- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

Timing is critical

I felt pretty good about our lead story on Thursday when I woke up to hear my radio reporting that a promised “final” assault on the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr was under way in the Iraqi city of Najaf.

“U.S. troops prepared yesterday for a final showdown with Shi’ite militants in the holy city of Najaf,” read the beginning of our story, which had been rewritten from wire reports by our deputy foreign editor, Willis Witter.

The New York Times, by contrast, led its front page with a staff story from Najaf under the headline “U.S. holds back from attacking rebels in Najaf.” That was accurate enough when it was written Wednesday evening, but looked silly by the time people were reading it Thursday morning.

Timing is critical in this business, and it works very differently for a newspaper than for a wire agency or a 24-hour news channel. Where the TV networks and agencies must constantly update their reports with the freshest information available, newspapers get to present the news only once a day.

From time to time, we find ourselves rewriting wire stories or even choosing an early version of a story because we feel they have gotten too far ahead of themselves. That was the case on Wednesday.

Reports early in the day quoted U.S. commanders in Najaf saying they were getting ready for a major assault that would take out Sheik al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi’s Army, once and for all. After six days of fighting in the Shi’ite shrine city, it was a great angle, promising a decisive climax to a story that had been dragging on for days.

But later in the day, the commanders told reporters the attack would have to be postponed because Iraqi forces, who would participate in the assault, were not quite ready.

The wire agencies, TV networks and newspaper Web sites, after hours of reporting the attack as imminent, rushed to re-top their stories with the latest news about the postponement.

Carts and horses

We were tempted to lead our story the same way. But after discussing it among ourselves, we decided that the most important news was that the Americans were preparing for a final assault on the rebel militia. By the time our readers saw the story on Thursday morning, we figured, details about the timing would be of secondary interest.

We led with two paragraphs saying the final offensive was being prepared and then had this: “The offensive had been expected as early as yesterday, but Marine Maj. David Holahan said preparations were taking longer than thought. ‘It doesn’t matter now; they know we’re coming,’ Maj. Holahan said.”

With the battle raging as our subscribers read the story Thursday morning, that decision looked pretty good.

The wire agencies, meanwhile, were getting ahead of themselves again.

At 11 a.m. on Thursday, the Associated Press moved this lead from Najaf: “Thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers launched a major assault on militiamen loyal to a radical Shi’ite cleric Thursday, with explosions and gunfire echoing near Najaf’s revered Imam Ali shrine and its vast cemetery.

But a few hours later, following a raid on the home of Sheik al-Sadr, the AP lead looked like this: “U.S. forces stormed a Najaf house belonging to a radical Shi’ite cleric, who has led a deadly uprising against coalition and Iraqi troops for more than a week, as American and Iraqi soldiers launched a major assault Thursday on his militiamen.”

To me, that was getting the cart ahead of the horse and clumsy as well. The headline we wanted on our story Friday was that the promised offensive had begun, with the raid on Sheik al-Sadr’s home as a secondary element.

Reuters news agency did a better job of keeping that in focus with this lead: “U.S. Marines backed by tanks and aircraft seized the heart of the holy Iraqi city of Najaf Thursday in a major assault on Shi’ite rebels.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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