Our rotted press corps, a division of “Camp Victory”

No matter how many times it results in false reporting, our press corps continues to base their "war reporting" on unverified military and government claims.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

On June 22, the BBC — under the headline: “‘Al-Qaeda gunmen’ killed in Iraq” — reported, along with virtually every major American media outlet, the following claim, without any challenge or questioning:

US helicopters have killed 17 gunmen with suspected al-Qaeda links in Iraq’s Diyala province north of Baghdad, the US military says.

But unlike the American media outlets which mindlessly reported these “Al Qaeda kills,” the BBC at least followed up on this story and found that there are substantial grounds, to put it mildly, for believing those claims were false. In a follow-up article — prompted by protests from residents of the village where the “Al Qaeda kills” occurred — the BBC reported:

A group of villagers in Iraq is bitterly disputing the US account of a deadly air attack on 22 June, in the latest example of the confusion surrounding the reporting of combat incidents there. . .

On 22 June the US military announced that its attack helicopters, armed with missiles, engaged and killed 17 al-Qaeda gunmen who had been trying to infiltrate the village of al-Khalis, north of Baquba, where operation “Arrowhead Ripper” had been under way for the previous three days.

The item was duly carried by international news agencies and received widespread coverage, including on the BBC News website.

But villagers in largely-Shia al-Khalis say that those who died had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. They say they were local village guards trying to protect the township from exactly the kind of attack by insurgents the US military says it foiled.

Minutes before the attack, they had been co-operating with an Iraqi police unit raiding a suspected insurgent hideout, the villagers said.

They added that the guards, lightly armed with the AK47 assault rifles that are a feature of practically every home in Iraq, were essentially a local neighbourhood watch paid by the village to monitor the dangerous insurgent-ridden area to the immediate south-west at Arab Shawkeh and Hibhib, where the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed a year ago.



According to local witnesses, then — none of whom were interviewed by the media outlets obediently reciting the U.S. military’s dramatic narrative about “17 Al Qaeda fighters killed” — those who were killed by the U.S. strikes had absolutely nothing to do with “Al Qaeda,” but instead were guarding their own villages against the very Sunni insurgents whom we now call “Al Qaeda.”

The entirety of the screaming headlines on June 22 about the Glorious Military Victory which Killed Al Qaeda was based exclusively on this Press Release issued by the U.S. military (specifically, the Public Affairs Office of “Camp Victory”) — entitled “Coalition Forces kill 17 al-Qaeda gunmen near Khalis” — and read as follows:

“Coalition Forces attack helicopters engaged and killed 17 al-Qaeda gunmen southwest of Khalis, Friday.

“Iraqi police were conducting security operations in and around the village when Coalition attack helicopters from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade and ground forces from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, observed more than 15 armed men attempting to circumvent the IPs and infiltrate the village.

“The attack helicopters, armed with missiles, engaged and killed 17 al-Qaeda gunmen and destroyed the vehicle they were using.”

That Press Release, with no investigation or modification, immediately became the headlines and lead paragraphs of every major American media outlet. Our news organizations, which claim to have learned so many valuable lessons from their profound failures in the run-up to the Iraq war, “reported” on this incident by doing one thing and one thing only: reading the Press Release and then copying it down and reporting it as Truth. Just look at a small sampling of what was produced as a result of this mindless media recitation:

* CBS News, June 22:

Note that the CBS report, after reciting the military’s version of events in the press release, does not even bother to add the cursory phrase “U.S. military officials claimed.” That “American helicopters killed 17 al Qaeda gunmen trying to sneak past a checkpoint” is just reported as unquestioned fact.

* Washington Post, June 23:

* MSNBC, June 22:

All of this was, days earlier, preceded — and perfectly framed — by a truly reckless New York Times article which carried this dramatic (and dramatically misleading) headline:

Just consider the impact of this media tidal wave of headlines about glorious victories in Iraq killing “Al Qaeda” — not the independent Iraqi offshoot that adopted the name, but “Al Qaeda” itself. And it is all based upon a completely false premise, or at least one which is highly dubious but which our establishment media simply passed along as fact, unquestioningly, based exclusively on a military press release from Camp Victory.

And there is nothing at all unusual about this incident. Quite the contrary, it is how most of our media’s “war reporting” has been conducted from the beginning — blind reliance on statements from the government and the military which are then passed along under the guise of “reporting.” Indeed, that is precisely how we were led into the invasion in the first place. For all the self-righteous protests by journalists that corrupt reporting was the responsibility of the “aberrational Judy Miller,” the Judy Miller Method continues to be the predominant one shaping our major media’s “war reporting.”

There is only one factor which distinguishes this story about the June 22 “Al Qaeda kills” from all the others. As Cernig wrote yesterday:

When is a dead Al Qaeda In Iraq gunman not a real Al Qaeda In Iraq gunman?

When there are independent witnesses.

Indeed, the only time our media outlets question what the military says is when there are angry witnesses disputing the military’s version, as demonstrated by this NYT article this morning, detailing how the U.S. military’s killing of what it claimed was four “Taliban fighters” actually resulted in the death only of “Haji Muhammada Jan, who was about 80 years old . . . and two of his sons and a grandson,” none of whom had anything to do with the Taliban.

None of this is complicated, and other than a deliberate desire to disseminate Bush administration propaganda about the war, it really is virtually impossible to understand why our media’s “reports” about the war blindly assume, time and again, that whatever the U.S. government or military says can simply be converted without investigation or skepticism into what they report as “news.” Over and over, such statements prove to be completely false, and yet the media never even minimally raises the level of skepticism to which it subjects these claims.

The post I wrote last Saturday documenting the government and media’s transparent tactic of using the term “Al Qaeda” to describe virtually anyone we fight in Iraq prompted some of the most vicious and personally insulting responses I’ve seen since I began blogging, and with good, or at least understandable, reason: namely, the myth that the War in Iraq is now our “War against the Group that Launched the 9/11 Attacks” is the last, desperate chance for war cheerleaders to avoid blame for the disaster they spawned, by deceiving as many people as they can that the war they urged is something other than a grotesque failure and the by-product of a reprehensible and unprovoked attack.

But what is not understandable in the slightest is the establishment media’s equally mindless devotion to this storyline. As I wrote in that post last Saturday:

War reporting in Iraq is obviously extremely difficult and dangerous, and it takes a great deal of courage to be in Iraq in order to file these stories. There is no denying that.

But precisely because of those dangers, these reporters rely almost exclusively on the narratives offered by U.S. military officials selected by the Bush administration to convey events to the press. Almost every one of the articles referenced above is shaped from start to finish by accounts about what happened from American military commanders (with, in isolated instances, accounts from Iraqis in the area). That is inevitable, though such accounts ought to be treated with much greater skepticism.

Why should that even need to be pointed out? Shouldn’t that skepticism about unverified government and military claims be part of the make-up of every journalist? How basic is that? In its mea-culpa article today, this is what the BBC said:

The incident also highlights the problems the news media face in verifying such combat incidents in remote areas where communications are disrupted, where direct independent access is impossible because of the many lethal dangers they would face, and where only the official military version of events is available.

It is absolutely true that there will be times when the only version of events about a war will be the version issued in the form of a press release from the U.S. military. Why is it so hard to understand that, when that occurs, it is completely improper to blindly assume that it is accurate and to build major headlines and long news articles and flamboyant television broadcasts based exclusively on those unverified assertions?

It is difficult to avoid a sense of resignation when one reads things like this. I try to avoid language like this generally, but the sheer stupidity and dishonesty and servile, slavish personality attributes necessary to engage in that behavior is unfathomable — for any human being, let alone for a leading journalist. Yet that is the person assigned by our most read and most establishment-trusted news magazine to write a lengthy article purporting to inform Americans about what is happening in Iraq, about the great victories we’re winning there over “Al Qaeda,” about the resolute and brilliant military commanders killing those who flew the planes into our buildings. Journalists like Joe Klein are as gullible and dumb as they are dishonest.

The day after Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter David Halberstam died, I excerpted a speech he gave to the Columbia School of Journalism on May 18, 2005, in which he recounted what he called the “proudest moment of his career.” Just contrast what he did in Vietnam with the drooling, mindless, government- and military-worshipping “journalists” plaguing our country today. I’m quoting it in full because it explains virtually everything:

Probably the moment I am proudest of in my career is this: By the fall of 1963, I was one of a small group of reporters in Saigon — we had enraged Washington and Saigon by filing pessimistic dispatches on the war. In particular, my young colleague, Neil Sheehan, and I were considered the enemy. The president of the United States, JFK, had already asked the publisher to pull me.

On day that fall, there was a major battle in the Delta (the Americans were not yet in a full combat role; they were in an advising and support role). MACV — the American military command — tried to keep out all reporters so they could control the information. Neil and I spent the day pushing hard to get there — calling everyone, including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General Paul Harkins. With no luck, of course.

In those days, the military had a daily late afternoon briefing given by a major or a Captain, called the Five O’clock Follies, because of the generally low value of the information.

On this particular day, the briefing was different, given not by a Major but by a Major General, Dick Stilwell, the smoothest young general in Saigon. It was in a different room and every general and every bird Colonel in the country was there. Picture if you will rather small room, about the size of a classroom, with about 10 or 12 reporters there in the center of the room. And in the back, and outside, some 40 military officers, all of them big time brass. It was clearly an attempt to intimidate us.

General Stilwell tried to take the intimidation a step further. He began by saying that Neil and I had bothered General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge and other VIPs, and we were not to do it again. Period.

And I stood up, my heart beating wildly — and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.

I said that we knew that 30 American helicopters and perhaps 150 American soldiers had gone into battle, and the American people had a right to know what happened. I went on to say that we would continue to press to go on missions and call Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins, but he could, if he chose, write to our editors telling them that we were being too aggressive, and were pushing much too hard to go into battle. That was certainly his right.

So: Never let them intimidate you. Never. If someone tries, do me a favor and work just a little harder on your story. Do two or three more interviews. Make your story a little better.

I think it is quite obvious that if he were reporting on the war in Iraq, Halberstam would not be mindlessly copying Camp Victory Press Releases about all the “Al Qaeda fighters” we are killing. And there are some working journalists today — such as the heroic McClatchy reporters — who understand what journalism is and who practice it. But so much of our press corps are slothful, stupid, and corrupt, and — as this BBC article demonstrates, though it is only illustrative — their willingness, their eagerness, to have their “reporting” consist of unexamined government claims makes so much of what they do worthless, except as deceitful and truly destructive propaganda.

UPDATE: As Chris Floyd pointed out in writing about this BBC investigation, that the 17 individuals we killed had nothing to do with “Al Qaeda” means, of course, that this incident — as part of our Glorious War of Liberation, to Win Hearts and Minds — is yet another “horrific massacre of Iraqi civilians.” That is simply true by definition. And as Floyd notes, the media’s mindless recitation of the military’s Al Qaeda narrative here is particularly pitiful given that “al-Khalis is a largely Shiite village, on the side of the American-backed Iraqi government.”

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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