I have to confess to being a a little underwhelmed by the AP story of burning mosques and burning Sunnis. Not that I don’t believe the story is important or that the work done by several bloggers hasn’t been outstanding.
It’s just that we’ve been down this road before many times. Conservatives have been questioning the facts about news stories coming out of Iraq for more than 3 years. We questioned stories from the Israeli-Hizbullah war last summer. We have known about the disinformation, the enemy plants, the outrageous bias of the international wire services AP, AFP, Reuters, as well as the BBC.
We have seen photos doctored, stories embellished or faked outright. Anyone remember the “chemical weapon attack” on Fallujah? We have seen civilian body counts inflated and stories of how they died swallowed whole by a press who would rather believe enemy propaganda than their own military; a press who suspends belief when given information that reflects poorly on the American military but insists on triple confirmations before they publish a retraction – if they ever bother.
And they don’t bother. The burning Sunnis were last week’s news, already forgotten in the rush of events. Bush and Maliki. The Iraq Study Group. Obama, Obama, Obama.
In their smug, self righteous little cocoons, the AP and others continue the process of making sausages out of the news. The burning Sunnis were just one mind-numbing atrocity in a Flanders Field of atrocities so who really, really cares down deep if we blew it? Just put up the old firewall of denial, do a cursory follow up by finding some “eyewitnesses” (who probably read about the burning Sunnis in the paper or saw the report on TV), neglect to mention our little police captain problem and that’ll do it. End of story.
AP can do this because ultimately, we are not their clients. Unlike newspapers or TV networks, the AP could give a hoot about the people who actually end up reading their enemy propaganda. The people who pay them are, of course, the newspapers and TV stations that subscribe to their service.
And what does that say then about all of those media outlets who carried this story? Curt at Flopping Aces was able to raise numerous questions about the truth of the burning Sunnis story after a couple of hours of research using nothing more than some common sense, a curious mind, and a modem. If similar questions had been raised in newsrooms across America, I can guarantee you any responsible editor would have put a “hold” on that story. At least until a later revision from AP had been forthcoming.
But that wouldn’t have been good enough. The changing nature of journalism in America means that to a large extent, reporters are almost as incurious about the world as their readers. What would it have cost to pick up the phone and call CENTCOM? The PA officers there got back to Curt within a few hours with the info that contradicted the AP story. Better yet, duplicating Curt’s work, how much trouble would it have been to Google up Capt. Jamil Hussein? Would the fact that he appeared as a source for AP so many times over the previous months raised a red flag in any newsroom in America? I doubt it.
I think the difference between journalists today and those of 20 or 30 years ago is that reporters used to have a thirst for knowledge, an “itch” that could never be scratched. They attacked a story, constantly challenging assumptions, digging ever deeper to see if there was anything else there. They did it not necessarily because they were afraid they were wrong but rather because they were afraid they were missing the true essence of the story.
But the shocking incuriousness of the media who left the vetting of this story to AP and allowed it to appear in newspapers across the country proves that times indeed have changed. Publishers and editors used to stand by everything that appeared in their publication. But how can they do that today if they don’t make even the most cursory of efforts to see that what is printed actually happened.
And lest there be any doubts about whether this incident actually happened or not, here’s Sharon Tosi Moore, an officer in the United States Army Reserves currently serving in Iraq with a piece in The American Thinker today:
A winning situation all around.
Except, well, except for the tiny little detail that the incident most likely never happened. A week has gone by and no charred bodies were produced. No dramatic funeral parades, with all the attendant wailing and gnashing of teeth, occurred. Not one photo. No grand reprisals. Not even any speeches (and it is hard to imagine Iraqi religious leaders miss an opportunity to make speeches). Just a few remarks from the Iraqi government, largely ignored by the U.S. press, that all reports showed that that particular district had been quiet, and pleading the Iraqi people for calm.
No one thought to question this unusual divergence from normal protocol.
The gullible press swallowed the initial claims whole. Of the major news sources, only TIME Magazine used the word “reportedly” in their headline.
Gullibility is not really the issue. I believe the issue is laziness. And perhaps a lack of passion that enables the reporter to simply go through the motions of being a journalist instead of living up to what his editors and readers expect.
This story is revealing of many things, not the least of which is that our free press is in trouble. Partly from infringements by government but also by lousy stewardship of this precious right being carried out by many the current practitioners of the craft. Not all, of course. There are still some excellent journalists writing for the top publications. But by and large, those whose responsibility it is to inform us, to keep us abreast of what’s going on in the world, are failing and failing badly.
And the hell of it is, no one seems to want to fix the problems much less address them.