Fog of War: The truth goes MIA
It's never easy getting the facts right on a breaking story in Baghdad. The obstacles to verifying and checking things out for yourself are daunting enough. You have to always gauge the integrity and objectivity of your sources, when trying to confirm. Today the needle on that gauge was way off the mark, and dangerously so.
On our daily conference call for the foreign bureaus this morning, I ended my summary of what had happened in Iraq today, with some sobering news that was just crossing the wires, as we were holding the call.
It was a Reuters wire that read in part: "Separate groups of gunmen entered two primary schools in Baghdad on Wednesday and beheaded two teachers in front of their students," according to the Ministry of State for National Security.
There was dead silence for a moment as the thought of it possibly being true sank in.
The report set in motion a flurry of calls at our Baghdad bureau in an effort to pin down the veracity of the story.
At first none of the broadcast news agencies we regularly work with, Reuters TV and APTN, were aware of the story. (Reuters TV and Reuters text, like other media under the same umbrella, are in fact separate entities.) Both Reuters TV and APTN sent crews to both schools to effort confirmation of the story.
We learned that the two schools were in the Shab district of north Baghdad. It was true that there are two primary schools there, named Amna and Shaheed Hamdi, where students between the ages of six and eleven are enrolled. From there on the truth went MIA.
Truth goes MIA
"We sent a crew and they spoke with witnesses in front of the school, and they say nothing happened. We spoke to the guard at the school who says 'I was here from early morning until they (the kids) left, and nothing happened," said a representative of one of the agencies.
"We went to both schools and no one confirmed it. We even went to the local police station and they denied it happen. This thing you can’t hide. The kids saw nothing," said the bureau chief of another news agency.
Our NBC bureau called the Ministry of Interior, and they had reports on the incident.
In the back of my mind I was wondering, what is this Ministry of State for National Security? Usually such reports come out of the Ministry of Interior.
"Another job for another thug," one of my colleagues said, suggesting that perhaps this Ministry of State for National Security exists just as much for patronage as for security.
The ministry is in fact a legitimate part of the government, but why would a ministry ever put out such a statement that's so inflammatory? And if this is so official, and so dead wrong, who can you trust out here?
Just as troubling, how responsible is it for a news agency (in this case a wire service) to put out such information without trying to go through some independent fact-checking. I put that question to other officials and bureau chiefs of the agencies, and there was no answer. A classic case of misinformation and bad reporting.
For now the story is dead, and once again there is the reminder that on a daily basis, truth is always the first casualty here. Having a healthy skepticism about everything is just as important as wearing your flak jacket here.
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