This week U.S.-based FAIR, Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting, issued a media advisory on Colin Powell's speech to the UN entitled A Failure of Skepticism.
In reporting on Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations Security Council, many journalists treated allegations made by Powell as though they were facts. Reporters at several major outlets neglected to observe the journalistic rule of prefacing unverified assertions with words like "claimed" or "alleged." In Andrea Mitchell's report on NBC Nightly News, Powell's allegations became actual capabilities of the Iraqi military: "Powell played a tape of a Mirage jet retrofitted to spray simulated anthrax and a model of Iraq's unmanned drones, capable of spraying chemical or germ weapons within a radius of at least 550 miles."
Dan Rather, introducing an interview with Powell on 60 Minutes, shifted from reporting allegations to describing allegations as facts: "Holding a vial of anthrax-like powder, Powell said Saddam might have tens of thousands of litres of anthrax. He showed how Iraqi jets could spray that anthrax and how mobile laboratories are being used to concoct new weapons." The anthrax supply is appropriately attributed as Powell's claim, but the mobile laboratories became something that Powell "showed" to be actually operating.
When CNN's Paula Zahn interviewed a former State Department spokesperson, she prefaced a discussion of Iraq's response to Powell thusly: "You've got to understand that most Americans watching this were either probably laughing out loud or got sick to their stomach. Which was it for you?"
Journalists should always be wary of implying unquestioning faith in official assertions; recent history is full of official claims based on satellite and other intelligence that later turned out to be false or dubious. Among them:
The CIA warned in October that commercial satellite photos showed Iraq was "reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program at Al Tuwaitha, once a nuclear weapons complex. Bush repeated the info in a speech, but when inspectors visited the site they found no evidence to support the claim.
In September and October, U.S. officials charged that conclusive evidence existed that Iraq was preparing to resume manufacturing banned ballistic missiles at several sites. In one report the CIA said the "only plausible explanation" for a new structure at the Al Rafah missile test site was that Iraqis were developing banned long-range missiles. But this was found to be baseless when inspectors repeatedly visited each site.
British and U.S. intelligence officials said new building at Al-Qaim, a former uranium refinery in Iraq's western desert, suggested renewed Iraqi nuclear weapons development But an extensive survey by UN inspectors reported no violations.
Last fall the CIA warned that "key aspects of Iraq's offensive [biological weapons] program are active and more advanced' than they were pre-1990, citing as evidence building at facilities such as the Al Dawrah Vaccine Facility, the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine Institute and the Fallujah III Castor Oil Production Plant. By mid-January inspectors had visited all the sites many times over. No evidence was found. Responsible journalists should always make a clear distinction between what has been alleged by the U.S. government and what has been independently verified. www.fair.org/media-contact-list.html