May 1 2003

Official Story vs. Eyewitness Account

Some outlets preferred sanitized version of checkpoint killings

When U.S. soldiers on March 31 killed 10 members of one family at a checkpoint outside the Iraqi town of Najaf, U.S. media initially presented the Pentagon’s version of events–sometimes in terms that assumed that the Pentagon’s word was truth.

“What happened there, the van with a number of individuals in it…approached the checkpoint,” reported MSNBC‘s Carl Rochelle (3/31/03). “They were told to stop by the members of the 3rd Infantry Division. They did not stop, warning shots were fired. Still they came on. They fired into the engine of the van. Still it came on, so they began opening fire on the van itself.”

Fox News Channel‘s John Gibson (3/31/03) presented the story in similar terms: “We warn these cars to stop. If they don’t stop, fire warning shots. If they don’t stop then, fire into the engine. If they don’t stop then, fire into the cab. And today some guys killed some civilians after going through all those steps.”

But later that night, the Washington Post released a report by William Branigin, a journalist traveling with the infantry, that was an exceptional example of embedded reporting illuminating the ugly realities of war. The article described U.S. Army Capt. Ronny Johnson ordering a series of non-lethal actions to stop the civilian vehicle–but yelling “Stop [messing] around!” when, in Branigin’s words, Johnson “still saw no action being taken.” Finally, after ordering the use of cannon with inch-thick shells to stop the van, Johnson exclaimed, “You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough!”

Two versions or one

Several major papers incorporated the Post‘s account into their first-day coverage of the Najaf shooting; readers of the New York Daily News, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times or San Francisco Chronicle could learn both the official version of events and the eyewitness account that contradicted it. But some outlets relied solely on the official Pentagon version, as with the New York Times‘ April 1 story, which ran under a headline that presented as a definite fact that adequate warning had been given (and ignored the three adult male victims): “Failing to Heed Warning, Seven Iraqi Women and Children Die.”

While it’s possible that the New York Times, unlike other East Coast papers like the Daily News and the Globe, had a deadline that did not allow it to include information from the Branigin article, the Times ran a follow-up on April 2–“U.S. Military Chiefs Express Regret Over Civilian Deaths”–that still omitted any mention of the Post‘s reporting.

The piece, by Christopher Marquis, described the victims as being “killed when their van apparently failed to stop after orders by American guards.” It rehearsed the official version of events (“that soldiers fired warning shots to stop the van, then fired into the engine, but that the van continued forward, forcing troops to fire into the passenger compartment”) and quoted Gen. Richard Myers on “our policy of doing all we can to spare civilian lives.”

NPR‘s Nick Spicer similarly left out Branigin’s account on the April 1 All Things Considered–which aired at least 18 hours after the Post story broke: “What we’re hearing here at CENTCOM is that troops fired a warning shot as a vehicle approached a checkpoint. The vehicle did not stop. It then fired at the engine block. The vehicle continued. And then they fired in the passenger compartment and they killed seven women and children.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution summarized the story thus on April 2: “Seven Iraqi women and children are killed at an Army checkpoint 20 miles north of Najaf after they failed to heed warning shots.” The Houston Chronicle reported on April 1, without qualification, that “U.S. troops…opened fire on a civilian vehicle that refused their order to halt and ignored warning shots.” Although the story cited the Washington Post on the number of people killed in the incident, it otherwise ignored the Post‘s reporting.

Even the Washington Post itself, in an April 2 story by a different reporter, failed to incorporate Branigin’s account when it reiterated the official description of the incident: “At another checkpoint on Monday, U.S. troops blasted an approaching vehicle carrying as many as 16 people, most of them women and children, in the belief that an attack was underway. Ten people in the vehicle died. Soldiers said later that they fired warning shots that were ignored.”

Knight Ridder reporter Meg Laughlin (Miami Herald, 4/2/03) deserves recognition for actually interviewing the surviving members of the family in the vehicle, noting that one more relative had subsequently died of his wounds, bringing the death toll to 11. The survivors describe being waved on at one checkpoint before being attacked at the next. They did not report any warning shots being fired.