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AFP Takes Lessons from TNR

By Jack Kelly

A great moment in journalism it wasn't. At 6:58 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Tuesday, Aug. 14, Agence France Presse distributed a photograph by Wissam al-Okaili, an AFP stringer, of an elderly Iraqi woman holding two cartridges in one hand. The caption that accompanied the photo read: "An elderly Iraqi woman shows two bullets which she said hit her house following an early coalition forces raid in the predominantly Shiite Baghdad suburb of Sadr City."

I used the word "cartridges." The caption writer used the word "bullets." Let me explain the difference for the benefit of the photo editors at AFP. A cartridge consists of three elements: the bullet (the pointy thing at one end); the propellant that forces the bullet through the barrel of the gun when the trigger is pulled; and the casing, in which the bullet and the propellant are held together until the cartridge is fired. But once the cartridge is fired, the bullet and the casing go their separate ways.

The casing of the cartridges in the woman's hand is clearly visible, which alone should have told AFP's photo editors that the only way these "bullets" could have hit the woman's house was if they'd been thrown at it. They'd obviously never been fired.

There were other tips. Bullets deform when they strike something (like, say, a house in Sadr City). The pointy things don't stay pointy.

Modern firearms have rifling -- grooves in the barrel that cause the bullet to spin, making it more accurate. Rifling leaves striations on bullets which actually have been fired. There are no striations on the bullets in the AFP photograph. But if the editors couldn't grasp the significance of having the bullets still in their casings, I suppose these other clues would be too subtle for them.

Which is too bad, because Wissam has fished in these waters before. On July 10, AFP transmitted a photo by him which shows what seems to be the same old woman holding a larger caliber cartridge. That caption for that photo read: "An elderly Iraqi woman inspects a bullet which she says hit her bed during an alleged overnight raid."

In that photo, the woman had the wit to hold the cartridge so the casing isn't visible, but the bullet is not deformed, and there are no striations. It hadn't been fired, either.

There is no question the photo is a fraud. The question is, whose? Did the old woman fool the AFP photographer? Was the photographer blowing smoke by his photo editor? Were they all in on it?

AFP issued a correction of sorts Aug. 15, adding the word "unspent" before bullets, and deleting from the caption the woman's claim the bullets "hit her house." But AFP should have acknowledged the photo was a fraud, and sent out a kill notice.

Trust and confidence in AFP's accuracy and integrity was not enhanced when it was discovered Aug. 15 that AFP claimed credit a photo of U.S. troops in Afghanistan that actually was taken by Sgt. Brandon Aird of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

I sent AFP an email asking whether disciplinary action has been taken or is contemplated against Wissam al-Okaili, who pretty obviously is a propagandist for the Mahdi army, or against the photo editor, whoever he or she is. I've received no reply.

There are some lessons in this for news organizations.

First, if you had a veteran on staff, and ran this stuff by him before you publish it, you wouldn't be taken in so often by frauds like the "magic bullets," or the fairy stories Scott Thomas Beauchamp has been telling the New Republic.

Second, if you do get taken in, 'fess up when the fraud is discovered. As Richard Nixon could have told you, it's the cover up that gets you.

Third, if you're in the habit of perpetrating journalistic frauds, realize it's harder to get away with them now.
In 1988, CBS broadcast a documentary by Dan Rather in which six purported Vietnam veterans described war crimes they'd committed. B.G. Burkett investigated their stories for his book, "Stolen Valor," and discovered that five never had been in combat.

Mr. Burkett's discovery came long after the broadcast and received little attention. CBS was never called to account for the fraud.

If there'd been a worldwide Web in 1988, Mr. Rather's career might have ended then. There is a Web now, as Mr. Rather learned after his "fake but accurate" story on President Bush's National Guard service, and as AFP and The New Republic have just been reminded.


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