Finding the story with little facts

Professional journalists are indeed chumps. Sometimes they are so desperate for fast-breaking news stories that they uncritically pass on unverified information and dubious facts to readers. The resulting stories lack credibility a situation that breeds widespread cynicism on the part of those who regularly read newspapers or watch television news programs.

A case in point is the mid-January discovery in Iraq of 16 canisters that supposedly were “weapons of mass destruction” (to used a hopelessly outworn expression). Journalists seized upon this story as evidence of the “smoking gun” (another outworn expression) that President George W. Bush so desperately needs to justify an armed attack on Iraq. The only problem is that the story was bogus from the outset. The canisters were not proof of anything.

The absence of proof and hard facts about the canisters did not prevent journalists all over the United States from making a big deal about the discovery. Associated Press journalist John J. Lumpkin, for example, proclaimed that they were “chemical warheads,” though he later conceded that Iraq is allowed to have such artillery rockets if they are loaded with conventional explosives. Washington Post writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran went further, stating on Jan. 17 that inspectors discovered a “weapons cache” that contained “warheads, equipped to deliver chemical weapons.” In a later story, the Post writer said the canisters were “warheads… designed to fit atop 122mm rockets and disperse deadly sarin gas.” The statements in both stories were not supported by the facts. A Washington Times story also was not credible. It was, however, less emotional, referring to the canisters merely (but still inaccurately) as “chemical warheads.”

The Los Angeles Times set a new standard for inaccurate reporting when it stated “The 11 empty delivery systems are a type used for deadly nerve agents.” Now the canisters are “delivery systems,” and the newspaper has already concluded that they are intended for toxic chemicals.

The truth is that the U.N. Weapons Inspection Team found empty 122mm rocket canisters that were in storage boxes, in plain view, conspicuously marked. The Iraqi officials had made no attempt to hide them, nor were they apologetic when weapons inspectors unpacked them and held them up for news photographers. The 122mm rockets are “area,” not precision weapons that have a range of 7 to 11 kilometers; thus, they are suitable for tactical, not strategic purposes. Moreover, their principle value is in harassing troops, not in causing widespread damage. They have little value as offensive weapons.

The North Vietnamese army used identical Soviet-style 122mm rockets against American troops from 1967 to 1971. The highly portable rockets contained about 14 pounds of explosives, and the resulting shrapnel was lethal to troops in the open out to about 100 yards. Americans also have an inventory of artillery rockets, but commanders avoid using them because they are inaccurate. Further, if rockets are used, commanders are loath to load them with chemical or biological agents because a wind shift could easily bring the agents back to the launch sites. Thus, rockets have some value on a tactical battlefield, but not much.

Today, just a week after the discovery of these “warheads,” the story seems to have lost its legs, to use newspaper jargon. Professional journalists are scampering about looking for a different story to impress their editors. As always, stories that lend themselves to emotionalism and misleading headlines will take precedence over stories that stress cold, hard facts. The lesson for readers: be skeptical. Some stories are just plain phony.

Gary Jacobsen lives in Woodbridge.

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