Certain features of the White House story about the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound were irresistible to the media: A fierce firefight. The feared terrorist leader crouching behind his wife as the Navy SEALs approached, before resisting or possibly even reaching for a weapon. And on and on.
Of course, those details have been substantially altered by the White House, if not scrapped altogether. And thus we started to see headlines like this one in the New York Times: "Raid Account, Hastily Told, Proves Fluid." As that story put it:
a classic collision of a White House desire to promote a stunning national security triumph–and feed a ravenous media–while collecting facts from a chaotic military operation on the other side of the world.
If by "classic," the Times means to say that the government often misleads or lies about its accomplishments–well, no argument here. And demonstrating their sense of humor, the Times account included this:
"There has never been any intent to deceive or dramatize," a military official said Thursday, asking that he not be named because of ground rules imposed by the Department of Defense. "Everything we put out we really believed to be true at the time."
We never meant to mislead anyone–but don't quote me on that!
Judging by what some reporters are saying, early accounts are often simply wrong. On CNN's Reliable Sources (3/8/11), host Howard Kurtz and former CNN Pentagon reporter Jamie McIntyre had this exchange:
KURTZ: And there was a conference call with White House officials, and you're trying to assemble as much as you can. You assume these people know what they're talking about.
MCINTYRE: But you know, Howard, this was an avoidable misstep, because anyone who has covered the military for any period of time, or anyone who is briefed on military operations, knows that initial details on an operation are almost always wrong. And if they had simply been cautious about caveating the fact that they didn't have all the details, or that they might change, and by the same token, if the reporters are careful to say in the past, we know that often these initial details are not right, it wouldn't have looked nearly as bad.
So reporters either "assume these people know what they're talking about," or just know that "initial details on an operation are almost always wrong." If it's the latter, it would seem to me that most reporters carry that knowledge around without sharing it with readers or viewers. In fact, a network correspondent once told me almost exactly the same thing that McIntyre is saying here. I remember being shocked, because the reporter's work betrayed no such skepticism towards official claims.
This was a well-planned assault, closely watched by elite planners at Washington. For reasons that are entirely unclear, they delivered a highly misleading account to reporters and the public. They've made their corrections–or at least adjustments–but think about how often this might be happening, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. An airstrike reportedly kills civilians; the Pentagon issues a denial. How often do reporters treat those denials with sufficient skepticism?