Mary Katharine Ham

Hussein was the only source for the story until Friday evening, when the AP added corroboration from Hurriyah Sunni elder Imad al-Hashimi. The next day, the AP claimed to “stand by its story,” but published another version of the story, this one with far more detail and several new witnesses, all unnamed.

Thursday, the AP continued to stand by its story without addressing CENTCOM’s claims about Jamil Hussein.

We are satisfied with our reporting on this incident. If Iraqi and U.S. military spokesmen choose to disregard AP’s on-the-ground reporting, that is certainly their choice to make, but it is a puzzling one given the facts.

AP journalists have repeatedly been to the Hurriyah neighborhood, a small Sunni enclave within a larger Shiia area of Baghdad . Residents there have told us in detail about the attack on the mosque and that six people were burned alive during it. Images taken later that day and again this week show a burned mosque and graffiti that says “blood wanted,” similar to that found on the homes of Iraqis driven out of neighborhoods where they are a minority. We have also spoken repeatedly to a police captain who is known to AP and has been a reliable source of accurate information in the past and he has confirmed the attack.

So, what does it all matter? It’s one source, disputed by the government. It’s one story among thousands of Sunni/Shiite infighting. It’s one more tale of enmity.

Is it just one, though? Or has it been months of stories attributed to Jamil Hussein, which may or may not be entirely true? Has it been just the one questionable incident reported? Or, was it also one mosque torched in April of this year, not four mosques? Was it also grown men killed in a tank attack in Ramadi instead of women and children killed in an airstrike? Is it just Hussein, or are there dozens of suspicious sources on CENTCOM’s “who-the-hell-is-he?” list?

But heck, you say, bad stuff happens all the time in Iraq, right? This “burned alive” story could have happened, too.

Yes, it could have happened, and may have. There is violence and brutality in Iraq. But because it could have happened does not lessen the AP’s obligation to report it responsibly. In fact, if anything, it increases AP’s obligation to be transparent.

After all, if the AP were to report that six Baptists were doused in kerosene and burned to death by a warring faction of Presbyterians in Elijay, Ga. this weekend, the story’s accuracy would be pretty easy to assess.

When it happens in a war-torn country half a world away, telling truth from rumor becomes much harder, and it should be the reporter’s desire to convince his readers he’s dealing in truths when questions arise. The AP doesn’t seem very interested in convincing anyone.

But, even if they’re not true, stories like this reflect the “larger truth,” so they’re not all that harmful, right? Iraq is violent, so violent rumors are “fake but accurate” reflections of the status on the ground, no? No harm, no foul?

Let’s ask Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf Al-Kenani of the Iraqi Minstry of Information (from the same press conference).

The second subject is rumors. The ministry received in a week more than 12 cases of claims, one stating 50 killed were there, 200 kidnapped here, 30 corpses found there etc. And when we dispatched our forces and investigators to the locations, we found nothing…

Doing otherwise, you will end up helping the spread of the rumors and make them reality, even thought it was a false rumor. This rumor business -- if a large issue, it will take a long time to cover it, but the purpose of the rumors is to disrupt life and make the security apparatus busy with other things than its main tasks. We will end up following rumors instead of hunting terrorists and criminals.

Oops.

This is not a one-time transgression or a harmless rumor. This is indicative of a pattern, which is indicative of untold numbers of inaccuracies that were never caught, rumors that were never stopped, sources that were never verified. Each one of those has had a part, however miniscule, in forming the narrative of the war in Iraq and the greater War on Terror. That narrative has shaped public opinion in Iraq, the U.S., and around the world. That public opinion may end up playing a hand in whether we win or lose in that theater.

Reporters are fond of thinking they can change the world. They should really double-check all their sources before they go trying.

Who is Capt. Jamil Hussein? Keep asking that question. Getting the answer right matters a great deal. You'd think reporters would understand that.


Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of HotAir.com, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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