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 have."
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 war.
Bob Wright, NBC President firstname.lastname@example.org
Fox News Channelcomments@foxnews.com