“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” — Thomas Jefferson
I just returned home from a trip to Fallujah, where I was the only reporter embedded with the United States military. There was, however, an unembedded reporter in the city at the same time. Normally it would be useful to compare what I saw and heard while traveling and working with the Marines with what a colleague saw and heard while working solo. Unfortunately, the other Fallujah reporter was Ali al-Fadhily from Inter Press Services.
Mr. al-Fadhily is unhappy with the way things are going in the city right now. It means little to him that the only shots fired by the Marines anymore are practice rounds on the range, and that there hasn’t been a single fire fight or combat casualty for months. That’s fair enough, as far as it goes, and perhaps to be expected from a reporter who isn’t embedded with the military and who focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians. The trouble is that Mr. Al-Fadhily’s hysterical exaggerations, refusal to provide crucial context, and outright fabrications amount to a serious case of journalistic malpractice.
Read the rest at Commentary Magazine.
UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald thinks that because I was embedded with the U.S. military and al-Fadhily wasn’t that my work is less credible. Specifically he insists that al-Fadhily’s claim that 70 percent of Fallujah is destroyed is more credible than my claim to the contrary.
If the city were 70 percent destroyed it would look much like Dresden did after the fire-bombing. I could not possibly spend a month there without noticing, especially since I moved to a new location inside the city every day. You can believe that I would publish pictures of vast destruction in Fallujah if it existed because that’s exactly what I did when I recently went to Ramadi and Lebanon. I do have a track record of that sort of thing. I have no reason, good or bad, to treat Fallujah any differently.
It would be truly amazing — if not impossible — if I could spend so much time in Fallujah and not notice that 70 percent of it was destroyed.
I recently (sincerely and politely) offered to help Glenn Greenwald get to Iraq safely since he’s a journalist who writes about it so much. So far he hasn’t responded. By his own logic, both al-Fadhily and myself are more credible on the subject than he is. I wouldn’t normally pull rank on a colleague like this, but since Glenn pulled rank over me on al-Fadhily’s behalf, he gets the same in return.
I’ll still help Glenn get to Iraq if he wants so we won’t have to talk to each other like this.
UPDATE #2: Glenn Greenwald says I mischaracterized what he wrote in the following paragraph:
Writing at The Podhoretz Family’s Commentary Magazine, right-wing blog favorite Michael Totten — who says he has been the only reporter other than al-Fadhily in Fallujah — takes issue with some of al-Fadhily’s claims about the extent to which Fallujah was destroyed by our 2004 military assualt. In doing so, Totten revealingly points out that he, Totten, is always with the U.S. military, while the independent al-Falahdy “isn’t embedded with the military and  focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians,” as though that makes Totten’s assertions more credible, rather than less credible, than al-Fadhily’s.
He wrote in an email that he did not say my “reporting was less credible with regard to whether 70% of Fallujah had been destroyed.” It looked that way from my first reading of his paragraph, but I suppose it could be read both ways and the misunderstanding can be chalked up to sloppy writing on his part, sloppy reading on my part, or both.
In any case, I have no interest in mischaracterizing what he or anyone else writes. And I’m glad to hear he did not mean to say what I thought he said.
He says, in email, that he thinks al-Fadhily is more credible than me “SOLELY WITH RESPECT to the point about whether Falljuah residents had been harrassed or arrested after speaking with journalists.”
I think he’s wrong about that, but feel free to click on over and read his argument.
One point he makes is fair enough, at least. I did not back up my assertion with evidence. He’s right. I didn’t. I exceeded my word limit and tried to keep it short, so here is some evidence now:
Arresting citizens for talking to journalists is a strict violation of the human rights rules being handed down from the Americans to the Iraqis. And the Iraqi Police are very closely supervised by the Marines. They live together in the same stations and go on joint patrols with each other.
I personally sat in on a class where two Marine officers instructed Iraqi Police officers in the human rights ethics expected of them. United Nations documents, rather than American documents, were the source material for the course, but the Iraqi Police are being trained to act like professional police officers in a liberal democracy, not a dictatorship.
Not everything sticks. It’s possible that the Iraqi Police would round someone up for no reason other than talking to journalists, but the Marines would be furious and would instantly undo the problem as soon as they found out about it.
No one can disprove a negative, but this one does not pass the smell test. Iraq is a paranoid place. I can’t prove that the Americans didn’t put a shark in a Euphrates River canal to scare people, either, but I shouldn’t have to.
UPDATE #3: Here is a worthwhile comment posted over at Commentary:
# Richard F. Says:
December 17th, 2007 at 5:12 pm
Michael: I am writing as a 3-time embedded reporter including one stint with the 3/8 Marines in Fallujah just two months after the conclusion Al-Fajr. I was on Humvee patrols in and out of the city, and the claim of “70%” destruction is bogus. Moreover, it is a claim that has steadily grown since the conclusion of that battle. Particularly from war opponents, an assertion of 1/3 destruction was the first “percentage” I heard; next it was 50%; about one year ago, I read that 75% was the actual number. It’s good to know that there has been some “decline” however marginal—must be the result of the Surge!
Seriously, between these claims (which I found bogus and which may be investigated by a close viewing of satellite photos) and the (usually) allied assertion that the destruction was attributable to the indiscriminate use of WP, I had first-time experience with the famous comment (of uncertain parentage) that truth is the first casualty of war.
The claim that embed equals “in-bed” is usually raised in direct proportion to how well the subject reporting comports with the political views of those making the comment. For example, when Kevin Sites took his famous footage inside a Fallujah mosque, that purported to show a US Marine executing a wounded insurgent (the Marine was later cleared) no one claimed that Sites was “in bed” with his PAO. Unfortunately, for honest reporters, their work is evaluated by how useful it is to the media’s, politician’s or blogger’s agenda. Just remember, in a hyper-partisan world, there is always room for more agreement!