Official Story Vs. Eyewitness Account


A recent Washington Post article describing the killing of civilians by U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint outside the Iraqi town of Najaf proved that “embedded” journalists do have the ability to report on war in all its horror. But the rejection by some U.S. outlets of Post correspondent William Branigin’s eyewitness account in favor of the Pentagon’s sanitized version suggests that some journalists prefer not to report the harsh reality of war.

The Pentagon version was the one first reported in U.S. media– sometimes in terms that assumed that the official account was factual. “What happened there, the van with a number of individuals in it…approached the checkpoint,” reported MSNBC’s Carl Rochelle (3/31/03). “They were told to stop by the members of the 3rd Infantry Division. They did not stop, warning shots were fired. Still they came on. They fired into the engine of the van. Still it came on, so they began opening fire on the van itself.”

Fox’s John Gibson (3/31/03) presented the story in similar terms: “We warn these cars to stop. If they don’t stop, fire warning shots. If they don’t stop then, fire into the engine. If they don’t stop then, fire into the cab. And today some guys killed some civilians after going through all those steps.”

But later on the night of March 31, the Post released its story on the shooting that would appear in the April 1 edition of the paper. Branigin’s report described U.S. Army Capt. Ronny Johnson’s attempts to avoid the incident as he directed his troops via radio from the checkpoint:

— “‘Fire a warning shot,’ he ordered as the vehicle kept coming. Then, with increasing urgency, he told the platoon to shoot a 7.62mm machine-gun round into its radiator. ‘Stop [messing] around!’ Johnson yelled into the company radio network when he still saw no action being taken. Finally, he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘Stop him, Red 1, stop him!’

“That order was immediately followed by the loud reports of 25mm cannon fire from one or more of the platoon’s Bradleys. About half a dozen shots were heard in all.

“‘Cease fire!’ Johnson yelled over the radio. Then, as he peered into his binoculars from the intersection on Highway 9, he roared at the platoon leader, ‘You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough!’” —

The Post’s account is significant because it suggests that, in fact, military procedures may not have been properly followed at the checkpoint. Several U.S. papers, including the New York Daily News, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times and San Francisco Chronicle, managed to include the discrepancy between the official Pentagon account and the Post’s eyewitness description in their reports on the Najaf killings in their April 1 editions. The New York Times, however, did not, instead running a story that only presented the official version, under a headline that stated as a definite fact that adequate warning had been given before soldiers opened fire: “Failing to Heed Warning, 7 Iraqi Women and Children Die.”

While it’s possible that the New York Times, unlike other East Coast papers like the Daily News and the Globe, had a deadline that did not allow it to include information from the Branigin article, the Times ran a follow-up article on April 2– “U.S. Military Chiefs Express Regret Over Civilian Deaths”– that still omitted any mention of the description of the incident in the Washington Post. The piece, by Christopher Marquis, described the victims as being “killed when their van apparently failed to stop after orders by American guards.” It rehearsed the official version of events (“that soldiers fired warning shots to stop the van, then fired into the engine, but that the van continued forward, forcing troops to fire into the passenger compartment”) and quoted Gen. Richard Myers on “our policy of doing all we can to spare civilian lives”– all without mentioning the contradictory firsthand account from the Post.

The Times was not the only outlet that either overlooked or chose to ignore the reporting that undermined the official story on the killing. NPR’s Nick Spicer reported on the April 1 All Things Considered– which aired at least 18 hours after the Post story broke– that “what we’re hearing here at CENTCOM is that troops fired a warning shot as a vehicle approached a checkpoint. The vehicle did not stop. It then fired at the engine block. The vehicle continued. And then they fired in the passenger compartment and they killed seven women and children.” Branigin’s account was not mentioned.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution summarized the story thus on April 2: “Seven Iraqi women and children are killed at an Army checkpoint 20 miles north of Najaf after they failed to heed warning shots.” The Houston Chronicle reported on April 1, without qualification, that “U.S. troops…opened fire on a civilian vehicle that refused their order to halt and ignored warning shots.” Although the story cited the Washington Post on the number of people killed in the incident, it ignored the parts of the Post account that contradicted the official account that the Chronicle treated as fact.

Even the Washington Post itself, in an April 2 story by a different reporter, failed to mention Branigin’s reporting when it reiterated the official description of the incident: “At another checkpoint on Monday, U.S. troops blasted an approaching vehicle carrying as many as 16 people, most of them women and children, in the belief that an attack was underway. Ten people in the vehicle died. Soldiers said later that they fired warning shots that were ignored.”





For more media analysis on Iraq go to http://www.zmag.org/CrisesCurEvts/Iraq/media_analysis.htm


To read the Post’s report on the shooting, go to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A61229-2003Mar31.html


If you’d like to encourage media outlets to investigate this story, contact information is available on FAIR’s website: http://www.fair.org/media-contact-list.html

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