It is important to find out if this really happened in order to separate the hyperbole from the merely horrible in Iraq, so that the horrible will still have meaning. Otherwise it will all become din.
It is also true that the institution conducting America’s multibillion gamble in Iraq — the military — says that this standout of atrocities never happened, while a venerable, trusted news agency has twice interviewed witnesses who said, in extensive, vivid detail, that it did.
That is not just a curiosity. It is a limbo that leaves Hurriyah open for use as a political plaything, to confirm deep-seated beliefs about the media, or to give Iraqi ministers rhetorical fuel to threaten reporters.
Whatever the agenda of the bloggers most interested in debunking the article, it somehow seems important to figure out why this incident — in the face of all the killings in Iraq — remains in such dispute.
Which part is most offensive? The vaguely puzzled, “fake but accurate” overtones of that last paragraph? The aspersion cast on the military’s credibility vis-a-vis a news outlet that employs jihadi paparazzo Bilal Hussein? The indignation at the thought of Iraqi stringers feeling cowed by the government into slanting their coverage without a glimmer of awareness that they might already be slanting it the other way out of sectarian fear or sympathy? Or the fact that he glosses over the real worry here, that a “venerable, trusted news agency” might have committed fraud, to fret about people failing to distinguish real news from fake — and then acts defensive and disingenuous when a group of (conservative) bloggers try to make that very distinction?
But never mind that. Here’s where he tips his hand:
Meanwhile, little in the way of fallout over the event itself has been detected — no outcry, no heated, televised denunciations from Sunni clerics and politicians — as might be expected from what The Associated Press itself called “one of the most horrific alleged attacks of Iraq’s sectarian war.”
And so questions lingered and the blogs raged on.
That’s pretty much all you get by way of skepticism about the AP report. What you could have and should have gotten is the fact that the Times itself cast doubt on the AP’s story. From November 24th:
Fanned by fear, rumors spread quickly throughout the day. In the evening, a resident named Imad al-Hashemi said in a telephone interview on Al Jazeera, the Arab news network, that gunmen had doused some people with gasoline and set them on fire. Other residents contacted by telephone denied this.
How do I know about that? Because Tom Zeller, the author of tonight’s wagon-circler, linked to it on his blog on November 30th. Then, the next day, he went one better and contacted the author of the article for further details. The response:
You ask me about what our own reporting shows about this incident. When we first heard of the event on Nov. 24, through the A.P. story and a man named Imad al-Hashemi talking about it on television, we had our Iraqi reporters make calls to people in the Hurriya neighborhood. Because of the curfew that day, everything had to be done by phone. We reached several people who told us about the mosque attacks, but said they had heard nothing of Sunni worshippers being burned alive. Any big news event travels quickly by word of mouth through Baghdad, aided by the enormous proliferation of cell phones here. Such an incident would have been so abominable that a great many of the residents in Hurriya, as well as in other Sunni Arab districts, would have been in an uproar over it. Hard-line Sunni Arab organizations such as the Muslim Scholars Association or the Iraqi Islamic Party would almost certainly have appeared on television that day or the next to denounce this specific incident. Iraqi clerics and politicians are not shy about doing this. Yet, as far as I know, there was no widespread talk of the incident. So I mentioned it only in passing in my report.
That’s where Zeller got the background for the paragraph in tonight’s article. Why didn’t he specify that the Times’s own Baghdad correspondent has reason to doubt the AP report? Probably for the same reason he didn’t note that the AP’s new witnesses to the burning were all anonymous or that the agency hasn’t disputed Centcom’s assertion that its initial report about four mosques being burned was wrong: because that would have screwed with his theme of “rag[ing]” bloggers and Bush’s keystone kops military assailing the “venerable, trusted” Associated Press.
Curt has also responded to Zeller at length, but the post of his you really want to read is the one about AP reporter Qais al-Bashir. See-Dubya figured out a few days ago that al-Bashir has a funny knack for interviewing guys on Centcom’s list of unverified personnel, and now Curt’s put those suspicions to a Lexis-Nexis test. With curious results.
Keep your eye on this, too. As of 4:30 a.m. eastern time, both the Times and the Washington Post place yesterday’s death toll from the car bombs in Baghdad at “at least 51 people.” The AP says it’s “at least 91.” One of the AP’s sources for its report? Lt. Ali Muhsin, who’s on Centcom’s list. The AP reporter on the story? Qais al-Bashir.