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[casi] Fwd: Lack of Skepticism Leads to Poor Reporting on Iraq Weapons Claims


March 25, 2003

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 banned weapons.

On March 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.

While some 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 Kuwait."

His colleague 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."

ABC's Ted 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."

Fox News 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."

Even so, 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.

Reporters 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.

ABC's John 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

NBC's Tom 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 weapons."

Fox News 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."

Some print 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 day."

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."

U.S.-based 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.

ACTION: Write to the leading broadcast and cable TV news outlets and urge
them to be skeptical when relaying information from either side in this

NBC Nightly News
Phone: 212-664-4971

Fox News Channel
Phone: 1-888-369-4762

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