MEDIA BRANDS: Washington, not a trigger-happy media, is at fault for inaccurate military reports from Iraq

The phrase "the fog of war" is typically trotted out to describe the inherently chaotic nature of battle that leads to friendly fire accidents as well as the deaths of innocents. One of the lessons of the war in Iraq is just how far that fog can creep, and judging how the military handled communications for the November 23 death of two soldiers in Mosul, the haze has made it all the way to Washington.

The phrase "the fog of war" is typically trotted out to describe the inherently chaotic nature of battle that leads to friendly fire accidents as well as the deaths of innocents. One of the lessons of the war in Iraq is just how far that fog can creep, and judging how the military handled communications for the November 23 death of two soldiers in Mosul, the haze has made it all the way to Washington.

In the wake of initial reports that the GIs had their throats slit and their corpses pulled from their vehicle by a mob of Iraqis, the Pentagon issued a revised account contradicting the most graphic aspects of the story. This version stated that the soldiers' throats were not cut and that the bodies were not dragged through the streets. Instead, it said, the soldiers were shot in the head, then had their belongings scavenged by Iraqis. From a distance, it seems the Pentagon was splitting hairs. After all, the basic fact that two men were killed in a gruesome manner still stands. But the Pentagon had to make the revision because of the precarious image of US involvement in Iraq. In the days after the story broke, parallels to the fate of American soldiers in Somalia, popularized in the book and film Black Hawk Down, were already being drawn. The need for damage control was obvious. The main problem with how this is being communicated is the credibility problems it causes for the military officials charged with informing the press and, by extension, the public about the war. It marks the second high-profile instance in which initial accounts of battle have clashed with reality, and led to media retractions. The other is the early version of the Jessica Lynch capture, which was much more fantasy than fiction in its heroic depiction, resulting in The Washington Post's fatally flawed story. Following the Lynch debacle, any careful reader will take the official version of events in Iraq with a pinch of salt. This should be more the case now, especially in light of the half-baked PR campaign the US-led coalition mounted against the press for the way it handled the original story. In an interview on Editor & Publisher's website on November 26, coalition spokesperson Sgt. Danny Martin blamed the AP for the spread of the story with the throat-slitting detail. He said, "I do find it somewhat irresponsible in their journalism that instead of perhaps just showing some patience and waiting for initial military reports that they just went from eyewitness accounts that have proven in just about every instance here to be exaggerated, embellished, or just false." Martin's criticism, based as it is on the notion that the stories about the slit throats didn't come from the military, contradicts several news organizations' own descriptions of their sourcing. More importantly, it's a wrongheaded attempt to scapegoat the media when it seems the real problem is that the military can't generate a reliable report without having it first fed through Washington. -matthew.creamer@prweek.com

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