Dailies' Haditha coverage admirable

More even-handed than national media

June 28, 2008

by David Kopel

Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani of Rangely was one of eight Marines prosecuted for crimes allegedly committed in Haditha, Iraq. Defense attorneys, as well as many supporters of the defendants, say the case is a result of Marine Corps' overreaction to a media frenzy.

As syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin and others have regularly demonstrated, that assertion is plausible (though some of their claims are likely overstated).

One of the eight Marines has been acquitted; another's trial has been postponed for months; and charges against the six others, including Chessani, were dismissed. In Chessani's case, the judge found "unlawful command influence." That is, a key witness in the case had unlawfully participated in legal strategy sessions with commanders who had to decide whether criminal charges should be brought. Prosecutors say they will appeal the Chessani dismissal.

The Marine Corps had been under intense media pressure since March 19, 2006, when Time magazine wrote that after a Marine was killed by an improvised explosive device on Nov. 19, 2005, his comrades rampaged and killed up to two dozen innocent civilians. The accused say that they engaged in a firefight with terrorists who used women and children as human shields.

Because of Chessani, the Haditha incident was an important Colorado story. The Denver Post's reporting uncovered some significant facts. Most staff-written coverage by the Post and the Rocky Mountain News has been fair to the accused.

On May 8, 2006, a team of four Post reporters broke the story that in December 2005, the U.S. had paid $38,000 in total to the families of 15 Iraqis who had died on Nov. 19. Their source was State Treasurer Mike Coffman, who had served with Marines in the Haditha area in early 2006. As Coffman explained, such payments are common when innocents are killed unintentionally by U.S. forces, but the per-person payment of $2,500 was unusually large, implying that something had been amiss at Haditha.

A pair of editorials in the Post (May 31 and June 3) called for an investigation of Haditha. The first editorial, headlined "Take Iraq charges seriously," was admirably temperate. But the second editorial bore the headline "Killings tarnish U.S. efforts," and called Haditha a "massacre."

Rocky columnist Mike Littwin (June 10) advanced the story with an in-depth interview of Coffman, letting Coffman explain the feeling of constant danger when one is fighting a counterinsurgency.

Back in November 2005, the Marine Corps had put out a statement saying that all the civilians had been killed by a roadside bomb. Yet even after it was undisputed that most of the civilians had died from gunfire, the press release had not been withdrawn or modified. Mike Soraghan, of the Post's Washington bureau, investigated the press release in a detailed front-page article on July 3, 2006.

Chessani was not present for the firefight, but would later be charged with dereliction of duty for not investigating his company's actions. Soraghan's well-researched article gave the other side of the story: "Officers knew all along that Marines killed the civilians and made no attempt to hide that fact from their superiors, lawyers involved in the case say. That includes, they say, the commander of the Marine unit involved in the Haditha incident, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani of Rangely."

Soraghan also reported the suspicions of Coffman that there had been a cover-up somewhere in the Marine chain of command, as well as the counterclaim that the press release about all the deaths being bomb-related was the simple result of bungling and confusion at division headquarters.

An Aug. 3, 2006, article in the Rocky, written by Robert Burns of The Associated Press and supplemented by Dick Foster of the Rocky, was not so careful. It reported as an undisputed fact that "The Marines initially reported after the Nov. 19, 2005, killings at Haditha that 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed by a makeshift roadside bomb and in crossfire." (In the context of the article, "Marines" referred to the company that had been at Haditha, not to the Marine Corps as a whole.)

Foster did better later that year, with a solo piece (Dec. 22) providing an accurate and thorough account of the particular charges that had just been filed against the eight Marines.

Several articles in both papers, as well as wire service stories, included the bald claim that "eyewitness" accounts disproved the Marine company's story about a firefight. These stories overlooked some credibility problems of the self-proclaimed eyewitnesses, a topic that was dissected by the weblog Sweetness & Light.

On June 18, 2008, after the charges against Chessani were dismissed, the Rocky and the Post both published staff-written articles. The Post's story was more detailed, but both papers carried it on the front page, where it belonged.

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