Monday, March 27, 2006

Fact Checking the New York Times

One would expect the New York Times reporters, editors, and staff to be a bit more on guard for accuracy on its news and editorial pages these days, especially after all the apparent mishaps recently. . .

Alas, they failed to achieve accuracy yet again. Today's editorial page contained a misrepresentation that, although not on par the significant mistakes that have occurred in the paper over the past two weeks, is sufficiently wrong enough to be pointed out here in the Wilsonizer.

Today's editorial page included an Op Ed piece by A. C. Grayling, entitled "Drying Out the Insurgency"; Dryer begins with the following paragraph:

London--AS we saw in the recent offensive by American and Iraqi forces against insurgents near Samarra, the term "air assault" has taken on a new meaning in military parlance. It now indicates taking troops into action by helicopter, rather than the widespread and often indiscriminately destructive firing of missiles or dropping of bombs from aircraft. [Emph Added].

Dryer continues talking about the importance of avoiding civilian casualties in war. But his Op Ed is predicated on a sudden shifting of the meaning of the term "Air Assault". In all actuality, this term, as it was used to describe operation swarmer in Iraq, has been in use for decades.

The Army's Field Manual for Operational Terms and Graphics, FM 101-5-1, defines Air Assaults as:

Operations in which air assault forces (combat, combat support, and combat service support), using the firepower, mobility, and total integration of helicopter assets in their ground or air roles, maneuver on the battlefield under the control of the ground or air maneuver commander to engage and destroy enemy forces or to seize and hold key terrain.

The 101st Airborne Division was officially designated an Air Assault unit over three decades ago, in 1974. Soldiers of that unit (and graduates of the Army's Air Assault school) were first awarded an Air Assault Badge in 1974 (first designated the Airmobile Badge, it was designated the Air Assault Badge in 1978). Hardly a new concept, to say the least.

When a public affairs officer briefed at some point that Swarmer was the largest Air Assault operation since 2003, reporters unfamiliar with military terminology immediately envisioned a bombing campaign of "shock and awe" proportions. In fact, when Swarmer proved to be less kinetic than the reporters imagined, at least one wrote disapprovingly that he had expected a little more excitement. Had reporters for major news media understood what the term air assault truly meant, they could have asked questions more relevant to the operation at hand, and provided more insight to their reader/viewership.

Reporters' lack of familiarity with military forces, terminology, and equipment leads to ineffective coverage of military operations. Swarmer was a classic example of this. The fact that major news media like Time and NYT are still unable to pay for reporters who have a keen understanding of military operations, or for editors who can fact check a military-based op-ed before it goes to print, is deeply troubling.

While the military has a responsibility to get its story to the American people and the world (something it needs to work on, based on the shoddy media coverage of Swarmer), major news outlets really need to police themselves for accuracy. Print and television media are not going to survive the internet age, especially if they are constantly wiping the egg off their faces each morning from yesterday's faulty reporting.

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