Baghdad report: Reporters’ errors heard ’round the world

posted at 9:11 am on May 11, 2007 by Bryan

It would be big news if it turned out that the US was working with one of its sworn enemies to fight another in Iraq. A reporter for the AP reported such a development earlier this week in Baghdad. Unfortunately for her, the story turned out to be wrong. She has corrected it, but the correction makes little or no difference because of the way the media works these days. Allow me to explain.

You may remember this post back on May 7. It’s about an AP story that characterizes the US military as condoning militia activity, specifically security operations by elements of the Mahdi Army, to protect a Shia shrine in Baghdad. Here’s part of how the story read as originally published:

In Kazimiyah, a densely packed neighborhood of wooden shops and cheap hotels for Shiite pilgrims, the Americans and their Iraqi partners have opted for militia help to protect the shimmering, blue-domed shrine.

With tacit American approval, plainclothes militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr set up impromptu checkpoints and patrol alleys near the mosque day and night.

This development cuts to the heart of a dilemma for the US military three months into the campaign to pacify Baghdad: whether to risk fierce battles by confronting Shiite militiamen blamed for massacring Sunnis or to deal with ”moderates” in the Mahdi Army – which the US believes receives weapons and training from Iran…

Without the militia, US and Iraqi officers acknowledge that the 2,000 Iraqi security forces and 500 American soldiers based in the area would be hard-pressed to protect the neighborhood’s 120,000 residents and the shrine, which houses the tombs of two eight century Shiite imams.

US commanders have chosen to use the Mahdi security network already in place rather than divert resources from other parts of the city where security is worse.

”There are a lot of people affiliated with JAM, and if we made them all enemies, we’d be in trouble. So we try to sort out who’s extremist JAM and can’t be reasoned with because of their ideology, and who we can live with as long as they’re not killing US and Iraqi soldiers or civilians,” said Lt Col Steve Miska who commands US troops in northwest Baghdad.

The phrase “with tacit American approval” is key here. When I read the story back on the 7th, that phrase rang all sorts of alarm bells in my brain. Kazimiyah is also known as Khadimiyah, which may be familiar to you from the Hot Air trip to Baghdad. That’s the part of Baghdad that we visited. We walked the streets there. We saw (in the distance) the shrine that this story references. And the soldier quoted, Lt Col Steve Miska, is the commander of Task Force Justice at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Justice in northwest Baghdad. He was the commander of FOB Justice when Michelle and I visited Baghdad back in January. You see and hear him in our video about a foot patrol in Khadimiyah.

Lt Col Miska is a very impressive soldier. He briefed us the night we arrived at Justice and laid out counterinsurgency theory and strategy months before Gen. Petraeus became the commander of MNF-I and brought his considerable talents in the same field to bear on the battle. Miska knows his stuff. And I know that the Mahdi Army hasn’t won his “tacit approval” and never will. But I also know that he tolerates — because the reality of the battlefield dictates it — elements of the Mahdi Army even while fighting other elements of it. He understands that the JAM isn’t a monolithic force of goons loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, but that there are fissures and faults within JAM because many of its members joined up for non-ideological reasons. They needed money. They wanted to fight crime. And so forth. Part of the US strategy in Khadimiyah has been to drive a wedge between the less radical elements of JAM and the hard core Sadrists, to weaken Sadr and bring the non-radicals into the political and civil process. To do that, you have to know who’s who and who can be tolerated and who can’t. And sometimes there is no way to learn who’s who but to just tolerate some and find out. But toleration is not approval, tacit or otherwise.

So after reading that story, Michelle and I discussed it a little bit and I emailed the Lt Col to get his thoughts on it. He replied that he was working with the AP reporter, Lauren Frayer, to get it corrected and get the “tacit approval” part removed and some other things clarified. I offered space here to rebut or clarify the report if Lt Col Miska saw the need, but he declined, preferring to work with the AP to get the story corrected. That made perfect sense to me, but I offered to stand by in case the AP didn’t step up.

A day and then another go by and then the AP corrects the story. Meanwhile, the original had been picked up in newspapers all over the world, and potentially millions of readers now had the erroneous idea that MNF-I had given “tacit approval” to the Sadrists in Khadimiyah. The correction gets picked up almost nowhere, though you can now read it at the original link — here. “Tacit approval” is nowhere to be seen, and neither is any hint that the AP’s story has been changed at all. The new version captures much more of the nuance at work in Khadimiyah and even of the fissures within JAM. Altogether it’s still an imperfect account, as it would have to be given its length relative to the amount of space needed to clearly convey all of the detail that’s necessary to understand the story, it’s much better than the original. But hardly anyone will read the new version. Newspapers are unlikely to pick it up. The AP hasn’t to my knowledge run any kind of correction notice. It carries the same headline and the May 7 date, so it looks like the same old story it always was. It’s just been airbrushed by a ghost.

Understandably, this outcome wasn’t what Lt Col Miska was seeking. It didn’t fix the problem that the original story may have created, which is a misperception that the US Army is now tacitly approving the Mahdi Army when it isn’t. So Lt Col Miska wrote a letter to the editor of the LA Times, which ran the original story but not the correction, and he has given me permission to print his letter here:

Task Force Justice
2nd BCT, 1st Infantry Division
APO AE 09344

9 May 2007

Dear Editor,

This letter is a response from Task Force Justice, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division to an article written and subsequently modified by Lauren Frayer of the Associated Press. Ms. Frayer embedded with Task Force Justice from May 2nd to May 6th. The original article, US allows Mahdi Army security role, was released by Associated Press on May 7. That evening, Lt. Col. Steve Miska, Task Force Commander called Ms. Frayer to discuss some disagreements he had with the article. The basic disagreement stemmed from an inaccurate characterization of condoned US policy to include the militia as part of the security plan. No US leaders condone the militia activity. We recognize the delicate realities of the militia vicinity the Shrine, and we are cautious not to further inflame religious and political sensitivity surrounding the Shrine.

Temporarily accepting an intractable reality is distinctly different from actively condoning the militia as part of US policy. Thus, phrases like “with tacit American approval,” inaccurately describe the US policy with respect to the militia. The militia in Khadamiyah have undermined the rule of law and legitimacy of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). They have been conducting extortion and infiltrated the ISF formations so that the good soldiers and leaders cannot stand up to the militia without having their families threatened or themselves targeted. Usually the targeting occurs when soldiers get off duty or take vacations, since the majority of militia members are uneducated and untrained military aged males. They threaten anyone who makes a stand against them.

Ms. Frayer agreed to change the article to reflect a more accurate account of the situation. Within a couple of hours of their phone conversation, Ms. Frayer emailed her altered article, Security found from unlikely source, which she submitted to her editors at AP. Her revised version of the article was updated on Yahoo.com although the original version got released to mainstream media organizations including the Washington Times and the LA Times. The original version inaccurately describes the security situation with respect to coalition force leaders and our actions to undermine the militia influence.

Attached are two articles: the original and Ms. Frayer’s revision, which did not make most of the media outlets.

Please send comments to the undersigned at steven.miska@us.army.mil or to CPT Cassidy Eaves, TF Justice Public Affairs Officer at cassidy.eaves@mnd-b.army.mil

Respectfully,

Steven M. Miska
Lieutenant Colonel, Infantry
Task Force Justice Commander

We’re happy to provide the space to correct and clarify the record, but it’s a shame that it has to be done. Lt Col Miska and all of the MNF-I forces in Iraq are dealing with the most complex battlespace in US history. But he has to spend valuable time getting a correction to a story that, unfortunately, very few will see even though millions probably saw the erroneous original story. But leaving the original story as is is unacceptable, because it will over time lead to the public’s further misunderstanding of the war. Lt Col Miska’s letter says it all: The initial AP report’s inaccuracies led to erroneous perceptions of the war and of his strategy in prosecuting it, but while the correction is a substantial improvement, it will make little or no difference because hardly anyone will ever see it or know that the original story has been corrected.

This problem is at the heart of why it’s vital that wire services and major outlets get their facts straight the first time. The first report, whether it’s true or not, might get picked up by thousands of outlets worldwide. You can probably count the number of outlets who ran and acknowledged the correction on one hand. The AP itself didn’t even acknowledge the correction on its own story. This is how a world misunderstands a war, one reporter’s error at a time.

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Comments

Very good post.

BillINDC on May 11, 2007 at 9:38 AM

Great read, and two thumbs up for LTC Miska for keeping the MSMs feet to the fire.

Our society has ‘ethics’ rules and boards for doctors, lawyers, CPAs, housing contractors, insurance brokers, stock brokers, etc etc etc…….and these boards can pass out serious hurt on violators. The media, with the power over ‘thought’ is free to do what ever they like and hide behind the ‘free press’ clause.

We can all thank the WaPo and Woodward and Bernstein. Every single ‘journalism’ student wants to find another ‘Watergate’ and if they can’t they will make one.

Limerick on May 11, 2007 at 9:47 AM

Thanks for letting us know what really happened Bryan, your readers appreciate it and I’m sure the military does also. But I think most people, most conservatives anyway, recognize the Associated Press has absolute contempt for the truth on nearly all occasions. I take what they say with a grain of salt. Whenever I read a story by them, I honestly expect to be reading the opposite of what the truth is. If the story is of interest to me I will research it with reliable sources to find out what really happened and nearly one-hundred percent of the time I will find the Associated Press got it wrong. Someone could build an entire industry around correcting the Associated Press.

Maxx on May 11, 2007 at 9:51 AM

Every single day the media is publishing or broadcasting another ‘Exposed!’ story. Government, industry, religion, crime, Hollywood, science. Not one ‘Exposed’ story of the media industry EVER. No inside stories from around the editors desk. No inside stories of board room discussions.
Nothing. Silence. Thats integrity for you.

As many say here…..crickets chirping…….

Limerick on May 11, 2007 at 9:57 AM

Good work. I’m sending this link to several friends and family members.

nukemhill on May 11, 2007 at 10:02 AM

I’d like to say thank you to Lauren Frayer of the AP for accepting ownership of her own story. Sadly, I believe she will be the only one who will accept responsibility for the correction. How many times do you see second hand stories where one outlet quotes another outlet. Reuters reports that the AP said something. The problem is that Reuters does not have to accept ownership of their statements. Even if the hypothetical AP story is completely false, in their eyes, they still told the truth, because they are only reporting what someone else reported.

BohicaTwentyTwo on May 11, 2007 at 10:05 AM

I’d like to say thank you to Lauren Frayer of the AP for accepting ownership of her own story.

BohicaTwentyTwo on May 11, 2007

Well I don’t thank her, I’d thank her to get the story right the first time, especially when she’s talking about our military.

Maxx on May 11, 2007 at 10:22 AM

it’s a crying shame that our commanders have to waste their valuable time dealing with incompetent biased AP/Reuters/AFP/UPI (on and on and on) rather than fighting and killing the enemy over there. to think that they actually have to take time out of their already jam-packed day of keeping the Iraqi people safe and defending our freedoms makes me so mad

mfnorman on May 11, 2007 at 10:39 AM

The power of the blogs. 10 years ago, 20 years ago for sure, we would not have had the opportunity or access to hear “the rest of the story.” Keep up the good work.

Mallard T. Drake on May 11, 2007 at 10:41 AM

Well so long as we ain’t got no wild haired, moon eyed, pajama wearing bloggers putting their 2¢s; worth out there everything is fine. Everybody accuses the military of not knowing the enemy, it is real simple. Everybody.

LakeRuins on May 11, 2007 at 10:58 AM

I am thankful that you guys at Hot Air are keeping careful watch on the MSM but it’s tragic that you have to in the first place. Knowing that so many peole are misinformed (willfully in many cases0 is very depressing to me especially with so many of our finest in harms way.

Yakko77 on May 11, 2007 at 11:11 AM

It’s a damn shame our military commanders in the field have to spend cycles clarifying media reporting inaccuracies when they should be 100% focused on the immediate battle at hand.

It’s as if they’re fighting two battles simultaeneously, one they’re highly trained for, the other where they’re most certainly outgunned by highly trained and purposed journalistic professionals.

CliffHanger on May 11, 2007 at 11:30 AM

Until “journalists” and news organizations are held financially accountable for printing untruths, out of context quotes, and misquotes, we will never see change. Slander and libel laws are so difficult to prove the press generally gets a free pass by simply claiming to have an anonymous source. Unfortunately maintaining one’s credibility is no longer the deterrent it once was… if it ever in fact was. Sigh.

frreal on May 11, 2007 at 12:05 PM

The “CIA sold cocaine” type crowds will hold on to this forever.

- The Cat

MirCat on May 11, 2007 at 12:48 PM

Here is anpther example of media spin. Condi was meeting with Iranian woman who are having an art exibit in Washington DC. AP News is playing up the fact that “ten of the 14 women refused to meet with Condi”.

Well DUH why dont you report on what they do to women back in Iran that show some inititive.

http://news.yahoo.com/photo/070510/480/c78cccef951c4f288c3a7e1d4df09361;_ylt=Aj9pJkabgBlsIpKtp.qOU2wDW7oF

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, accompanied by young artists from Iran, makes very brief remarks to the press after she toured the Iranian art exhibit, ‘Wishes and Dreams’, Thursday, May 10, 2007, at the Meridian International Center in Washington. Though the event was intended to promote cultural links with Iran, ten of the 14 Iranian artists refused to be photographed with Rice and two would not accompany her through the gallery. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

William Amos on May 11, 2007 at 2:26 PM

This is the media’s narrative, the military under Bush cannot do anything right. Expect hundreds of similar articles.

Capitalist Infidel on May 11, 2007 at 3:13 PM

Thanks, Bryan

The Associated Press ( the only new agency with armoured vehicles ) is…….

oh, why bother? Every one of you reading this know what the AP is–by now, even THEY know it

Janos Hunyadi on May 11, 2007 at 3:24 PM

Yours is a reasoned account of the profession that employs both Kieth Olbermann and Arthur Ochs “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr., among others.

Come to think of it, reason has little place in that profession these days….

Anton on May 11, 2007 at 4:08 PM

Excellent post Bryan.

As an OIF Vet, I get very frustrated by things like this, keep up this fight!

Someone must!

jtkerch79 on May 11, 2007 at 4:54 PM

Stay on them Bryan! You Junkyard dawg you!

Drtuddle on May 11, 2007 at 6:36 PM

Great post Bryan. Thanks for going to bat for the good guys.

I voted that the Vents from Baghdad were my favorites because lives are at risk and an important story had to be told. You and Michelle, in my opinion, told that story beautifully and thank God you both returned home safely.

The lives of Lt Col Miska and all in his command are still at risk. The sloppy work of the alleged main stream media, like Associated with Terrorist Press, puts our good guys at risk, and for what? A flashy headline that just happens to be “inaccurate”? What is wrong with those people? Are they so callous and flippant that they believe those inaccuracies have no impact? To me it is clear the AP has no respect for our troops.

Please, in your next communication with Lt Col Miska, let him we are praying for him and all our guys and gals in harms way.

Zorro on May 11, 2007 at 8:53 PM

The Lt. Col. has finite resources to do his job. It only makes sense for him to concentrate those resources on the worst elements of JAM today, and leave the more moderate factions for later. By the time he gets around to them, some of the factions may no longer be JAM affiliates, and may not need to be dealt with militarily. Some of their members may decide to get out of the militia business and stop fighting against the government. Others, after being carefully vetted by Maliki’s people, may even qualify to be trained as members of the IA or IP under the Patriquin Plan.

None of that indicates ‘approval’ of those factions allying themselves with Mookie today. It just indicates a wise commander doing his job.

The Monster on May 12, 2007 at 1:09 AM

I’m glad the record was “corrected.” Even though it, in reality, was not.

The original article is what was published in the daylies. MAYBE there will be a “retraction,” but probably not. Which means that “first impression” — that the US military is aiding and abetting terrorists — is what will be implanted in the minds of those who read the print version.

Finally, if you think that the article was mistakenly written, you, yourself, are mistaken. Whenever the AP has the opportunity, they chose to present the USA in Iraq in the worst possible light. The only reason it was partially retracted or corrected was because Lt. Col. Miska personally complained AND the author didn’t want to burn her bridges with the troops.

In other words, she got caught and had to change part of her article — AFTER IT WENT TO PRESS for all intents an purposes. But her original message (that the USA condones Shiite terrorism), not the re-written one, is what people are going to remember and talk about at the water cooler.

georgej on May 12, 2007 at 3:06 AM

Terrific work, Bryan. I wonder how much of that story was just muffed up reporting and how much of it was bias.
I wonder if the military needs a regiment assigned just to correct media goofs.

gatewaypundit on May 12, 2007 at 4:23 PM

Bryan,

The AP itself didn’t even acknowledge the correction on its own story.

This happens all the time with AP stories. Pick any AP headline on Yahoo and open in it your browser. A couple hours later, cut and paste the URL for the article into a new browser window, and you’ll see the latest version. Check the latest version with the original in the other window, and you can find extensive updates/changes to the same story, with no indication that it was corrected or changed from the original.

A few AP reporters bylines seem to show more changes than others, and if it’s political, it gets interesting to see how many Democrat party quotes get picked up in later editions.

91Veteran on May 13, 2007 at 1:23 AM

I wonder if the military needs a regiment assigned just to correct media goofs.

Yes.

Bryan on May 13, 2007 at 8:26 PM

This problem is at the heart of why it’s vital that wire services and major outlets get their facts straight the first time.

This is why their reports need to be vetted first. Censorship? Yep. They’re called military censors for a reason … not giving an advantage to the enemy, reporting facts correctly, not reporting the good our side is doing. Only some of the reason the military needs to demand that embeds have their reports cleared or they are out. We did it in WWII, we need to be doing the same in WWIII.

IrishEyes on May 14, 2007 at 5:29 PM