghdad police officer or an MOI employee." Hussein has been cited in other stories about atrocities as well; this blog, Flopping Aces, has more.

Today, the righty blogs are also criticizing this piece, which includes the following passage:

Separately, police and witnesses said U.S. soldiers shot and killed 11 civilians and wounded five on Sunday night in the Baghdad suburb of Husseiniya. The U.S. military said it had no record of any American military operation in the area.

"We were sitting inside our house when the Americans showed up and started firing at homes. They killed many people and burned some houses," said one of the witnesses, a man with bandages on his head who was being treated at Imam Ali Hospital in the Shiite slum of Sadr City. The police and witnesses spoke with Associated Press Television News on condition of anonymity to protect their own security.

Writes Riehl World View: " The military denies any operation in the area, still the AP feels compelled to print this trash from sources who won't even identify themselves?" CENTCOM claims "Anti-Iraqi Forces opened fire, targeting civilians in the al-Husseiniya area….There was no Coalition involvement."

These posts have been given headers like "It's Official: Media Body Burning Story is Bogus." The stories, along with one from the Los Angeles Times, are being used as further evidence that, in the words of the Anchoress, "The press has done everything else it possibly could to undermine our troops and the president, since 2003." She goes on to question whether such reporting has increased the likelihood that American troops will be killed. "I wonder how many of our troops are being further endangered by the fakery we're discovering here? I wonder how many of their deaths in the coming weeks will be due to this sort of stuff?" Writes Michelle Malkin, in a post in which she refers to "the Associated (with terrorists) Press": "…we cannot trust third-hand accounts from shady 'spokesmen' funneled through dubious foreign stringers working for the terrorist-sympathizing, anti-Bush press to give us the straight scoop."

It's important to remember that we don't actually yet know if the AP's stories are "bogus." They may well be. They may not. Reporters face unique challenges in a war, and it's worthwhile to question the way they operate in Iraq, on everything from the necessary-but-risky use of stringers to the reliance on named and anonymous sources that may not be trustworthy. But because of their instinctive distrust of the mainstream media, some bloggers have drawn conclusions that, at this point, strike me as premature.

The press has an incentive to report on the sensational, which is why a reporter might put some degree of trust in a dubious source. But it also needs to maintain its credibility, and it's not in the AP's interest to run stories it does not believe to be true. News organizations do sometimes get this stuff wrong, and they should be held to account when they do. But most of the time they get it right, which is no small feat when covering a war. It's important, when looking at a situation like this, to take a step back and try to look objectively at all the facts, even the ones that don't fit our preconceived notions. The blogs deserve credit for raising this issue. Now it's time to get to the bottom of it.

UPDATE: USA Today got a comment from AP International Editor John Daniszewski, who writes that the "attempt to question the existence of the known police officer who spoke to the AP is frankly ludicrous and hints at a certain level of desperation to dispute or suppress the facts of the incident in question." He also writes that the AP stands by its story, and that "we have conducted a thorough review of the sourcing and reporting involved and plan to move a more detailed report about the entire incident soon, with greater detail provided by multiple eye witnesses."

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