Media backtrack on ambush report

TV stations, Reuters fed off each other for story

July 27, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Early yesterday afternoon, Reuters reported a Middle Eastern television station's story that seven U.S. soldiers had been killed, 14 had been injured, and several others taken hostage during an ambush in eastern Afghanistan. A few minutes later, CNN reported the same information, citing Reuters.

It would have been the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan. But U.S. military officials say the incident never happened. And CNN and Reuters spent much of the afternoon backtracking.

Yesterday morning, Abu Dhabi Television, based in the United Arab Emirates, cited "reliable sources" in reporting that "seven American soldiers were killed and 14 others were injured in an explosion in an American air base" in eastern Afghanistan. Two helicopters were destroyed in the attack, according to the account. Four U.S. soldiers had been kidnapped in retaliation for the arrest of a Taliban leader, the station said.

Abu Dhabi Television is little-known in the United States, but it is one of the larger satellite TV providers in the Middle East. "This is not a rumor mill," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, who also serves as a talk show host for the network. "This is not an operation with an agenda."

Reuters sent out its first report about the casualties as an urgent bulletin at 1:07 p.m., then another mentioning the report of the kidnapping. By 1:10, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips offered viewers this breaking news:

"We are told, according to Reuters, a news service, [there are] reports coming out that seven U.S. soldiers have been killed and 14 injured in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan," Phillips said, according to a transcript. "That is all we know at this point. We are working this story."

By 1:15 p.m., Reuters quoted U.S. military officials who would not confirm those reports and urged caution to reporters. Thirteen minutes later, Reuters and CNN reported that American military spokesmen explicitly denied the accounts. However, Zogby said Abu Dhabi TV was standing by its story.

Reuters spokeswoman Nancy Bobrowitz said the wire service sent the urgent bulletin to its media clients because the story had already been broadcast on television. "If it was something less significant than the death of a number of soldiers, then there is perhaps less urgency and you can wait a bit," she said.

CNN issued this statement:

"As the breaking news was coming across the wires, CNN's international news-gathering resources were brought to bear to learn more about this developing situation. The story, which had been reported widely, turned out not to be true, a fact immediately reported by CNN."

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