Times corrects a minor error, ignores the big one
A report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
Reviewing the London-based anti-Iraq War play Fallujah, New York Times reporter Jane Perlez wrote (5/29/07), “The denunciations of the United States are severe, particularly in the scenes that deal with the use of napalm in Fallujah, an allegation made by left-wing critics of the war but never substantiated.”
She followed that complaint by reporting that the play’s writer and director, Jonathan Holmes, “makes no pretense of objectivity,” paraphrasing him as saying that he “strove for authority more than authenticity.”
Unfortunately for the Times, which does make a pretense of objectivity, the U.S. government did use the modern equivalent of napalm in Iraq. In a 2003 interview in the San Diego Union-Tribune (8/5/03), Marine Col. James Alles described the use of Mark 77 firebombs on targets in Iraq, saying, “We napalmed both those approaches.”
While the Pentagon makes a distinction between the Mark 77 and napalm–the chemical formulation is slightly different, being based on kerosene rather than gasoline–it acknowledged to the Union-Tribune that the new weapon is routinely referred to as napalm because “its effect upon the target is remarkably similar.”
“You can call it something other than napalm, but it’s napalm,” military analyst John Pike told the paper. In a column that appeared before his play premiered (London Guardian, 4/4/07), Fallujah playwright and director Jonathan Holmes referred to it as a “napalm derivative.”
But the major controversy over the use of incendiary weapons in Fallujah involved not napalm but white phosphorus. As with napalm, U.S. officials initially denied that white phosphorus had been used as a weapon there. In London, U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle told the Independent (11/15/05) that “U.S. forces do not use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons,” only “as obscurants or smoke screens and for target marking.”
After it was discovered that the military journal Field Artillery (3-4/05) had quoted veterans of the Fallujah campaign boasting that white phosphorus was such “an effective and versatile munition” that they “saved our WP for lethal missions,” however, the U.S. government was forced to backtrack. “Yes, it was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants,” Col. Barry Venable told the BBC (11/15/05).
As Seth Ackerman documented (Extra!, 3-4/06), the New York Times had accepted the initial denials of the use of white phosphorus as a weapon. An article about U.S. intelligence monitoring the foreign press (11/13/05) cited such claims as examples of the flimsy anti-American charges in the overseas media, noting that “the mainstream American news media” had “largely ignored the claim,” since its “reporters had witnessed the fighting [in Fallujah] and apparently seen no evidence” of white phosphorus weaponry.
After the Pentagon admitted using white phosphorus, however, the Times ran a strong editorial (11/29/05) calling for a ban on its use. “All of us, including Americans, are safer in a world in which certain forms of conduct are regarded as too inhumane even for war. That is why…the United States should stop using white phosphorus.”
Independent correspondent Dahr Jamail, whose reporting from Fallujah inspired one of the play’s characters, wrote to the New York Times to take issue with Perlez’s dismissal of the play’s references to napalm. Jamail pointed out that the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah was an “‘allegation’…confirmed by the Pentagon itself nearly one year after it was initially reported by myself, as well as other outlets in the Middle East.”
Jamail also noted out that Perlez had incorrectly described him as Canadian, when he is actually a U.S. citizen. The Times ran a correction (6/7/07) on the nationality mistake, but declined to correct the more serious error of dismissing the U.S.’s incendiary weapons attacks as an “allegation” that was “never substantiated.”
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.
It was good of the Times, in its November 2005 editorial, to condemn the use of inhumane weapons that burn their victims alive. But it’s too bad that its reporter didn’t recall that editorial when presenting the use of similar weaponry as an unsubstantiated left-wing charge.
And it’s especially unfortunate that, even when this lapse was pointed out to the paper, it couldn’t bring itself to correct the record, choosing to be fastidious only when it comes to secondary details like nationality.
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