AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2006

A Matter of Time   

How Time magazine put together its groundbreaking account of the alleged shooting of civilians by Marines at Haditha, and why it took so long for the rest of the news media to follow up

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Time magazine didn't exactly bury its March story on what may have happened in a town in Iraq's volatile Anbar Province. The article ran on page 34, just after a piece in which various experts were asked whether the war in Iraq was worth it. But the innocent cover, featuring a kid with electronic gadgets floating around him to promote a story on teens' digital multitasking, carried not a peep about the explosive story inside.

Iraqis claimed Marines had deliberately and brutally killed 15 civilians (a number later increased to 24), including women and children, after an improvised explosive device killed one of their own in Haditha on November 19. Maybe the Time piece didn't contain enough hard facts to warrant a banner headline. Part of the reason for downplaying it was just that – Managing Editor Jim Kelly's concern that these were unproven allegations and needed to be treated with care. Part of it, too, was the fact that there already was a teaser on the cover referring to Iraq.

The Haditha story, featuring 9-year-old Eman Waleed talking about the death of her family – "I couldn't see their faces very well – only their guns sticking into the doorway. I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head" – had been posted online on March 19, the day before the hard copy hit newsstands. Nancy A. Youssef, Iraq bureau chief for Knight Ridder (now part of McClatchy), certainly took notice. "When the Time story ran, I thought, 'Oh my Lord, we better get on this right now, right now,'" she says. "'This is going to be big.'"

One of the bureau's Iraqi fixers soon went to Haditha – Time hadn't sent anyone to the scene. A few other outlets followed up, too: CNN with footage of Eman from Britain's ITV on April 4, and CBS News with two reports before the end of April. But beyond briefs and short stories, the collective MSM took an initial pass on Haditha. This story was going to be big, as Youssef said, but not until two months later. It took a brash congressman to spur the media into action.

Not that this was an easy story to get. No American reporter has gone to Haditha to investigate this incident. There's no phone service or cell phone service and just one Internet café. "Our communication right now is limited to waiting for people to get on Yahoo! Messenger," Youssef says. Given the limitations and the immense danger of working in Iraq, given the number of rumors reporters hear, how did this story seep out? And why did it take so long for the bulk of the media to follow?

Since Haditha captured the media spotlight, other incidents involving allegations of wrongful killing of civilians have surfaced, most through military channels, not because a reporter uncovered something suspicious.

The story that started off on page 34 with no hint on the cover has grown into a major embarrassment for the United States. "I think in coming weeks and months, there will be a huge amount of coverage," Tom Bowman, National Public Radio's Pentagon correspondent, said in late June. Once it goes to the court-martial phase – once there are more than leaks from those familiar with an investigation – "that's something that you can actually cover."

Time reporter Tim McGirk, formerly based in Islamabad, Pakistan, was in Iraq on a five-week rotation when Romesh Ratnesar, editor of the magazine's World section, decided Time should look into the subject of civilian casualties. This was in January, a month after President Bush had mentioned civilian deaths, saying about 30,000 Iraqis had been killed since the war began.

Time News Director Howard Chua-Eoan says Time put out a request through its usual fixers and translators and reached out to the human rights community to see if anyone had any tips or stories. That's how a group called the Hammurabi Organization for Human Rights and Democracy Monitoring came to deliver to Time's Baghdad bureau a tape of the scene a day after the civilians were killed in Haditha.

A military statement issued November 20, a day after the incident, said that "a U.S. Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb." The report said that eight insurgents also died in a firefight that erupted after the explosion.

Lance Cpl. Miguel "T.J." Terrazas, a 20-year-old from El Paso, Texas, had been killed, and two other Marines had been wounded.

The video showed the bodies of women and children in their nightclothes and with wounds from bullets, not shrapnel, the magazine reported. But it wasn't a tape that editors saw and immediately reacted to with shock, knowing they had something big on their hands. They were very, very suspicious, says Chua-Eoan, who asked several questions of the Baghdad bureau before deciding that this was a story Time should pursue. Chua-Eoan wanted to know why one of the bodies was terribly burned if the person had been shot. (The answer was that there had been a fire after the shooting, the source of which is still in dispute.) He also asked the Arabic-speaking staff if the audio matched the scenes, or if the voices had been dubbed, and he asked for an English-language transcript of the sound.

When McGirk, now the magazine's Jerusalem bureau chief, first asked a Marine spokesman about the accusations, the spokesman was indignant. "They were incredibly hostile," Time's Aparisim "Bobby" Ghosh told CNN. "They accused us of buying into enemy propaganda."

Chua-Eoan says the magazine decided to use the tape "as an instrument rather than the basis of the story." The next issue: "How we were going to go up to Haditha to check things out."

At the time, Haditha wasn't very well known to the American public. The last significant story to mention the town was a September 2005 Newsweek report. "When Iraqi election officials tried to open voter-registration centers in the predominantly Sunni city on the desert road from Baghdad to Syria in early August, they were intimidated away from entering town," the article said. "A cabal of foreign fighters – mostly Syrian, Saudi and Algerian – rule the city. They issue death sentences in Taliban-style courts to those convicted of spying for the Americans or the government in Baghdad – seven in the past week, according to locals... Insurgent spies roam the streets."

It has been difficult if not virtually impossible for reporters in Iraq to travel, period. (See "Dangerous Assignment," December/January.) "I've done five trips to Iraq over the last three years, and I can't tell you how mind-bogglingly dangerous it is at this point and how horrible it is," says Washington Post military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks. "I've reported in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan; I've never seen anything like Iraq."

Haditha was especially dicey. Youssef is an Egyptian American who speaks Arabic, and she couldn't make the trip. "I can't speak with an Iraqi dialect," she says. It was risky enough for the Iraqi correspondent to go. "If anyone had found out I was there," Youssef says, "I would've been killed, he would've been killed, the driver would've been killed."

Time had considered sending a reporter to Haditha as an embedded journalist, but editors decided going to the town accompanied by the very people you may well accuse of atrocities wasn't the best idea. Witnesses may not talk; everyone would feel uneasy.

ABC's Bob Woodruff was seriously injured on January 29 when a convoy with which he was traveling was hit by an IED. This and other factors made Chua-Eoan extremely nervous about sending McGirk to such a volatile area. The correspondent was on his way when Chua-Eoan called to tell him to turn around.

Time arranged for some witnesses to come to Baghdad. McGirk spoke to a few people by phone and interviewed others, including the mayor of Haditha, by e-mail. Time said it took 10 weeks to report the piece.

On February 10, McGirk gave a copy of the videotape and witness reports that he had amassed to Col. Barry Johnson, chief military spokesman in Baghdad, in order to get the Marines' side of the story. Four days later, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of U.S.-led ground forces in Iraq, ordered a preliminary investigation, which concluded that the civilians were shot, not killed by an IED. The investigator, Army Col. Gregory Watt, recommended further inquiry.

On March 13, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service arrived in Haditha, according to Time. Before the magazine could publish its story, someone leaked to CNN the fact that the criminal investigation had been launched. Time scrambled. "We were actually preparing our story for the week after it ran," says Chua-Eoan. Instead, CNN broke the news of the probe March 16, and Time's piece went up on the Web March 19. It ran in the March 27 issue, which hit newsstands on March 20.

"We could've given it bigger billing than it actually had," the news director says of the play. But Managing Editor Kelly "didn't want to be overly huge with this story... We didn't call it a massacre... There were some people who wanted to... But Jim wanted it to be quite sober." Kelly, now managing editor of Time Inc., couldn't be reached for comment.

The lead was subdued: "The incident seemed like so many others from this war, the kind of tragedy that has become numbingly routine amid the daily reports of violence in Iraq." The pickup was subdued as well. Most media outlets, following CNN's lead, had run articles just a few days earlier, saying that a criminal investigation was under way. Knight Ridder ran two such pieces with quotes from military sources. After Time's far more detailed piece on the allegations came out, broadcast outlets, armed with the Hammurabi video, gave the story more prominence than it got in print. CNN, CBS and ABC all aired follow-up reports between March 19 and 21. NBC made a brief reference to it. The nation's top newspapers largely passed: The Washington Post included four paragraphs near the bottom of a long story on Iraq. The New York Times didn't mention it. Nor did the Los Angeles Times.

When Lt. Gen. Chiarelli held a March 17 briefing, teleconferenced to reporters at the Pentagon, on the progress in Iraq, he mentioned the criminal investigation at the end of his prepared comments. CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr posed the fourth question, asking for more information about the probe. She didn't get much other than, "It's an ongoing investigation." No other journalists asked about Haditha.

While the amount of CNN's early coverage pales in comparison to its late May/June onslaught, when its talk shows were flooded with guests airing their viewpoints about the allegations, the network kept on the story, airing a report April 4 by Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre that included video of witness Eman Waleed being interviewed by Britain's ITV and comments from Time's Ghosh.

But Knight Ridder, the first U.S. news organization to send someone to Haditha to interview witnesses, provided the most comprehensive follow-up. Youssef says it took the Iraqi correspondent two days to get there, a day to do interviews – she didn't want him to stay longer than that – and two days to get back. He was able to interview the director of the hospital and view death certificates. He was not named in the April 8 story for safety reasons and declined to be interviewed by AJR.

CBS News weighed in late that month with an update. National security correspondent David Martin offered a damning report on April 28: "Pentagon officials tell CBS News the evidence turned up so far shows American Marines deliberately shot Iraqi civilians, including women and children, and tried to cover it up." Martin told of a set of photos taken by Marines after the incident, which "appear to rule out the possibility civilians were accidentally killed in a firefight with men the Marines believed were insurgents." A few days later, CNN's Starr reported that still photographs in investigators' hands show that the Iraqis had been killed by gunfire.

LexisNexis searches by AJR found no other noteworthy coverage until May 17. That's when Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a former Marine, talked about the investigation near the end of a press conference in which he called for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. "It's much worse than reported in Time magazine," Murtha told a group of reporters. "There was no firefight. There was no IED that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood. And that's what the report is going to tell."

Gary Solis, a former military judge advocate who teaches a course on the law of war at Georgetown University Law Center, says the Marine Corps knew Haditha would be a major story before Murtha spoke out. Solis got calls from people in the Corps days before Time's story ran, saying, "'Stand by, we're going to take heavy hits.'.. They wanted me to know as a general outline because they knew that sometimes I am asked for comment."

But there are times when it takes a public official saying something, especially something relatively shocking, to get the media's attention. In this case, though, it took a few days more for Murtha's statements to filter out through most of the mainstream media.

NPR's Tom Bowman heard about the congressman's comments May 18, when Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman mentioned them. "I went back and looked at Murtha's transcript, and I said, 'Man this is really something,'" says Bowman, who joined NPR in April after covering the Pentagon for nine years for the Baltimore Sun. "So I called some people I've known for years and asked them, 'Is Murtha overplaying this when he talks about cold-blooded murder?' And this one guy, who's pretty plugged in, said, 'He's got it about right.'"

Before the Murtha moment, Bowman doesn't recall the Haditha investigation creating much of a ripple among Pentagon reporters. "I think, clearly, until a member of Congress or until the military investigation starts moving forward, you don't catch the attention of Washington," he says. It's the nature of D.C. journalism, but not a characteristic that's necessarily admirable. "For stories like that, I think it is a problem that it would take that long to get people interested in it."

Sydney H. Schanberg, the former New York Times and Newsday journalist who until recently wrote the Press Clips column at the Village Voice, has a harsher take. "That's the way it works in most capitals. That's the sad thing. You're always covering the story of the moment," says Schanberg, who reported on the war in Cambodia for the Times. "There are never enough people who are in bureaus in Washington who are free to roam and do their own thing and especially look into stories that nobody else is looking at."

There are plenty of big stories the media miss or cover late or just seem to ignore, and just as many reasons why. Often, editors and reporters can't give a reason. This doesn't appease the conspiracy theorists – but they just chose to cover something else. Los Angeles Times Foreign Editor Marjorie Miller declined a request for an interview through spokesman David Garcia, who said she couldn't remember the kind of details I was asking about. New York Times Foreign Editor Susan Chira wrote in an e-mail to AJR: "We wish we had been able to follow up Time magazine's excellent reporting on Haditha sooner. With the help of able reporters in Washington and Baghdad, we have tried to make up for lost time by pushing the story forward."

The Post's Thomas Ricks pointed out in a June 4 piece that even when Murtha made his statement at the May 17 press conference, it took four questions before a reporter asked about it. Ricks says he doesn't think this story was covered earlier because the incident, as Time wrote in its lead, blended into the numbing violence of Iraq. "I think the difference, as sad as it may be, 15 dead Iraqis is not big news," Ricks says. "You've had days when 40, 50, 200, 250..one day even 1,000 people dead in Iraq."

It was only when a member of Congress said the military is investigating and "it's murder" that the incident took on new meaning, Ricks says.

John Sifton, a terrorism and counterterrorism researcher for Human Rights Watch, says he has "a laundry list" of episodes the media could seize upon but don't. "There's a lot of difficulty in getting" journalists interested in these cases, he says. "I think it makes a big difference when a Marine member of Congress is talking about it instead of Human Rights Watch."

But not every outlet waited for Murtha. "I don't think there was ever a big conversation about [following this] or a need for one, because of course you're going to follow it," says then-Knight Ridder Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott, who also oversaw the chain's foreign bureaus. "We've sent our soldiers into a very, very difficult environment and one in which mistakes are inevitably going to be made. So when an allegation like this comes up and it seems to be credible – it hadn't popped up, for instance, on some jihadist Web site and nowhere else – you're obligated as a journalist to check it out."

Both Walcott, now McClatchy's Washington bureau chief, and Youssef, who say they've made a point of covering civilian casualties, were surprised the story didn't get more attention early on.

Knight Ridder took about a week to put together its piece, which ran April 8. Youssef spent a day grilling the fixer, talking through the sequence of events. The news organization used Google Earth, a satellite mapping site, so she could see where the searches took place, where 13-year-old Safa Younes ran from the house, where the hospital was. Youssef contacted a military source, who confirmed that her details matched what the military had uncovered.

Like Youssef, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times sent Iraqi staffers to Haditha. The New York Times hired an Iraqi historian and writer to make the dangerous trip. CNN, as well as Newsweek – which published in its June 12 issue its own thorough and thoughtful piece on Haditha and the difficulty of counterinsurgency warfare – hired a human rights investigator. Few of the Iraqis who did the reporting were named in the accounts.

Without anonymous Iraqi correspondents, many of the details from Haditha would not have come to light. "We do rely very, very heavily on a group of very brave Iraqis who are very quickly becoming good journalists and who are routinely risking their lives and sometimes the lives of their families to go out to towns like Haditha and Hamdania to try to find out what happened in those places," says Walcott. (See "Out of Reach," April/May.) Using trained staff is one thing, but hiring a human rights investigator is a little different, raising questions about objectivity and journalistic skill. But that approach may become more common in Iraq, says Stephen Hess, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. Hess acknowledges that "using intermediaries like that creates some real problems. They're not professional journalists... They bring their own point of view." But given the circumstances, he's not going to lambaste those reporting from Iraq. "The thrust of the matter is, those U.S. news organizations that care are really spending a fortune" at a time when they're being squeezed financially. Criticizing those outlets is like putting down those who are really trying, he says, as opposed to all kinds of news organizations "that have just given up."

The New York Times' Chira wrote this regarding the decision to hire an outsider: "Our Iraqi staff did not feel it was safe to enter Haditha, and we have a policy of never forcing our staff to take risks they deem excessive. So we tried other measures..and we took steps to assess the credibility of the person we hired to go to Haditha."

Beginning in mid-May, the media played an impressive game of catch-up. It was as if a flood of information that had been there for the taking was suddenly released.

On May 17, the day of Murtha's press conference, Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski reported on the "NBC Nightly News" that "military officials say Marine Corps photos taken immediately after the incident show many of the victims were shot at close range in the head and chest, execution style."

On May 25 ABC's "Nightline" aired a segment by senior national security correspondent Jonathan Karl that reported "from sources close to the investigation that the ranking officer in the group that went into the homes was 25-year-old Sgt. Frank Wuterich."

The first New York Times piece to make the front page – on May 26, by Thom Shanker, Eric Schmitt and Richard A. Oppel Jr. – included tidbits on the investigation, such as the investigators' belief that the bullets that killed the civilians had been "fired by a couple of rifles."

On May 30 and June 1, the Post's Ricks weighed in with a report that investigators had video from a drone aircraft circling above Haditha the day of the incident and an article detailing what the Bargewell report would say. (An investigation, headed by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, looked at how the incident was reported up the chain of command. In mid-July the report was in the hands of top military officials. At AJR's press time, a second investigation, by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, was still examining possible criminal charges against the Marines involved.)

On June 11, numerous media outlets ran Sgt. Wuterich's side of the story, as told by his lawyer. He said he and his fellow Marines followed the rules of engagement, describing in detail how they cleared houses in a hunt for insurgents.

Ricks says coverage of Haditha has been complicated by the fact that few documents have been generated. "This has been much more nebulous... But because the Marine Corps has done a lot of briefing to people on Capitol Hill..some of the information has started coming out."

All too predictably, the reporting on Haditha was ensnared in the bitter national debate over the merits of the war in Iraq and the U.S.' sharply polarized political atmosphere. The coverage came under fire from conservative bloggers and commentators such as Fox News contributor and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin. On Fox's "The Big Story with John Gibson" on June 1, Malkin fumed, "And there are puddles of drool in the offices of the L.A. Times and the New York Times whose columnists and editorial writers are screaming, 'Iraqi My Lai, My Lai, My Lai.'.. I think there should be a ratcheting down of all the hyperventilation and treat this incident with the seriousness and sobriety that it deserves."

But Malkin was the one hyperventilating. The number of times opinion writers had mentioned "My Lai" in those papers? Once.

There was more thoughtful criticism as well. "A personal connection to our wars might discourage the sort of glib hubris that leads the media to trumpet events such as the Haditha killings without putting them in the context of the everyday heroism that is the norm, or in the context of history," Frank Schaeffer, coauthor of "AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from the Military and How it Hurts Our Country," wrote in the Washington Post June 3.

But longtime military correspondent Joseph L. Galloway, recently retired from Knight Ridder, says he doesn't think the coverage was hyped. "I think it is an important thing. The military thinks it is," says Galloway, citing the two investigations and the fact that three commanders have been relieved of their duties. "They're taking it seriously; we have to as the media as well."

Says former military judge advocate Solis, "There's a place for a full reporting of what happened at Haditha, as long as it's always remembered by the press that these are alleged events."

There were efforts to add the context sought by Schaeffer. Some of them were weak; Terry Moran said at the end of "Nightline's" May 25 report: "It's worth noting that more than a million American men and women have served in Iraq honorably." Others were extensive: The June 4 New York Times contained Mark Mazzetti's exploration of counterinsurgency warfare and a war's toll on values on page A10 and John F. Burns' analysis in the Week in Review section, headlined, "Getting Used To War As Hell."

By the time the rest of the media were reporting on Haditha, John Walcott's Iraq bureau had moved on to another alleged atrocity. Soldiers were accused of killing an Iraqi man in Hamdania and planting a shovel and AK-47 next to him to make it look as if he were a terrorist. Youssef and her staff were the first to go to the town and interview the man's family. Seven Marines and a Navy Corpsman have been charged with murder in the case. The military has launched other probes as well: In early June, an investigation cleared Marines of wrongdoing in Ishaqi, where a March raid killed between nine and 11 civilians. On June 18, three Army soldiers were charged with premeditated murder for shooting three detainees on May 9. In late June, two National Guard members were charged, one with voluntary manslaughter, for the shooting of an unarmed man in Ramadi. In the most horrific case, a former Army soldier was charged July 3 with the rape and murder of an Iraqi woman and the killing of three of her family members in March.

Coverage of these incidents is only going to increase as the cases go to trial, presenting a challenge for the press to provide fair and contextual reporting.

Galloway and others point out that mistakes and abuses happen in every armed conflict. "The slaughter of innocents, accidental and deliberate, has occurred in every war man has ever fought," Galloway wrote in a June 7 column. "It's especially true in the wars of insurgency."

I asked Galloway if he has seen that kind of context, a more realistic picture of war, in coverage of Haditha. "I can't say that I have," he answered.

Human Rights Watch's Sifton says that the media should be looking at systemic problems, the bigger picture, not simply "incident, incident, incident." He adds, "I don't think Haditha coverage alone is a good thing."

Schanberg agrees that context is critical. "When you're writing about the bad things and you don't stop, let's say, and write about the soldiers who really find the bad behavior offensive and hurtful and that they come back and confess to their buddies what they saw or they cry," you're not really doing the job, he says.

"When you put it in that context, you're better off. We don't always do that."

Editorial assistant Alia Malik contributed research to this report.