(NOTE: Please read the update to this alert)
A June 12 op-ed in the New York Times made a bold accusation: anti-war activists have targeted funerals of Iraq War soldiers with noisy protests. But evidence to back up that charge is nonexistent.
The author of the piece, writer Karen Spears Zacharias, recounted an interview with a war widow who said that “antiwar protesters… lined the streets across from the service… carried signs and… shouted as her husband’s flag-draped coffin was carried past.” Zacharias expanded on this claim when she wrote of the “hundreds of anti-war protestors who appear at military hospitals and funerals.”
Following the op-ed’s publication, several readers posted questions on Zacharias’ website, asking if she could substantiate either the specific incident she had reported, or the broad claim that “hundreds” of anti-war activists have protested at multiple sites. The author responded by posting a link to a story on a conservative website about small vigils that were held at Walter Reed military hospital.
Many of the posts on Zacharias’ website suggested that the funeral protests she was describing were more likely those organized by Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, a virulently homophobic group that celebrates U.S. military deaths as punishment for the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards homosexuals. The Phelps group is by no reasonable definition anti-war.
In a response to one reader, Zacharias acknowledged that further research revealed that the widows she spoke with were all referring to Phelps’ group.
Though the piece appeared on the Times‘ op-ed page, the paper has a responsibility to verify such claims–particularly when, as in this case, they serve as the premise of a column. Moreover, such anecdotes have the potential to smear an entire political movement, and live on long after they are published. Accounts of Vietnam vets being spit upon by anti-war protesters, for example, persist to this day (Newsweek, 6/12/06)–despite the fact that it is difficult to corroborate any of those alleged incidents (see The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Jerry Lembcke).
Contact the New York Times op-ed page and ask them to verify the claim that “hundreds of anti-war protestors” have demonstrated “at military hospitals and funerals.” If they cannot, ask them to correct the record.
New York Times