The most explosive and far-reaching news story of the year has nothing to do with underage pages and a certain Republican ex-Congressman. This story involves ignition in the streets of Baghdad and six immolations that probably never occurred. While Mark Foley took down a congressional majority, the tale of Jamil Hussein may end up permanently damaging the credibility of the world's premier news gathering source, the Associate Press (AP).
The story begins on Nov. 24 when Qais al-Bashir, an Iraqi "stringer" working for the AP, wrote a story in which he alleged that Shiite militiamen avenging earlier attacks burned down four Sunni mosques in Baghdad and that during this rampage, they burned six Sunni civilians alive. Many news outlets seized upon this incendiary report, and soon it was appearing on front pages worldwide. The two sources for this story were Iraqi police Captain Jamil Hussein and a former member of Saddam Hussein's secret police who is now an imam.
Shortly after the story was published, U.S. Central Command and the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior sent units to the neighborhood where the attacks were said to have taken place. They found no bodies, no other witnesses who would corroborate the story and only one lightly damaged mosque. Perplexed, they questioned the local "imam." He quickly recanted his story. So the ministry went looking for Jamil Hussein and discovered that no one by that name is employed by the Iraqi police. After confirming that no Captain Hussein existed, the ministry publicly stated that Hussein is one of more than a dozen official sources quoted in the press who are not who they claim to be.
Several of these other possibly fake sources, including one man who posed as a lieutenant and has a warrant out for his arrest, were consistently quoted in the same articles as Hussein. Hussein has also commented about attacks on Sunnis in numerous far-flung areas of Baghdad. Finally, Hussein was quoted on average twice a week between April and November but has not been quoted once since this controversy erupted. While these facts hardly prove anything by themselves, together with everything we know they strongly suggest that Hussein is a figment of the AP's imagination and that any statements attributed to him are false.
That the story is wrong is beyond debate; even the AP now refers to one burned mosque, not four, so the question is not "if" but "how badly" the AP screwed up. Yet instead of an apology, the AP's response to criticism has been to shoot the messenger. The story first broke on the conservative blog www.floppingaces.net and grew quickly within a circle of other conservative blogs and opinion columns. The AP alleged that this was simply a "mad blog rabble" attacking an entirely reputable source. This ignores the fact that Hussein only became a story after the U.S. military and Iraqi government demanded but did not receive a retraction of the original faulty report.
So why have traditional media sources not reported this controversy? Because it is not in their interests to undermine the AP. This summer's "fauxtography" scandal at Reuters, in which photographers were found to have photoshopped evidence of Israeli atrocities during the Hezbollah war, did not hit at the underlying narrative. The storyline stayed the same with different details. If the AP has to issue a correction for all 61 stories in which Hussein was quoted, it will call into question fundamental perceptions about what is happening in Iraq. If Hussein isn't real, it suggests that there are other as yet undiscovered fakes.
If our media is reporting as fact attacks that never occurred substantiated by witnesses who don't exist, then we have a problem. Public opinion about distant events is necessarily based on what is reported in the press. Therefore, we need to be confident that what we read is real. If we have to look at every source with suspicion and fight over every figure, our country cannot make necessary decisions about this war.
That is not to say that bad things don't happen in Iraq — they do. What we need to hear, however, is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — not lies made believable because they fit in with a preconceived "reality of the situation." Our press owes us at least that much. Barry Caro is a sophomore from White Plains, N.Y. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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