Jul
24
2007

NY Times Responds Again on Fallujah

Public editor's second response contains factual errors

To paraphrase Clark Hoyt, if you're going to defend the performance of a news organization, you at a minimum need to get your facts right.

In his second response to FAIR regarding the New York Times' review of the play Fallujah, Hoyt wrote:

In restating its case, it introduced a new error--calling white phosphorus (WP), the incendiary weapon that was used in Fallujah, a "chemical agent," which it is not. Chemical agents, like nerve gas, are something entirely different. While calling WP a chemical agent may add emotional punch to FAIR’s argument, it indicates to me a carelessness with terms that undercuts FAIR’s credibility.

In fact, white phosphorus has been described as a "chemical weapon" by both the Pentagon (Think Progress, 11/21/05) and by the New York Times (3/22/95)--when discussing its use by Saddam Hussein. (The Times actually called it one of "the worst chemical weapons.") An official of the U.N. body that enforces the ban against chemical weapons told the BBC (BBC News Online, 11/16/05) that

if...the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the [Chemical Weapons] Convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.

U.S. forces have admitted to using incendiaries--both white phosphorus and the modern version of napalm--as an anti-personnel weapon (Field Artillery, 3-4/05; London Independent, 8/10/03). See "Now It's a Chemical Weapon, Now It's Not" (Extra!, 3-4/06).

Hoyt was also critical of FAIR's citation of Rahul Mahajan's first-hand accounts of civilian deaths in Fallujah (CounterPunch, 11/6/04), asserting that he was right to rely instead on the Times reporter, Dexter Filkins, who was embedded with the U.S. Marines: "Mahajan said he was in the city months earlier, in April, when U.S. forces first assaulted Fallujah.... The allegations of napalm--and the actual use of WP--involved the November battle that Filkins covered."

That's just wrong; the first use of white phosphorus by the U.S. in Fallujah was in the April 2004 assault, as the newspaper North County Times (4/10/04) reported:

[Cpl. Nicholas] Bogert is a mortar team leader who directed his men to fire round after round of high explosives and white phosphorus charges into the city Friday and Saturday, never knowing what the targets were or what damage the resulting explosions caused.

But Mahajan was cited not about the use of white phosphorus but about the deaths of civilians in Fallujah, which Hoyt, citing Filkins, claimed had not occurred in large numbers. While Hoyt made a legitimate point when he said that we should have made clear that Mahajan (like Dahr Jamail) was present during the April assault, Hoyt should also have specified that when Filkins said that he "doesn’t buy the charges of large numbers of civilian deaths" in Fallujah, he was referring only to the November assault--a distinction that may seem more than a little academic to the families of the people killed. (The play Fallujah, whose Times review was the subject of FAIR's original June 11 Action Alert, draws on accounts of both assaults.)

Finally, Hoyt dismissed Mahajan's estimate that at least 600 civilians were killed in the April attack on the city--an estimate that accords with Iraq Body Count's detailed analysis of Fallujah deaths (10/26/04)--because it was "based on news reports and personal observation":

The war in Iraq has taken a terrible toll on Iraqi civilians, much of it through sectarian strife. Trying to establish the precise numbers killed--and how they died--is an important story. But it can’t be told authoritatively by best guesses based on some mix of unspecified news reports and personal observation.

As Hoyt surely knows, the most comprehensive and scientific attempt to determine how many people have been killed by the Iraq War is the Johns Hopkins study published in the Lancet (10/21/06), which found that the number of excess deaths since the invasion likely exceeds 600,000. The Times has downplayed these findings as "widely criticized" (1/1/07) and "controversial" (4/18/07)--precisely because they conflict with news reports and the personal observations of journalists and the officials they rely on.

Like Hoyt, we don't "buy the argument that facts are insignificant in the face of a higher truth." And we certainly agree with Hoyt when he writes, "The war in Iraq has stirred up such passion that something very valuable is in danger of getting lost--facts." But the factual errors and spin in Hoyt's response suggest that he is not immune from the problem of passions getting in the way of accuracy.

FAIR activists who wish to comment on Hoyt's response can do so at the New York Times website (at the link below). What follows is Hoyt's response in full:

http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/07/24/was-there-napalm-in-fallujah-part-ii/

July 24, 2007, 11:04 am

Was There Napalm in Fallujah? Part II

By Clark Hoyt

If you’re going to criticize the performance of a news organization, you at a minimum need to get your facts right.

FAIR, a non-profit group that describes itself as progressive, has been a media watchdog barking at press failings since 1986. I don’t recall if I’ve had a previous encounter with FAIR, but our recent exchange of views over a Times story on an anti-war play in London doesn’t give me much confidence in FAIR’s fairness--or its accuracy.

To recap:

FAIR issued an “Action Alert” last month, urging its readers to write me over a Times story by Jane Perlez about the play Fallujah. Deep in the article, Perlez said the play’s contention that the U.S. military used napalm in its assault on Fallujah has not been substantiated. FAIR took issue. I looked into the matter and concluded that Perlez was correct. You can read the Action Alert at http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3114 and my findings below.

On Friday, FAIR shot back.

In restating its case, it introduced a new error--calling white phosphorus (WP), the incendiary weapon that was used in Fallujah, a "chemical agent," which it is not. Chemical agents, like nerve gas, are something entirely different. While calling WP a chemical agent may add emotional punch to FAIR’s argument, it indicates to me a carelessness with terms that undercuts FAIR’s credibility.

FAIR also suggested I was wrong to rely on the eyewitness testimony of Dexter Filkins of the Times, who was embedded with U.S. Marines at Fallujah and accompanied them into the city when they took it in November 2004. Filkins doubted reports of large numbers of civilian casualties in that battle because the population appeared to have fled.

"With all due respect to Filkins," FAIR said, "Hoyt would have done better to consult the reporters who were actually in Fallujah during the siege rather than one who was with the forces bombarding it." FAIR then sent its readers to a link (insert the link) containing an article by Rahul Mahajan.

The problem is that Mahajan clearly was not in Fallujah when the November battle took place. Filkins was. He said, "I was, in fact, in the middle of Fallujah, in the battle, on foot, for eight days, and walked from one end of the city to the other.... I wasn’t outside the city with the troops 'bombarding it.' I was as close as one could possibly be, trying to get the story."

Mahajan said he was in the city months earlier, in April, when U.S. forces first assaulted Fallujah after four American contractors were killed and hung from a bridge. The military withdrew at that time, only to attack the city ferociously in November and take it.

The allegations of napalm--and the actual use of WP--involved the November battle that Filkins covered.

Speaking of civilian casualties in the first battle of Fallujah, in April, Mahajan said, "The best estimates are that roughly 900-1,000 people were killed directly, blown up, burnt or shot. Of them, my guess, based on news reports and personal observation, is that 2/3 to 3/4 were noncombatants."

The war in Iraq has taken a terrible toll on Iraqi civilians, much of it through sectarian strife. Trying to establish the precise numbers killed--and how they died--is an important story. But it can’t be told authoritatively by best guesses based on some mix of unspecified news reports and personal observation.

I wouldn’t come back at this subject--remember, it all started with a simple, accurate declaration in a review of a play that the use of napalm at Fallujah hadn’t been substantiated--but I think there’s an important point here.

The war in Iraq has stirred up such passion that something very valuable is in danger of getting lost--facts. I’m an old-fashioned journalist in the sense that I don’t buy the argument that facts are insignificant in the face of a higher truth. It isn’t true if it isn’t factual.

In the case of Iraq, the anti-war movement has plenty of factual material to work with. I’m astonished that FAIR would feel the need to play so fast and loose with the facts about Fallujah.