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The AP Dustup: What Does It Mean?

It has been fascinating to follow the brouhaha over an Associated Press report stating that suspected members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia had burned six Sunnis alive as they were leaving worship services in Baghdad. Bloggers questioned the veracity of the story and its primary source, police Capt. Jamil Hussein, and CENTCOM released a press release saying that the story could not be corroborated and that Hussein is not a real Baghdad police officer. Then the AP hit back, releasing a statement from International Editor John Daniszewski arguing 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." The AP then re-reported the story and put out a follow-up story, with new, albeit anonymous, eyewitness reports of the attack.

And that wasn't the end of it. The AP suggested that the government and bloggers were pushing their criticism even though they didn't have the goods to back it up. (The Pentagon has a new press strategy reminiscent of one that might be found in a presidential campaign.) A spokesman for the Iraqi interior minister maintained that the alleged incident was a "rumor," and that the ministry "found nothing" after investigating to make it believe otherwise. AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll stated that "[w]e are satisfied with our reporting on this incident. If Iraqi and U.S. military spokesmen choose to disregard AP's on-the-ground reporting, that is certainly their choice to make, but it is a puzzling one given the facts." The Iraqi Interior Ministry said it was forming a unit to monitor news coverage and take "legal action" against journalists responsible for stories the ministry deemed incorrect. And the blogs raged on.

Despite the fact that all this back and forth has not yet yielded any concrete answers, this is a debate worth having. As Tom Zeller Jr. wrote in today's New York Times, "[i]t is important to find out if this really happened in order to separate the hyperbole from the merely horrible in Iraq, so that the horrible will still have meaning. Otherwise it will all become din." And what happened isn't the only issue, as the incident has revealed something about both those defending the AP and those attacking it. Here's Zeller's conclusion:

It is also true that the institution conducting America's multibillion gamble in Iraq — the military — says that this standout of atrocities never happened, while a venerable, trusted news agency has twice interviewed witnesses who said, in extensive, vivid detail, that it did.

That is not just a curiosity. It is a limbo that leaves [the alleged incident in the Baghdad neighborhood of] Hurriyah open for use as a political plaything, to confirm deep-seated beliefs about the media, or to give Iraqi ministers rhetorical fuel to threaten reporters.

Whatever the agenda of the bloggers most interested in debunking the article, it somehow seems important to figure out why this incident — in the face of all the killings in Iraq — remains in such dispute.

Largely proving his point, bloggers greeted Zeller's fairly even-handed piece as an attack on them, one that provides yet more evidence of the "msm's" close-ranks mentality. (Just as they'll surely see my post as more of the same.) They are writing as though it's obvious that the AP was either duped or made the whole thing up, when in fact the truth is not at all clear. At the same time, it's safe to say that most journalists – though they aren't writing as much – believe that the AP more or less has its facts straight.

In the end, where you stand on this one comes down to who you have faith in. Conservative bloggers tend to believe the military over a press corps that they feel is unworthy of their trust. Journalists, who are inherently distrustful of power, tend to trust their colleagues over the military. In an ideal world, both sides could put aside their prejudices and look objectively at the facts. Bloggers too often let their outrage cloud their judgment, and journalists can be too quick to dismiss criticism. The sooner both sides acknowledge as much, the better. But judging from how this one has played out, I'm not holding my breath.