An issue as serious as the Iraq crisis deserves the highest possible degree of accuracy from the press. U.S. media coverage, however, is marked by frequent misstatements and distortions of reality– some of which have been made repeatedly, even after being pointed out by critics.
Here are a few examples of commonly repeated errors:
1. “But as U.N. weapons inspectors prepare to return to Iraq for the first time since Saddam kicked them out in 1998, the U.S. faces a delicate balancing act: transforming the international consensus for disarmament into a consensus for war.” –Randall Pinkston, CBS Evening News (11/9/02).
One of the most common media errors on Iraq is the claim that the U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998 because they were “kicked out” or “expelled” (Extra! Update, 10/02). The inspectors, led by Richard Butler, actually left voluntarily, knowing that a U.S. bombing campaign was imminent. This was reported accurately throughout the U.S. press at the time: “Butler ordered his inspectors to evacuate Baghdad, in anticipation of a military attack, on Tuesday night” (Washington Post, 12/18/98).
2. “The last weapons inspectors were pulled out of Iraq nearly four years ago. Baghdad charged that there were spies on the team, and the United States complained that Iraq was using the accusation as an excuse to obstruct the inspectors. After the team withdrew, the U.S. and Britain waged a four-day bombing campaign.” —L.A. Times (11/19/02)
Treating the use of the U.N. weapons inspection team for espionage as a mere Iraqi allegation might be referred to as “Saddam Says” reporting. In fact, reports of the misuse of the inspectors for spying were made in early 1999 by some of the leading U.S. newspapers, sourced to U.S. and U.N. officials (FAIR Action Alert, 9/24/02). These papers reported as fact that “American spies had worked undercover on teams of United Nations arms inspectors” (New York Times, 1/7/99) in order to “eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the U.N. agency” (Washington Post, 3/2/99) as part of “an ambitious spying operation designed to penetrate Iraq’s intelligence apparatus and track the movement of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein” (Boston Globe, 1/6/99).
3. “Many [in Iraq], of course, are bitter over the 12-year-long U.S.-supported embargo, which Baghdad claims has led to thousands of infants and elderly people dying from preventable diseases.” —Time (11/25/02)
The topic of sanctions is also often covered in a “Saddam Says” fashion. In fact, there are detailed reports on the deadly effects of sanctions that come from respected international health organizations and public health experts, not from the Iraqi government. For example, UNICEF published a report in August 1999 that found that sanctions against Iraq had contributed to the deaths of 500,000 children under five. Richard Garfield, a public health specialist at Columbia University, estimates that 350,000 children have died as a result of sanctions and the lingering effects of the 1991 Gulf War (The Nation, 12/6/01; 12/6/01). To describe a death toll in this range as “thousands” is like saying that “dozens” of people died in the World Trade Center attacks.
4. “The Pentagon also points out, the Bush administration also points out very, very strongly, that the Iraqi regime itself is to blame for all of these problems. If they simply complied with U.N. Security Council resolutions and disarm, there would be no sanctions, there would be no problem getting medical supplies, doctor, pediatricians, to all parts of Iraq.” –Wolf Blitzer, CNN (11/7/02)
It’s not at all clear that sanctions against Iraq would automatically be lifted if the country disarmed; President George Bush the elder declared in 1991, shortly after the sanctions were imposed, “My view is we don’t want to lift these sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.” His secretary of state James Baker concurred: “We are not interested in seeing a relaxation of sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.”
President Clinton made a point of saying that his policy toward Iraq was exactly the same as his predecessor’s. His secretary of state Madeleine Albright stated in her first major foreign policy address in 1997: “We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted. Our view, which is unshakable, is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions…. And the evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein’s intentions will never be peaceful.” (See Institute for Public Accuracy, 11/13/98.)
ACTION: When you see these mistakes being repeated, please contact the media outlet and ask that the record be corrected. Contact info for many leading U.S. news outlets can be found at FAIR’s Media Contact List.