In 1980, Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke wrote a story titled "Jimmy's World," the startling tale of an 8-year-old "third-generation heroin addict" living in Washington, D.C.
Cooke's expose' captured several volatile issues in one tear-drenched package. "Jimmy's World" had drugs, race, poverty, "fast money and the good life."
In 1981, Cooke won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
Fine and dandy -- except she should have won the Pulitzer for fiction.
"Jimmy's World" was a complete crock. Little Heroin Jimmy didn't exist. The Washington Post, its publisher, Donald Graham, and Cooke's editor, Bob Woodward, were all duly embarrassed when Cooke's fraud was exposed. Her Pulitzer was withdrawn.
Woodward (of Watergate fame) admitted he failed to confirm the story. "I believed it; we published it," Woodward said.
In 1973, The National News Council was created to serve as an "independent forum" for encouraging responsible journalism and investigating allegations of press misconduct. My mentor, Norman Isaacs (a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor), served as council chairman for five years. Major press organizations -- especially The New York Times -- dismissed the National News Council as superfluous, arguing it had a "chilling effect" on aggressive reporting. The council published a thorough study of Cooke's debacle -- an examination that was ignored by the great press powers. Shortly thereafter, in 1983, the council shut down, due to lack of support.
We now move from Jimmy's World to Capt. Jamil Hussein.
Now, if I were "writing hot" -- writing for sensational effect -- I would have led with the alleged Jamil's blazing claim: that six Iraqi Sunnis were dragged from a mosque in Baghdad last week, doused with kerosene and burned to death by a Shia mob. Four mosques were also (allegedly) burned.
The Associated Press ran the dousing story on Nov. 24, and the story was repeated worldwide. (I read it online in the International Herald Tribune, a publication owned by The New York Times.)
Sensational, "headline-generating" elements absolutely jam the story: gruesome savagery, mob action, chaos in Iraq.
The AP identified "Police Captain Jamil Hussein" as its source for the story, with a second source identified as "a Sunni elder."
On Nov. 25, the press office of Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNCI) published press release No. 20061125-09 (see mnf-iraq.com). The MNCI stated that investigation showed only one mosque had been attacked and found no evidence to support the story of the six immolated Sunnis.
The U.S.-based Website FloppingAces (floppingaces.net) has published an email from MNCI to the AP that states "no one below the level of chief is authorized to be an Iraqi police spokesperson." The email also addresses the story of the Sunnis being burned alive: "... neither we nor Baghdad Police had any reports of such an incident after investigating it and could find no one to corroborate the story. ... We can tell you definitively that the primary source of this story, police Capt. Jamil Hussein, is not a Baghdad police officer or an MOI (Ministry of the Interior) employee." The letter is attributed to U.S. Navy Lt. Michael Dean.
I contacted CENTCOM's Baghdad press office and received an email confirming that Hussein is not a policeman nor does he work for Iraq's MOI.
FloppingAces noted that the AP has quoted "Jamil Hussein" in at least eight stories since April 2006.
So who is Jamil?
At this point we really don't know. The AP hasn't provided definitive details. Jamil's "burning Sunnis" story now appears to be rather dubious smoke. However, its horrifying headline has magnified a perception of sectarian terror, one advantageous to Saddam's "former regime elements" and al-Qaida terrorists.
MNCI could be wrong, but the distinct possibility exists that the AP has been misled by its own stringers or duped by an enemy propaganda operation. If Jamil is another "Jimmy," the AP's story -- as a weapon in a war of perception -- is far more damaging than Janet Cooke's Washington fiction.
Jamil and his various stories require investigation and substantiation; an AP self-investigation will strike many as inadequate. Twenty-five years ago, The New York Times dismissed the National News Council as unnecessary. "Jimmy's World" proved the Times wrong. We need to revive the National News Council -- and have it investigate "Jamil's World" muy pronto.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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