The Vancouver Scrum

On the move!

Agh! You’re still here? My new site and weblog, is now up and running; new posts are building up over there, never to be mirrored here. Go! What are you waiting for? All the stuff worth keeping has been migrated over to the new server, and I don’t anticipate making any more posts here.

Bloggers and webmasters: Update your links! Simply replace with in your blogrolls or bookmarks to point to the new site. Old posts will remain on this server for as long as the people at Blogger/Google allow them to remain; unfortunately, I’m not going to bother to come up with any way of converting permalinks on this blog to their corresponding posts on the new site. Yes, I plead laziness. I also realize the irony of switching away from Blogger just it starts to add features that the demanding blog nerds insist upon.

Thanks for reading and linking, and see you over at!

—Ian King, December 13, 2004

Sunday, March 23, 2003

The Chemical Weapons Plant Story:
Honest Confusion or Yellow Journalism?

On Sunday, the Jerusalem Post's Catherine Glick, who is embedded with a United States military unit, reported that US forces had found what appeared to be a chemical weapons plant at An Najaf, south of Baghdad. Her first report, which described a 'suspected' chemical weapons facility, set off a tizzy. Was this the first proof that Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass destruction, as opposed to the absence of proof that he didn't? For those who had claimed that Saddam had WMD, this was looking like vindication time. Even though Glick's report didn't say that it was a chemical weapons plant (and how would she be able to get another independent source to confirm this in her situation?), pro-war television and web pundits were ready to pounce. They could now shout out, "TOLD YA SO! You useful idiots wouldn't believe our President, and that you wanted proof! There it is -- now eat your crow!" to all those who didn't take the Bush administration's claims on faith.

Pretty soon, speculation fluttered across the 24-hour news channels that the Bushies and the warbloggers had gotten what they wanted. Then the big boost came: FOX News, that paragon of quality journalism, reported on air and on line that a "senior Pentagon official" had confirmed that the facility was, in fact, a chemical plant. The text report, as it originally appeared on the Fox News Channel web site, read:
'Huge' Chemical Weapons Plant Found in Iraq

A senior Pentagon official has confirmed to Fox News on Sunday that coalition forces have discovered a "huge" chemical weapons factory near the Iraqi city of An Najaf, which is situated some 225 miles south of Baghdad.

Coalition troops are also said to be holding the general in charge of the facility.

The Jerusalem Post ran a story earlier Sunday that was written by a journalist on-hand with the U.S. unit -- the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division - that took the plant.

The article states that one soldier was lightly wounded when a booby-trapped explosive was triggered as he was "clearing the sheet metal-lined chemical weapons production facility."
Huzzah! Hallelujah! Saddam has WMD, and the ostensible reason for the war -- to disarm the Hussein regime -- now had some basis in fact.

Or did it?

The only major news source that was reporting that this was an honest-to-goodness chemical weapons plant was Fox News Channel. Even the Times of London, also owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, was not running with the story. CNN was refusing to report that this site was a weapons factory, although it was reporting what any decent journalistic organization would: that the site was "suspicious." Agence France Presse's stories, in a nice trick to distance themselves from Fox's claims (and preserve their own reputation?), said only that Fox was confirming that the facility was real. Naturally, the BBC, with its stringent sourcing requirements, was not about to touch the story. So what we had here was a claim by one news source with a known right-wing bias, that promotes the Bush position and that has a fondness for bombast, and no other reputable news organization that was willing to confirm it. Dubious -- but not to those who didn't need independent confirmation, or who perhaps just wanted the story to be true.

The warbloggers spring into action, all right. Glenn Reynolds, the InstaPundit, grabbed on and posted what he thought to be links that confirmed the Fox story; in fact, the 'supporting' stories also mentioned that the plant at Najaf was only suspect -- not one confirmation. Little Green Footballs, one of the net's premier meeting places for the pro-war (and anti-Arab) set went wild, with hundreds of self-congratulatory posts in the few hours after the "story" broke. Same over at Right-Wing News, and a dozen or so other (mostly pro-war) web logs found in MIT's insidious Blogdex.

But what about the confirmation?

It hasn't come yet. While AFP continued to put cautiously worded stories out onto the wire, the warbloggers fumed, pontificated, and beat their chests. Unfortunately for them, Fox News has changed its story to say that the plant is An Najaf is "suspected" of being a chemical weapons plant. Sometime between 8:00 PT and 10:00 PM PT that evening, the web report was revised to read:
Coalition forces discovered Sunday a "huge" suspected chemical weapons factory near the Iraqi city of Najaf, some 90 miles south of Baghdad, a senior Pentagon official confirmed to Fox News.
Hmm. Not only is this place no longer confirmed to be a chemical weapons factory, but apparently An Najaf is 135 miles closer to Baghdad than it was that morning. Earth-shattering.

The fact that Fox put out this story is disturbing. One wonders if the editors at Fox News Channel and were letting their political biases get in the way of their editorial judgment. Would they run with this because they were confident that it would be confirmed as a chemical plant, and that Fox could then claim that it was the first to break the news? Perhaps Fox ran the story to stir up more pro-war and pro-Bush sentiment, in the fine tradition of the Hearst "yellow press." There is an echo of the telegraph that William Randolph Hearst once sent a reporter in Cuba in is efforts to whip up enthusiasm for the Spanish-American War: "You supply the pictures, I'll supply the war."

It makes one wonder if they've forgotten the hack's maxim, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Fox's decision to run this story seemingly without confirmation raises questions about its editorial policy, and of its guidelines for sourcing stories before they make it to air or to the web. After all, Fox's report contradicted every other major news outlet with their initial report, and the network later changed its story -- did the "senior Pentagon official" unconfirm this?

Whatever the reasons for Fox's handling of the story, sloppy work like this helps to cement Fox's reputation as a questionable news source -- as if the pervasive conservative opinion-mongers on the network’s programs, the hiring of Geraldo Rivera as a high-profile correspondent, and the preference for sensationalism over substance weren't enough.

So is this place in An Najaf a chemical weapon plant or not? The answer, for now, is: I don't know for certain, and just as one does not call someone accused of a crime a criminal, this rule applies as to this place, whatever it turns out to be. To report it as being a place as a chemical weapons factory is not responsible reporting. Then again, they don't call it the Faux News Channel for nothin'.

UPDATE: Associated Press reports that U.S. troops have found "no evidence" at the site:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. military investigators have found no evidence that chemical weapons have been made in recent years at a suspect chemical plant secured by U.S. troops in southern Iraq, a senior defense official said Tuesday.
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