When the Press Dropped the Ball on Haditha

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By: Greg Mitchell

Haditha is back on the front pages, with the announcement on Thursday that four marines were being charge with murder in the alleged 2005 massacre of 24 villagers in Iraq, with four officers hit with serious dereliction of duty charges. Since this case has been simmering for many months now, with repeated press references (as other possible atrocities surfaced), it may seem as if the media has bird-dogged this episode from the start.

In fact, the media dropped the ball at the start – helped by a military cover-up — and it stayed off the radar for quite some time.

Following the killings in Haditha on November 19, 2005, it took months for an official investigation to begin. An Associated Press story from Baghdad in June quoted Hassan Bazaz, a Baghdad University political scientist, complaining that strong interest belatedly being shown by Western news media in the alleged U.S. misconduct is only now catching up with common views in Iraq. “There is nothing new or surprising for Iraqis,” said Bazaz. “The problem is that the outside world has been isolated from what happens on the ground in Iraq. What the media says now is only a fraction of what happens every day.”

Of course, dangerous conditions for reporters in Iraq have been well chronicled ? especially by E&P. It?s hard to criticize anyone for not being eager to trek out to Haditha, and get shot at (or worse), and it?s not known if villagers would have spoken frankly to any reporter a year ago.

But what about those covering war-related issues back in the safety of the USA who had a chance to break it wide open? Clues about the general lack of interest — on the home front — concerning military misconduct at that time appeared in a Thomas Ricks story in The Washington Post in early June.

Ricks traced the now-familiar timeline: Haditha killings in November, nothing reported until a Time magazine story in March, very quiet again until Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) told reporters on May 17 the shocking news (after he was briefed on the incident) that what happened in Haditha was “much worse than reported in Time magazine.” Murtha stated that the investigations would reveal that our troops overreacted, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood. It was a thunderbolt at the time.

But here?s what happened next, according to Ricks: ?The reporters present barely focused on what Murtha had said. When the congressman finished his statement, the first reporter asked about Iraqi security forces. The second asked about U.S. troop withdrawals. The third asked about congressional support for Murtha’s resolution calling for a U.S. pullout from Iraq.

?Finally, the fourth asked about Haditha. Murtha responded with a bit more detail: ?They actually went into the houses and killed women and children. And there was about twice as many as originally reported by Time.? Even then, his comments captured little attention and were not front-page news. It took a few days for the horror of what Murtha was talking about to sink in.?

This is shocking, on one level, but on another, not surprising, because the media had pretty much ignored the Haditha story after noting Time?s scoop back in March.

The New York Times, for example, covered the Time revelations on March 17. On April 6, Haditha briefly appeared in a story, without any reference to the Time probe, and a week later another story mentioned the possible massacre in one sentence. Nothing else appeared in the paper until May 19?after Murtha?s talk. Nothing appeared in any opinion columns there either.

The Washington Post carried two stories just after the Time scoop ? then nothing else until Murtha?s remarks. The Los Angeles Times, after covering the Time revelations, returned for an April 8 story on three commanders at Haditha being relieved of duty, and that?s it. A search of AP archives mirrors the L.A. Times? record in that period.

Conservative bloggers, meanwhile, ripped Murtha’s claims as obviously overstated or even traitorous. One of them wrote: “It would seem appropriate that the United States House of Representatives should at the very least censure Congressman Murtha, who has gone so far out of his way to initiate such inflammatory and potentially dangerous rhetoric. He has dishonored his seat, the military criminal justice system, the Marine Corps and the United States of America. How a man can make such vicious, unsupported claims and still claim to love the Marine Corps and America is beyond my understanding.”

Throughout the preceding year there had been scattered reports of U.S. wrongdoing in the field, ranging from hair-trigger shootings of civilians to running Iraqi vehicles off the road when they did not get out of the way of a convoy fast enough. The Knight Ridder Baghdad bureau has been relatively aggressive on this front, and others have covered dozens of tragic episodes — but, by and large, the media’s reports had been downplayed and rarely probed deeply until this June.

That month, The Washington Post and The New York Times played catch-up with gripping on-the-scene reporting. John Burns of The Times. meanwhile, described what he called “harsh Marine battle tactics” in Iraq. “Reporters’ experiences with the Marines,” he related, “even more than with the Army, show they resort quickly to using heavy artillery or laser-guided bombs when rooting out insurgents who have taken refuge among civilians, with inevitable results.” Yet few embeds have ever emphasized these “inevitable results.”

One problem: news organizations for years have cut back on sending reporters to Iraq.

The media, like political figures of all persuasions, have tried to separate the war from the warriors. This is a very good thing, except when it is carried too far — into blanket and largely unquestioning support for the conduct of our boys. In any case, finally, after Haditha — after Murtha — we saw a torrent of stories, on the home front, focusing on possible abuses, past and present.

Related E&P Columns:

Haditha: In an ‘Atrocity-Producing Situation’ — Who Is to Blame? by Robert Lifton.

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