Okrent Looking Into ‘NY Times’ Calling Civilian Casualties ‘Unconfirmed’ or ‘Inflated’

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By: Erin Olson

While debate continues over the death toll in this month?s assault on Fallujah, Daniel Okrent, public editor at The New York Times, is trying to find out why the paper, in its news pages, continues to claim that civilian casualties were ?unconfirmed? or ?inflated? in last April?s aborted offensive.

“I have a response from the foreign desk,” he told E&P. “I’m now kind of examining their response. I’m not ready to say anything conclusive.”

Okrent said the ultimate decision to call the casualties “unconfirmed” rested with Susan Chira, the foreign editor. Chira did not immediately return phone calls from E&P requesting comment.

In April, U.S. military officials claimed that the number of civilian casualties released by Fallujah General Hospital — more than 800 — was inflated, and Iraq Health Minister Khodair Abbas announced a much lower (but not unsubstantial) figure: 271 dead. According to Abbas, local doctors had been pressured to exaggerate their counts.

On Oct. 26, however, the independent British-based group Iraq Body Count put the civilian casualty figure for April 2004 in Fallujah at around 600, partly based on “detailed and exhaustive analysis” of nearly 300 contemporary news reports. According to the group’s Web site, iraqbodycount.net, doctors and eyewitnesses reported that at least 308 women and children had been killed.

The issue resurfaced this month when, on the first day of the Fallujah offensive, U.S. and Iraqi troops’ primary objective was to secure Fallujah General Hospital, which was labeled a “propaganda” machine against the United States and its allies and a refuge for insurgents. Troops burst in and tied up patients and doctors to make sure the compound was secure. The military charged that the civilian toll from the earlier offensive had been grossly inflated.

The group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) subsequently noted on its Web site that the Times had referred to “unconfirmed reports of large civilian casualties” in three articles, printed Nov. 8, Nov. 9, and Nov. 15, and asked readers to write to Okrent.

Then, in a Nov. 17 Times article by Robert Worth, civilian casualties are referred to as “inflated,” with no acknowledgement of the controversy surrounding the numbers. Worth wrote, “After the Marines first invaded the city in April, inflated civilian casualty figures from Fallujah General Hospital inflamed opinion throughout the country, driving up the political costs of the conflict and ultimately forcing the American occupation authority to order a withdrawal.” But no one has been able to prove whether those numbers were actually inflated or not.

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