- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

The headline of a Wednesday Knight Ridder wire story stated, “CIA warns of Iraq civil war.” Not one source makes the claim on the record. In fact, the headline is not justified anywhere in the body of the story, which looks favorably upon a greater role for the United Nations and a speedier timeline for Iraqi elections. As a result of the lack of attribution and the general slant, the journalistic value of the work is based more on opinion than real reporting.

The article offers no shred of concrete proof that the CIA warned of imminent civil war in the recently liberated Middle Eastern nation. To back up the sensational threat, Knight Ridder quotes anonymous “current and former U.S. officials,” “one intelligence officer,” “a senior administration official,” “another senior official” and “a top cleric in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.” The only apparent connection to the CIA is second-hand.

The lack of attribution throughout the entire article undermines confidence in its seriousness. No effort was taken to add balance to the report, whether it be through experts or other public sources. The closest it comes to any kind of substantiation is one reference to an as-yet-unwritten CIA report.

Regardless of whether the motivation was malicious, last week’s Knight Ridder story is typical of the slanted nature of the media coverage from the first day of the war, and the buildup to it. While doubt is cast on the Bush administration’s public claims of progress, inflammatory phrases such as “civil war” are repeated over and over again, usually outside the original context of analyzing hypothetical scenarios. At the least, last week’s headline was misleading. At worst, it was an example of sloppy and willful misuse of selective data to support the antiwar agenda. Either way, it feeds into the movement to pull out troops before Iraq is stabilized and the mission accomplished.

The sky is falling, so says an anonymous source. On hearing such a warning, whether or not one should run for cover depends largely on the reliability or motivation of the doomsday prophet in question. Total dependence on anonymous sources makes it difficult to verify extreme claims. The Knight Ridder report proves that such questions are not idle philosophizing.

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