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Profile: Michael Getler
Michael Getler was a participant or observer in the following events:
Of all the media outlets that pushed the false Clinton “vandal scandal” story (see January 26, 2001), only Fox News immediately offers a true retraction. Fox had been at the forefront of repeating, and embellishing, reports of vandalism and theft carried out by Clinton staffers in the last days of their administration. After the General Services Administration (GSA) reports that none of the reports were true (see May 18, 2001), Fox acknowledges on the air that its reporting had been false. Two days later, Fox News Sunday host Tony Snow, who had accused the Clinton staffers of vandalizing and looting Air Force One (see January 26, 2001), admits his error. “OK, I’m sorry,” Snow says. “The ex-president’s pals have a legitimate beef.” Other media outlets, including NBC News, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, fail to report on the GSA report, or to acknowledge their own errors in spreading the tales. [Salon, 5/23/2001] The Washington Post does eventually report, briefly, on the GSA findings, as do some other newspapers, and Post ombudsman Michael Getler will later write, “The use of a brief news service account rather than a well-displayed, staff-written story about the GSA findings tells me that the readers who complained have better news judgment than the editors.” [American Journalism Review, 7/2001]
Barton Gellman. [Source: Publicity photo via Washington Post]On December 12, 2002, the Washington Post publishes a front-page story by reporter Barton Gellman entitled “US Suspects Al-Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis.” It states: “The Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October, according to two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source. They said government analysts suspect that the transaction involved the nerve agent VX and that a courier managed to smuggle it overland through Turkey.” [Washington Post, 12/12/2002] The story proves so controversial that the Post’s ombudsman Michael Getler writes a column about in on December 22. Getler notes that, “[B]eginning with the second paragraph, which started out, ‘If the report proves true…’ the story contains an extraordinary array of flashing yellow lights.” He asks, “[W]hat, after all, is the use of this story that practically begs you not to put much credence in it? Why was it so prominently displayed, and why not wait until there was more certainty about the intelligence?” However, he says the Post stands by publishing the story. [Washington Post, 12/12/2002] Slate will comment in 2004, “[T]he Gellman scoop withered on the vine.… nobody advanced or refuted the story—not even Gellman.” Gellman will later admit that he should have run a follow-up story, if only to point out that no confirming evidence had come out. [Slate, 4/28/2004] He will later admit the story was incorrect. But he will continue to defend the story, claiming that “it was news even though it was clear that it was possible this report would turn out to be false.” [Washington Post, 8/12/2004]
For the first time, a major American news organization runs an article on Army Private Jessica Lynch that questions the initial versions of her capture and rescue (see April 1, 2003), though it places the story towards the very back of its main section, on page A17. The Washington Post’s lede compares the US military’s version to “a Hollywood script” with “Hollywood dazzle” and “little need for real action.” The story is based on interviews with Iraqi doctors who treated Lynch. One, Haitham Gizzy, says of the US military: “They made a big show. It was just a drama. A big, dramatic show.” Gizzy and others at the hospital say that Iraqi soldiers and guerrilla fighters had fled the hospital the night before the US launched its rescue attempt. According to Mokhdad Abd Hassan, a hospital staffer, most of the fighters in the area, and the entire Ba’ath Party leadership, including the governor of the province, came to the hospital earlier that day, changed into civilian clothes, and fled. “They brought their civilian wear with them,” Hassan says. Pointing to green army uniforms still piled on the lawn, he says: “You can see their military suits. They all ran away, the same day.” Gizzy adds: “It was all the leadership. Even the governor and the director general of the Ba’ath Party.… They left walking, barefoot, in civilian wear.… [I]t look like an organized manner” of retreat. When the US rescue team arrived, Gizzy says: “there were no soldiers at our hospital, just the medical staff. There were just us doctors.” Like US doctors currently treating Lynch (see April 4, 2003), Gizzy says Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed, as initial accounts stated (see April 3, 2003). “It was a road traffic accident” that caused her wounds, Gizzy says. “There was not a drop of blood.… There were no bullets or shrapnel or anything like that.” At the hospital, he says, “She was given special care, more than the Iraqi patients.” [Washington Post, 4/15/2003] Subsequent media accounts will begin backing off of the claims of multiple gunshot wounds. [Project for Excellence in Journalism, 6/23/2003] Post ombudsman Michael Getler, who will write highly critical analyses of the newspaper’s coverage of the Lynch story (see May 25, 2003 and June 29, 2003), later notes that while the Post deserves recognition that it was one of the first media outlets to interview the Iraqi doctors and tell their side of the story, the newspaper chose to print this story “way back in the paper.” Since it “was based on Iraqi sources” and buried so deep in the paper, “it didn’t get the attention that it otherwise might have gotten.” He adds, “I think in general, the press was quite slow to try and go back on this story which seemed fishy, almost from the start.” [Democracy Now!, 7/23/2003]
Michael Getler. [Source: PBS]Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler joins his Post colleague Richard Cohen in admitting that the Post published a largely fictional account of the capture and rescue of Army Private Jessica Lynch (see May 23, 2003). Getler writes that one of the biggest problems journalists face is their increasing reliance on anonymous sources, such as the unnamed Pentagon officials who provided the fabrications used by two Post reporters to create the original Lynch story. Additionally, Getler worries that “intelligence information is being politicized and that reporters aren’t probing hard enough against the defenses of an administration with an effective, disciplined, and restrictive attitude toward information control.” The problem goes far beyond the fictional story of a single US Army private, Getler writes. The justifications for the invasion of Iraq—weapons of mass destruction and connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda—have not yet been confirmed. Many of those came from unnamed government officials. New allegations by unnamed officials point to hostile acts by Iran and Syria, and even to unfriendly acts by the US’s European ally, France, which led the opposition to the Iraq invasion. Whether those stories cite “intelligence officials,” “senior administration officials,” or others of what Getler calls “useless descriptions,” the upshot is the same: lurid, alarming, and potentially baseless allegations and stories are regularly making their way into print without anyone taking responsibility for them, or advancing incontrovertible proof of their veracity. The Post continues to be the primary source of the largely fictional account of Lynch’s capture and rescue. Getler pleads, “If there is a different version, or a confirming version, of this that is authoritative, I hope somebody will write it, along with a more probing account of her rescue.” [Washington Post, 5/25/2003]
Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler writes another mea culpa admitting the Post’s central role in promoting the Pentagon’s propaganda story of the Jessica Lynch capture and rescue (see April 1, 2003 and May 25, 2003). Getler writes that the issue is not Lynch, whose courage is unquestionable, but how the Post and other news providers are systematically manipulated by outside sources with their own agendas, and how these news outlets sometimes enthusiastically cooperate with such manipulation. The Lynch story as originally reported in the Post has been supplanted by a second, more thorough piece (see June 17, 2003) that Getler calls “a corrective to the initial reporting.” Getler notes that the “corrective” account does not address the more fundamental questions of why that first story “remain[ed] unchallenged for so long,” who provided the false information that generated that story, and why reporters simply accepted that account as fact instead of doing their own investigations. “The story had an odor to it almost from the beginning,” Getler writes, “and other news organizations blew holes in it well before the Post did, though not as authoritatively,” apparently referring to articles such as a May 4 piece by the Toronto Star (see May 4, 2003). Was the first version a government attempt to manipulate the news media? Getler asks. He also wants to know why Lynch’s fellow soldiers, including those captured and held as POWs (see October 24, 2003), have not spoken about Lynch. “Certainly, Lynch’s privacy about her ordeal needs to be protected,” he writes. “But the official curtain of silence has extended to everything about the incident from the start. Why?” Getler concludes: “This was the single most memorable story of the war, and it had huge propaganda value. It was false, but it didn’t get knocked down until it didn’t matter quite so much.” [Washington Post, 6/29/2003]
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