Criticism Of McClatchy Surge Story Sparks Online Response

By: Joe Strupp

After receiving what McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott described as “more vehement” criticism than usual for a story claiming a decline in Iraq combat deaths, the bureau posted an unusual online response to the critics Thursday.

The response, written by International Editor Mark Seibel, defends the original story by Pentagon reporter and former Baghdad Bureau Chief Nancy Youssef that had reported the recent surge of additional U.S. forces had led to a drop in combat deaths.

It can be found here

Seibel’s lengthy piece also linked to various sources for statistics, such as the Web site, as well as blogs and online comment forums of both surge supporters and opponents.

“A story by Pentagon Correspondent Nancy A. Youssef that we published on Sunday sparked a huge outcry in the blogosphere this week. Critics charged that the piece uncritically accepted the Bush administration’s line that the surge of additional American troops to Iraq is working and that its statistical underpinning was flawed,” Seibel wrote. “McClatchy usually is associated with questioning administration claims, from the reasons for the war to Pentagon assertions about civilian casualties. We’ve earned a reputation for not accepting something just because someone says it’s true, so being accused of uncritical reporting stings.

“But one of our mottos here is ‘Truth to Power,’ and that cuts both ways, so here’s a more in-depth look at the story and some of the criticism of it.”

Seibel goes on to explain that the story was pegged on the Pentagon’s assertion earlier this summer that U.S. casualties would likely increase with the surge of troops.

“Pentagon officials and the White House had predicted that U.S. casualties would rise, especially since the U.S. forces had launched major offensives in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, and Babil province, to the south,” the response said. “One of the most recent restatements of that premise came in the White House’s July 12 assessment of progress in Iraq on Pages 3 and 4.

“So what happened?” Seibel wrote. “Not what had been predicted. U.S. deaths caused by enemy action peaked at 120 in May, before the surge reached full strength or Operation Phantom Thunder was launched. Combat casualties then fell consistently for the next three months, reaching a low of 56 in August. That’s the lowest number of combat casualties all year. You have to go back to July 2006 to find combat casualties at that level.”

Seibel’s piece then explains McClatchy’s statistical formations and sourcing, adding that editors found the approach by Youssef to be proper, but worth discussion and explanation.

“It is intended to invite a discussion and bring forward fair and hopefully a polite, responsible and reasonable discussion,” Walcott told E&P. “The Internet, by definition, is interactive. I think it is something we should do every time there is an occasion to do it.”

Walcott said he did not know how many responses, either via e-mail or online comments to the site, came in after Youssef’s story ran on Sept. 2. But he said “it was greater than most we get, and more vehement that what we normally see.”

Many of the complaints claimed that McClatchy had simply taken statistics at face value without questioning them. Others said that while casualties had dropped this year, they were still higher than last year’s totals for the same months. Another argument: The administration had hyped an expected casualty increase knowing it might then claim that it didn’t happen because of the surge.

One more point: Counting deaths from non-hostile causes, the death toll in August actually went up from July and was just one less than in August 2006. The helicopter crash that killed 14 was listed in the “non-hostile” category.

“I thought McClatchy was sharper than this,” one comment posted after the story ran said, while another opined, “Ms. Youssef is either incredibly naive, unethical, or both. Parroting the lies and misleading statements of the administration to justify this madness is not reporting, it is helpfully disseminating propaganda.”

Walcott said all of the comments were welcomed, adding, “We want to focus people on what the facts are and there is always room for discussion and dialogue.”

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