FAIR: NY Times Responds on Fallujah Weapons

Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting: Update
NY Times Public editor sides with reporter’s dismissal

On July 18, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt responded to FAIR’s June 11 Action Alert “Incendiary Weapons are No Allegation.” FAIR’s action alert took issue with a New York Times review (5/29/07) of the British play Fallujah, in which reviewer Jane Perlez called into question the “objectivity” and “authenticity” of the playwright, Jonathan Holmes, over “the scenes that deal with the use of napalm in Falluja, an allegation made by left-wing critics of the war but never substantiated.”

In his response, Hoyt stood by Perlez’s criticism that alleged that the play erroneously referenced napalm attacks in Fallujah. He also criticized FAIR for supporting its argument with documentation about the use Mark 77 firebombs—a modern version of napalm–in another, earlier, attack in Iraq, but not in Fallujah.

FAIR’s point in taking issue with Perlez’s criticism of the play is that there had been a serious controversy about the use of incendiary weapons in Fallujah: U.S. government officials denied that they were being used, while some independent journalists said that they had been. The New York Times took the government’s side in this controversy with reporter Scott Shane reporting (11/13/05):

“A documentary on Italian television on Tuesday accuses American forces of using white phosphorus shells in the assault on Fallujah last year not just for nighttime illumination, their usual purpose, but to burn to death Iraqi insurgents and civilians. The mainstream American news media, whose reporters had witnessed the fighting and apparently seen no evidence of this, largely ignored the claim.”

Unfortunately for the U.S. government and for the Times, it turned out that U.S. forces were on record as discussing the use of white phosphorus (WP) as a weapon in Fallujah (Field Artillery, 3–4/05). (The distinction between civilians and insurgents, which Hoyt stresses in his response, does not seem to have been taken as seriously by the U.S. military in Fallujah–see below.)

Moreover, the U.S. military has admitted to using Mark 77 in Iraq. Hoyt points out that WP is not napalm at all, which FAIR did not argue. Rather, the point was that a chemical agent with potentially lethal effects was used in a battle in a major Iraqi city.

In the context of the New York Times’ acceptance of the false denials, a Times critic quibbling with a playwright about what particular form of incendiary weapons were used on which Iraqi city–in a phrasing that gives the reader no indication that any kind of incendiary weapons were used anywhere–is more than a little grotesque. As FAIR said in the original alert:

If Perlez meant to say that the U.S. military had only confirmed the use of a napalm-like weapon elsewhere in Iraq, not in Fallujah, while the only incendiary weapon admitted to have been used in Fallujah was white phosphorus, then that’s a very slender technicality with which to call into question the “objectivity” and “authenticity” of a playwright.

In his response to FAIR, Hoyt relied on the testimony of Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter who was embedded with the Marines during the siege of Fallujah. Filkins, Hoyt wrote,
“said in an e-mail that he doesn’t buy the charges of large numbers of civilian deaths, from whatever cause. ‘The city was a ghost town by the time the Marines went in, at least in the neighborhoods that I went through, and we traveled from one end of the city to the other on foot,’ he said.”

With all due respect to Filkins, Hoyt would have done better to consult the reporters who were actually in Fallujah during the siege rather than one who was with the forces bombarding it. Journalists like Rahul Mahajan and Dahr Jamail described the roughly half of Fallujah’s 300,000 residents who were still in the city being subject to indiscriminate attacks by U.S. forces. Wrote Mahajan (CounterPunch, 11/6/04):

“The best estimates are that roughly 900-1000 people were killed directly, blown up, burnt or shot. Of them, my guess, based on news reports and personal observation, is that 2/3 to 3/4 were noncombatants.”

Hoyt’s response did reveal that Filkins witnessed the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah–information that might have helped his colleague Shane avoid his embarrassing dismissal of white phosphorus reports, had Filkins bothered to report it at the time. It strains credulity to imagine that an incendiary weapon that put fist-sized holes in the gear of an embedded reporter didn’t burn civilians to death in the city where the weapon was directed.

FAIR activists who wish to comment on Hoyt’s response can do so at the Times website (at the link below). What follows is Hoyt’s response in full:


July 18, 2007, 3:03 pm
Was There Napalm in Fallujah?
By Clark Hoyt

On May 28, Jane Perlez reported from London on a play called “Fallujah,” which purported to tell the story of the November, 2004 assault by U.S. forces on the Iraqi city where four American contract workers had been killed the previous spring and hung from a bridge.

The Perlez story set off a mini-storm of e-mails because of this paragraph:

“The denunciations of the United States are severe, particularly in the scenes that deal with the use of napalm in Falluja, an allegation made by left-wing critics of the war but never substantiated.” (Times style is to spell the city’s name without the “h.”)

A media watchdog group called Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which describes itself as progressive, took Perlez to task in an “Action Alert,” declaring that “Incendiary Weapons Are No ‘Allegation.’” FAIR urged its readers to contact me to get The Times to set the record straight.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking into this. Here’s what I found:

Perlez was correct. There are no substantiated reports of the use of napalm — or a “napalm derivative,” as the play’s author and director said — in the battle of Fallujah.

FAIR’s complaint started with the assertion that U.S. forces “did use the modern equivalent of napalm in Iraq.” Notice, that FAIR said “Iraq,” not “Fallujah.” That’s because the source for FAIR’s statement was an August, 2003 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune quoting a Marine colonel as saying that the successor weapon to napalm was used during the invasion of Iraq, as Marines battled toward Baghdad. The article was written more than a year before the battle of Fallujah.

After discussing napalm, FAIR slid over to a discussion of white phosphorus (WP), a different incendiary weapon that the U.S. military first denied – and then admitted – using directly against insurgents in Fallujah.

FAIR quoted accurately but selectively from an article in “Field Artillery,” the journal of the Army’s Field Artillery: WP was such “an effective and versatile munition” that U.S. forces “saved our WP for lethal missions.” Those quotes suggest the WP was dropped directly on Iraqis to kill them.

But a close reading of the article indicates a different story: WP was used for screening missions and later “as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE (high explosives). We fired ‘shake and bake’ missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out.”

Michael Stebbins, the director of biology policy at the Federation of American Scientists, a non-partisan, non-profit group that deals with national security issues, told me that napalm and white phosphorus are “very different.” He said, “No experienced military person would mistake one for the other.”

Napalm and its successor use jellied petroleum products, require an ignition and often kill by suffocating their victims because the fire they create is so intense it uses up all the nearby oxygen. WP ignites on contact with the air and can inflict deep wounds because it burns as long as it has a supply of oxygen.

These are weapons with horrible potential effects, and you might say, “What’s the difference, they both kill.” But, so do 500-pound bombs dropping on Iraq and all the other weaponry employed in a war that inspires strong passions.

Calling what was used in Fallujah “napalm” may have greater emotional impact than calling it WP. Napalm raises images of Vietnam and, especially, that tragic 1972 photograph of a naked little girl, running down a street, screaming in agony from napalm burns.

A playwright may take such license to achieve a dramatic effect. A journalist needs to deal precisely with facts, such as which weapons were actually used in a particular battle.

The sub-text here comes from a 2005 documentary shown on Italian television. It charged that WP was used against civilians in Fallujah in November 2004, something that has also not been substantiated.

Dexter Filkins of The Times, who accompanied the Marines who assaulted Fallujah, said in an e-mail that he doesn’t buy the charges of large numbers of civilian deaths, from whatever cause. “The city was a ghost town by the time the Marines went in, at least in the neighborhoods that I went through, and we traveled from one end of the city to the other on foot,” he said.

Filkins did experience WP first hand. He said the unit with which he was traveling took friendly fire, and chunks of WP burned holes the size of fists through his backpack and sleeping bag.

“But, honestly, I don’t know what that phosphorus was being used for. A flare? A weapon? I don’t know. We were under heavy fire, and it didn’t seem significant enough at the time to ask.”