Attacking AP for bias, Malkin proves hers

The conservative blogger gets some facts wrong.

By Alex Koppelman
Published March 12, 2008 9:42PM (EDT)

Monday night, conservative blogger and columnist Michelle Malkin put up a new post on her blog, one purporting to show that the Associated Press -- "The Cheney/KBR-deranged Associated Press," she called it -- had, because of bias, twisted the facts for an article. The AP article focused on a recent report prepared by the Defense Department's inspector general. The report reveals that an audit found water quality problems at five U.S. bases in Iraq, and that three of those sites were run by contractor KBR Inc., which was owned at the time by Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton.

As she attempted to prove the AP's misdeeds, though, what Malkin really showed was that she is as capable of twisting facts as anyone. In more than one instance Malkin even presented wrongdoing by KBR as if it were evidence in the company's favor.

In her post, Malkin attempted to show that the AP had left relevant facts about the report out of its article. She wrote:

There are 59 water production (treatment) sites in Iraq -- 37 operated by contractors and 22 operated by the US military. The report detailing problems with water monitoring and treatment identified three contractor-operated facilities and two military-operated facilities that did not meet standards.

That's 5 out of 59.

Wouldn't know it, though, unless you read the report.

That's true. That's absolutely true. But then, there's another fact that you wouldn't know unless you read the report, one Malkin left out even as she accused the AP of the same offense.

If you read Malkin's post alone, your natural assumption would be that the inspector general had cleared the other 54 sites. But not all 59 sites were part of the audit; only six were. That is, five out of the six sites studied -- including all three of the KBR sites -- had problems, and we have no data on the rest. But Malkin exploited the inspector general's sampling method to imply, to borrow a phrase, that the absence of evidence was evidence of absence. By doing so, she greatly diminished the potential severity of the problem.

Then, Malkin said:

Ready for more things you wouldn't know? Page 2 of the report states clearly: "Although there was no way to determine whether water provided by the contractors and military water purification units caused disease, contractors and military units responsible for water operations must always ensure that water provided to the forces meets all established standards and is safe to use."

(The emphasis is Malkin's.)

There, Malkin may have a case, but not much of one. The AP's article did include a caveat similar to the one in the report: "It was impossible to link the dirty water definitively to all the illnesses, according to the report." That could have been worded better, as it seems to say that some of the illnesses could be definitively linked to water. But, in fairness, none of them could, because of a Catch-22 Malkin used to her advantage: How can you definitively show anything about the impact of water quality issues if half the problem was that no one was monitoring water quality? What the report establishes instead is pretty solid circumstantial evidence, evidence Malkin never mentioned.

At one of the KBR sites studied, the company was, contrary to regulations, using chlorinated wastewater "to fill personal hygiene facilities." Additionally, it was not monitoring water quality at point-of-use storage, and did not tell preventive medicine personnel -- who were not performing their required quality tests either -- about the wastewater usage. KBR had used the wastewater this way for almost two years, but it stopped rather abruptly on Feb. 3, 2006. The practice ended because medical personnel suspected it was making U.S. troops sick -- in late January, local medical personnel reported a sudden and dramatic rise in bacterial infections, leading to water quality testing and finally the revelation of what was going on -- and when it ended, the number of suspected water-related illnesses dropped dramatically. And though Malkin mentions that KBR took corrective action (she cited it as a point in KBR's favor that the AP had left out) she somehow neglected discussion of the positive results seen when that happened, leaving her readers ignorant of one key bit of evidence of a link between KBR's practice and illnesses in troops.

Malkin pulled a similar trick with her treatment of another excerpt of the report. The AP noted that a survey of troops had revealed reports that bathwater at one base had been at times discolored and had an unusual odor. Malkin contrasted this with the report excerpt, which read, in part, "Although the interview results seemingly corroborate allegations that unsafe water was supplied to U.S. forces at Ar Ramadi, the physical observations alone do not delineate water quality."

And again, that's true -- but, again, Malkin leaves out an important detail: The audit was conducted only after the reported problems had ended. There was no way to be absolutely sure about whether the water supplied was safe or not because, again, KBR had conducted no water quality testing during the period in question.

Malkin did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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