Mar 26 2003

"Precise" and "Surgical": NBC’s Bombing Claims Lack Verification

The Pentagon can be expected to claim that its bombing campaign against Iraq is accurate. But without independent verification, reporters should be skeptical about these claims about “precision” bombing.

Recent reports on NBC News illustrate the opposite tendency. Correspondent Bob Faw (3/20/03) described a Florida town as “a community which very much endorses that surgical strike against Saddam Hussein.” Anchor Katie Couric (3/21/03) also referred to “a series of surgical strikes focusing on Iraq’s key leadership” during the first two nights of bombing. Anchor Matt Lauer (3/21/03) agreed: “The people in that city have endured two nights of surgical air strikes and they’ve no idea what could come tonight.”

Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski (3/21/03) took it a step further, reporting that “every weapon is precision guided– deadly accuracy designed to kill only the targets, not innocent civilians.” On the Today show the next morning (3/22/03), Miklaszewski reiterated his point: “More than a thousand bombs and missiles were dropped on Baghdad, three times the number from the entire Gulf War. And this time, they’re all precision-guided, deadly accurate, designed to kill only the targets, not innocent civilians.”

That same day, reporter Chris Jansing sized up “the first daylight pictures of severe damage from yesterday’s massive and incredibly precise air assault on the Iraqi capital.”

But on-the-ground reports from the scene of the bombings would be necessary before making any definitive claims about “surgical” strikes. When allegations are made about civilian deaths and destruction from the bombing, the stories are treated with skepticism, often framed as claims made by the Iraqis: “The BBC and the Arab network Al-Jazeera have devoted significant time to what Iraq suggested were innocent victims targeted in the bombings” (NBC Nightly News, 3/22/03).

Yet it is plain that some bombs are going off course. Syrian civilians in a bus in northern Iraq were killed in one attack, two cruise missiles have landed in Turkey (Dateline NBC, 3/23/03) and several missiles have reportedly hit southwestern Iran (Washington Post, 3/24/03).

Some reporters in Baghdad have been able to document some of the civilian effects of the bombing; John Daniszewski reported in the Los Angeles Times (3/25/03) that “the deaths and injuries from misdirected or errant bombs, or from shrapnel and fragments that spray into nearby homes even when the munitions find their intended target, are making more and more people believe that the United States is heedless of the Iraqi public.” Such information gives some needed perspective about claims of “precision” or “surgical” bombardment.

ACTION: Ask NBC to avoid using terms like “precision” or “surgical” to describe the bombing of Iraq. Encourage them to exercise skepticism about the claims coming from both sides regarding the bombing.


NBC’s Today