18 Deaths Cancelled!

Rightie blogger Thomas Lifson says the New York Times ran a fake photo on its web site. A fake staged photo, even.

Is a fake staged photo fit to print? What if it staged in a way that makes the US forces fighting the War on Terror look cruel and ineffective? The evidence argues that yes, it can run, and in a prominent position – at least in the case of the New York Times website.

I did some detective work and learned more about where the fake staged photo came from. But first let’s let Mr. Lifson rant for a while about media bias.

The photo has since been removed from the home page, but still can be seen here.

The picture shows a sad little boy, with a turbaned man next to him, a little bit further from the camera, amid the ruins of a house. Other men and boys peer in from the background. The photo is captioned

    “Pakistani men with the remains of a missile fired at a house in the Bajur tribal zone near the Afghan border.”

The story it accompanies is about the apparently failed attempt to take out al Qaeda’s #2 man al Zawahiri, with a missile attack from a Predator drone.

“How sad!” readers are encouraged to think. “These poor people are on the receiving end of awful weapons used by the clumsy minions of Bush. And all to no avail. Isn’t it terrible? Why must America do such horrible misdeeds? Bush must go!”

The only problem is that the long cylindrical item with a conical tip pictured with the boy and the man is not a missile at all. It is an old artillery shell. Not something that would have been fired from a Predator. Indeed, something that must have been found elsewhere and posed with the ruins and the little boy as a means at pulling of the heartstrings of the gullible readers of the New York Times.

I’ll take Mr. Lifson’s word about the artillery shell; I don’t know artillery shells from spinach. But I do know something about photograph attribution, and this one clearly says “Getty Images” in the lower right-hand corner.

This means that Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., did not personally order up a staged fake photo from New York Times photographers. Rather, it was purchased (probably for one-time use) from Getty Images. I found the image (Image #56593062) in the News database. The Getty Images caption reads,

Bajur, PAKISTAN: Pakistani tribesmen stand by a unexploded ordinance at their house which was damaged in an alleged US air strike the day before in the Bajur tribal zone near the Afghan border, 14 January 2005. Thousands of tribesmen protested against an alleged US air strike targeting Al-Qaeda’s second in command that killed 18 people near the Afghan border, witnesses said. AFP PHOTO/Thir KHAN (Photo credit should read THIR KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

How This Stuff Works is that Getty purchased the photograph from photographer Khan, who is probably a freelancer or stringer, and added it to its database for view and purchase. Some web site editor at the Times pulled the photo off the Getty database with a company credit card and put it up on the web site to accompany the story. I couldn’t find it in yesterday’s or today’s print edition, so I assume it only went on the web site.

If indeed the image was fake staged by the photographer, it seems both Getty Images and the New York Times were scammed. There were other heartstring-tugging photos in the database that possibly were not fake staged. See, for example, # 56596136, which I think is a better photograph on an artistic level than #56593062. But no; the Times went with #56593062. Too bad.

Mr. Lifson comments,

So the formerly authoritative New York Times has published a picture distributed around the world on the home page of its website, using a prop which must have been artfully placed to create a false dramatic impression of cruel incompetence on the part of US forces. Not only did the editors lack the basic knowledge necessary to detect the fake, they didn’t bother to run the photo past anyone with such knowledge before exposing the world to it.

The fact is that the drones who throw the web site and most of the newspaper together do not routinely run anything by the big shots, at the New York Times or any other newspaper; there’s no time. The Times web site editors trusted Getty Images. I would have made the same mistake, since Getty Images is a long-established source of news photos and is usually reliable.

Although I think Getty Images is more at fault than the Times, I notice the New York Times caption writer called the ordnance in question “the remains of a missile,” whereas the Getty caption calls it “unexploded ordinance [sic].” I suspect sloppiness on the part of the New York Times web caption writer, no doubt a recent English Lit graduate, who just guessed the pointy-ended thing was a missile. After the web editors got some complaints about the photo, they pulled it. Again, that’s How This Stuff Works.

I see at Memeorandum that the righties are having fits about the New York Times, however. Hugh Hewitt says the shell destroyed “what’s left of the New York Times‘ Reputation.” Scott at Power Line posted the image and commented,

The Times’ caption said: “Pakistani men with the remains of a missile fired at a house in the Bajur tribal zone near the Afghan border.” Only it’s not the remains of a missile, it’s an old artillery shell. Which means the photo was deliberately faked by the people depicted, probably with the knowing aid of the AFP photographer. I think the villagers were lying about not hosting members of al Qaeda, too.

ONE MORE THING: The photo is still up at Yahoo News Photos, but with a changed caption that now says the men are shown standing next to “a unexploded ordnance.” Yes, probably from the 1980s. No doubt the picture will be reproduced in many newspapers around the world.

One, Getty Images says the photo was taken 14 January 2005 [update: I guess we’re a year off, aren’t we], although I ‘spect they were taking the photographers’ word on that. Two, Yahoo News credits the image to Agence France-Presse (AFP). They didn’t get it from the New York Times and apparently not from Getty Images either. I don’t think AFP and Getty are subsidiaries; possibly the photographer sold the same image to both agencies. Maybe AFP got scammed, too.

But the good news here is that because (I trust) there is one fake staged photo, the entire news story about 18 innocent people being killed has been cancelled. The villagers were faking the story; they were probably lying about not hosting al Qaeda also. We can now dismiss the whole episode as so much spin, as if it never happened. I know you are relieved.

31 thoughts on “18 Deaths Cancelled!

  1. I hope the Pakistanis’ will become un-angry with us. I picked up on the fact that it was an artillery shell from it’s intial posting on MSN and was hoping to showcase my military prowess by exposing the fraud, unfortunately I discovered that the picture was unrelated to the story and cheated myself out of a scoop.

  2. Well, I guess all those scraped knees and sore throats and rectal pains that The Times took in order to get a seat at the tough guys table with the whole Judy Miller/swallowing Chalabi’s Kool-Aid (among other things) on WMDs bit… has bought The Times exactly nothing, as far as the bought-and-paid-for-blogging media auxiliary is concerned (btw… Mr. Scaife, if you’re listening, for a few grand a month, I’ll gladly fall in and support the Empire…)

    First, after doing the Administration a solid (and of course, a disservice to its readers and humanity in general) by sitting on the NSA internal spying story for over a year (and most importantly, holding it back before the “accountability moment” in November 2004), the Times gets itself called traitorous by no less than Junior himself.

    So now, a routine photo on the web site warrants the whole Rathergate treatment!

    The amazing thing is that The Times lost its credibility for a lot of reasons… Judy Miller, Jayson Blair… many of which can be laid at the feet of Pinch Sulzberger, who has been nothing short of disastrous.

    And the lesson of all this– that sacrificing credibility to the altar of trying to play to the rightwing to get access to their bullshit and a speed dial on Karl Rove’s fax machine… don’t mean crap once the wingers decide to turn on you.

  3. I am sure this group in Pakistan was just sitting around on friday night thinking about how to stage a bombing and blame poor poor innocent bush.

    In the remote area where this seems to have happened, I am sure they are watching all the major news networks(cnn,faux snooze,msnbc) and reading the most current news and they hate us because we are winning, they hate us because we are so damn free and that is why they staged the entire event.

    In rightie world , even in the most remote places where there is no TV, no grocery store, those people know about us, and WE as Americans are all they concern themselves with everyday.They are not worried about how they will feed their famlies or where they will get wood to heat their homes..thats what they WANT you to think they are thinking about so you won’t know that their true agenda which is to hurt bush and his band of merry thieves.

    Righties are by far the most vain, paranoid bunch i have ever witnessed….let me see if I understand this right: AMERICA attacked a nation which had done NOTHING to provoke America, innocent people were killed and this group of thugs, rather then have the kindness to even be sorry, has turned it around to blame the Ny Times, and the innocent people left in the village we attacked because they don’t like the photo that was run??? WOW i am stunned by the overwhelming love from the right for their love of life.

    I guess righties think history is too much like science or perhaps they would know that pakistan has been in the middle of several conflicts over the years and when the conflicts are over the warring teams don’t go back and pick up their war trash…it is not hard to believe at all over the years these artifacts of war left behind would be picked up and taken into peoples homes for the same reason people here collect , for example, civil war artifacts…I know of a man who has a cannon in his home right now , which is not in working order, but is an interesting conversation piece.

    So nice of the righties to show how classy Americans are after we bomb a soverign nation and kill innocents by mistake,what sick, sad human beings.

  4. The thing is, this is the sort of mistake any publishing entity might make, and in fact does make. I had it easy because I did most of my career time in book publishing, and we had the luxury of checking the work in several production stages. Even then, mistakes got into books when people rushed or didn’t communicate well.

    If this photo had been published in the A section of the print edition I would have been more critical, but the web site? The big shots aren’t checking the web site. Some B-level editor or production staffer bought the photo and posted it because they needed a graphic to go with the story, and based on the Getty caption it was an appropriate photo. It’s not like the Times keeps military ordnance experts on the premises 24/7 to check this stuff.

  5. I’m sure the Times also staged thousands of angry Pakistanis in a rural area protesting the US breach of their border. And they faked the CIA Factbook assessment of Pakistan’s population to make it seem pretty dangerous to piss off a country close in size to ours. And they faked the proof of Bush’s competence and capacity to act lawfully as well.

    Bad Times. No donuts for you!

  6. Seems to me if you really do not know what you are printing, don’t really know the facts of what went on, you have a several year history now of credibility problems, your stock value has plummeted and sales are slipping, it might be better either to do some fact checking or just not print the photo and story until you have more information. I actually do not mind being told when something is inaccurate, and I find it hard to believe when others find that offensive.

  7. I suppose the Crypto-Fascists wish to divert attention from what’s REALLY going on.

    My question is this: Can Bush blow up any freeking house in the entire world if he thinks one of his enemies might visit there?

    If so, who in the world is safe?

    (Listening for the Predators.)

  8. Who says 18 innocent people were killed? All the bodies were quickly removed from the village, which would only happen if the dead were Al-Qaida.

  9. Bryan — that’s easy to say, and in a perfect world there’d be enough staff and no pressure to hurry up and publish that someone could spend a couple of hours chasing down someone who knows something about ordnance to make sure the Getty Image caption was accurate, but that’s not realistic.

    This isn’t just the Times. This is all newspapers throughout space and time. Right-wing publications face the same limitations. Work for one for a couple of weeks, and you’ll catch on.

    As I said, if the photo had been in the A section of the print edition I’d be more critical, because more senior people are watching the A section of the print edition. But this was the web site, which probably has a more junior staff.

    The point is that this is a common kind of mistake, and you’ve got to be fairly twisted to make out some case of media bias out of it.

  10. Who says 18 innocent people were killed? All the bodies were quickly removed from the village, which would only happen if the dead were Al-Qaida.

    See? Here’s someone passing on uncorroborated information with no documentation, right in these very comments. And they say the New York Times is sloppy.

  11. “who says 18 innocent people were killed? All the bodies were quickly removed from the village, which would only happen if the dead were Al-Quida”

    Women and children , in the saftey of their own homes are considered innocent in my book, maybe things are different in rightie world.

    Put the shoe on the other foot..if pakistan had given Musharraf a AUMF for say India in 2001 and he thought there were some people from India he thought might be here would it be ok for him to bomb YOUR neighborhood looking for them only to say ooops after the fact?, and then accuse the people they killed of being terrorists?

    These people live in a remote village in Pakistan , no funeral home picks up the body there..if someone dies, they bury them..now they can’t even do that without being questioned? Should they have waited until the media could have gotten photos of the bodies to put in the papers so you could complain the media was hurting the war on terror by showing them? Sure, lets leave the bodies out to rot and infect a whole village to prove something to some fox news reporter when he shows up in a week or so…how dare you question what these folks did with their dead after your government killed them!

    I guess innocent until proven guilty applies only to bush,, not to people unlucky enough to live in Pakistan., in rightie world no one is safe…..How sad to see this behavior defended,, even sadder is the defense.

  12. I believe Muslim law requires that a body is buried within 24 hours of death, so bodies would have been taken away and prepared for burial very quickly.

  13. There’s a real possiblity that Bush got snookered into doing some recruiting for al- qaida. I can’t imagine any Pakistani being happy about the US violating their sovereignty and killing their people. Good intentions or not, this incident will cost Bush dearly in the battle for hearts and minds.. It’s another weight added to his eventual accountabilty…I might be a little optimistic, but I sense the rug being pulled in on Bush..His act is wearing thin with the America people.

  14. You should have dug a little deeper.

    The caption you found on Getty Images website was for the “CAPTION CORRECTED” version of that picture (submitted to Getty Images at 14 Jan 2006 07:27 AM. You can see the phrase “CAPTION CORRECTED” in the restrictions field for that image.

    The original caption (submitted to Getty Images at 14 Jan 2006 03:28 AM, see http://editorial.gettyimages.com/source/search/details_pop.aspx?iid=56592382&cdi=0) reads “Bajur, PAKISTAN: Pakistani tribesmen stand by a fired missiles at their damaged house a day after US air strike in Bajur tribal zone near the Afghan border, 14 January 2005.”

  15. OK! Great to see this kind of competence.

    So, it was an artillery shell and not a missile from a drone.

    It was an artillery shell of a type that pakistan uses.

    So, this particular photo wasn’t of the site the USA shot. This was a different site that the pakistanis shelled their own selves.

    Too bad we announced the drone shot. At this point it’s only our word that we did anything at all. The paks shelled their own village and the surviving villagers didn’t know it wasn’t missiles.

    Now maybe the reds and blues here in the USA can sit down and sing kumbayah together. The NYT was wrong because the surviving ignorant villagers were wrong, possibly the women and children weren’t our fault, maybe they were the pak target and not ours. And for all we know — maybe we actually got the target we wanted to!

    Alls right with the world, or at least there’s that possibility. For one brief moment we americans can all be friends. We won’t know what actually happened until the press tells us….

  16. Ding ding ding!!! We have a winnah. Exactly the conclusion I came to. What 18 dead? Fuck that, The New York Times lied! New blogger here, ex-right winger out to make good. Will link and come back often.

  17. On the NYT correction:


    Who cares, they sound pretty much the same.

    Like “sex” and “socks.”

  18. If the NYT would do as thorough a job as the bloggers we might get some accurate reporting.

  19. You’re all missing the point: The MSM just can’t keep their bias out of their “news” reports. The Getty Images info does refute the staged photo accusation, but it does not obsolve the NYT of spinning the story by using an image they knew had nothing to do with the events they were “reporting,” then deliberatly changing the caption to make readers believe it did is no different.

  20. Dave, thou flaming idiot, can you not read? As I explained it is highly unlikely that whatever web site editor posted that photo had any clue there was anything wrong with it. This wasn’t bias; it was an error made by Getty Images that was passed along by the Times. This kind of error is very common in publishing.

    It sheer idiocy to make this out to be anything but a stupid error. If this is your proof of media “bias,” you’ve got a piss-poor argument.

    Sheesh; no wonder righties think George W. Bush is a great president. They are imbeciles.

  21. Your suggestion seems to be that the Times should have gone with Getty image 56596136 instead since it was less likely staged, and more artistic.

    It also depicts damage attributed to an earthquake. Imagine if the NYT had run 56596136 and id’d it as US aggression…

  22. grqavytop– yes, you are right. I didn’t read the caption. If the Times had run 56596136 and id’d it as US aggression, then that would have been a lie. Although not necessarily a lie by the NY Times.

    I get the impression that people think everything that goes on the Times web site (or in most of the print edition, for that matter) is read and approved by top management before publishing. I assure you, that is not how newspapers work. There’s not enough time to get every little thing approved. The big shots really just look at the A section and the op ed pages.

    In the case of the web site, I suspect whatever staffers build and update the pages work mostly autonomously from the newspaper and within certain parameters make their own decisions about what goes on the page. It’s probable the staffer who bought the photo and wrote the caption didn’t get it approved by anybody, or else some mid-level manager just glanced at it and said “yeah, sure, whatever. Post it.”

    To somehow make a Big Bleeping Deal out of a mistake in a web site caption, as if the New York Times publishing company itself conspired to fool the public that way, is just absurd.

  23. Outstanding post, Maha. But then most all of yours are.

    The ignorance required to put forth most of this rightwing babble astounds me. While I realize that it might sound “snobby” to put it that way, there isn’t another explanation.

    A year ago at this time, I was hearing about how Democrats in Washington State stole the governor’s election from Republican Dino Rossi. Rightwing websites were going nuts..making all sorts of bizarre claims about subverting military votes and deliberately allowing illegal votes to be counted.

    By making 3 phone calls, I was able to debunk their entire argument on the military balloting. If the rightwingers had taken 45 minutes out of their day to verify the claims, they’d have known that they were complete bullshit. But that isn’t what its about. Its about propaganda and winning.

  24. Interesting post. My criticism of MSM outlets (right, left, & center) is that they seem not to have conducted any background research in the fields that they are trying to cover. For example, you would think that reporters that are covering military affairs would work hard to develop some knowledge on weapons, military history, etc., but that doesn’t seem to be the case. This is just one of the common episodes where a lack of military knowledge led to some pretty basic reporting mistakes. I wonder how prevalent this is in other fields, e.g., business reporting, science reporting, etc.

    One point about your explanation for the error by the NYT – it certainly sounds plausible, but I would be curious to see if any posters who happen to work there have any knowledge of this particular event. I’d be curious to know how this error actually occurred. Otherwise, it’s a good explanation but there’s no hard evidence to back it up.

  25. Stopping by: “My criticism of MSM outlets (right, left, & center) is that they seem not to have conducted any background research in the fields that they are trying to cover.”

    Yes, that’s a problem. Most general-circulation newspaper and television reporters are generalists, because they are called on to cover all kinds of diverse stories, which means they screw up a lot. But if a newspaper, for example, prints no more than a couple of dozen stories by their own reporters about the military a year, it’s not practical for them to pay for a military “expert” to be on staff. A big newspaper like the New York Times no doubt does have such expertise on the staff, but it’s unlikely they’d be asked to double-check the veracity of a stock photo agency caption. Too trivial.

    In the case of the Times web site, the way things work is that most likely the person who purchased and posted the photo is a web page editor, not a reporter. That individual just pulls together pieces from a lot of sources and assembles them on the page. This person was hired primarily for the ability to build web pages and exercise some rudimentary editorial judgment. Like me, this person may not know artillery shells from spinach. Further, since Getty Images identified the photo the person probably felt no need to double check. The editor wanted a graphic to go with the text, and that was the graphic he/she found. There wasn’t a whole lot else to choose from at Getty Images.

    I’ve never worked for the New York Times, but I’ve done many years in journalism and publishing. I’m just saying this is how it works most of the time. The other thing about newspapers in particular is that decisions are made very quickly; there’s no time to chase down an artillery expert to verify what’s in a stock photo that’s been captioned already by the stock photo agency..

    I can promise you the big cheeses at the Times are not standing around the electronic publishing department dictating what goes on the web pages.

  26. Pingback: News Flash — Thomas Lifson Finds an Error in a Caption!!!

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