In late June 2004 Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun was reported kidnapped near Fallujah, Iraq, and later beheaded by militants-only to turn up 500 miles away in his native Lebanon, at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. The military said he was cooperating, and months passed before plans were announced to court-martial him on charges of desertion. In December 2004, he was allowed to go on holiday leave-and failed to report back to his unit. While The Salt Lake Tribune has updated information about Hassoun regularly (he has relatives who live in Utah), the national news agencies that reported his beheading generally have neglected to follow up on this story, which may or may not be a hoax, although that is the impression left with the public.
Hassoun was still a fugitive at this writing. His story gained worldwide attention on July 3, 2004, when an Associated Press dispatch stated that he had been beheaded, ensuring maximum play on Independence Day and shocking the nation. Since then, the public has become somewhat desensitized to beheadings. But in summer 2004, after graphic video of the May 2004 beheading of U.S. civilian Nicholas Berg, the execution of an American combatant was spectacularly disturbing news, perpetuating fears of terrorists and terrorism.
The initial AP report, based on a statement on an extremist Web site, stated that it could not immediately verify the authenticity of the posting, an important detail indicating the complexity of reporting a beheading by a militant group in unstable Iraq. "The report is cautiously worded because there were things that could not be independently verified at all and remain so to this day," says Jack Stokes, the AP's director of media relations.
The caution was a sign of things to come, including swift denials of the execution, giving hope to Hassoun's family that he was still alive. The next indicator occurred shortly thereafter when Hassoun showed up at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. To this day, we don't know whether Hassoun staged his kidnapping. The Salt Lake Tribune has reported that he experienced difficulty balancing military duties with his Muslim faith. Neither do we know much about the Web posting on July 3, 2004. We have no idea whether Hassoun andor any accomplices had a hand in that, too, or whether another hoaxster intended to manipulate media in time for our patriotic celebration on July 4th.
In a word, details of the Hassoun story are beyond the scope of this report. What follows is an ethical case study on the importance of story follow-up, especially when a hoax is suspected. The watchdog tradition requires reporters to pursue and bust hoaxes, warning and exposing anyone who tries to manipulate the news media. Did they, in this case?
The Napping Watchdog
The best way to expose a hoax is to follow up doggedly on its contentions. Fred Vultee, a former editor at The Charlotte Observer and instructor specializing in terrorism framing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, believes that there was good initial coverage of Hassoun; but at each turn the story fell "a little farther below the horizon at more and more papers." So although readers of The Washington Post may have followed the various twists of the Hassoun story, he says, those in the heartland generally lack access to that information.
"So receding coverage isn't 'just' receding coverage," Vultee adds. "When we stop reporting a story, we're suggesting that it's done."(italics added)
That raises several ethical concerns. The public requires a complete record to participate meaningfully in civic debate about governmental, judicial and military procedures. An informed electorate demands that journalists make corrections or amendments to the official record promptly and prominently. Doing so holds government officials accountable for their actions or inactions. Moreover, the tenets of social responsibility generally require journalists to provide a complete record-mandatory on suspect stories. Simply put, the media cannot allow a hoax to go unaddressed without losing credibility.
As is commonly acknowledged, the news media were late in reporting the intensity and commitment of the insurgency-more evidence of a napping watchdog. A lingering tendency still exists to tread carefully on coverage involving Iraq. According to veteran journalist Frank E. Fee, Jr., "Many editors and publishers have not recovered from the days immediately after 911, when the nation's fear and patriotism made it unwise for critical journalism to take place." Fee, who now directs the master's program in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, adds that some news executives "still perceive that anything less than jingoistic flag-waving won't sit well with readers-a misreading of public sentiment, perhaps."
As a consequence, journalists tend to cover what the military communicates in press briefings. At one such briefing on July 8, 2004, Lawrence Di Rita, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, asserted that "[a]lmost nothing that's been reported about Corporal Hassoun has been accurate. ... So we're just going to stick to what we've told you, which is, he is now in U.S. control at the embassy compound in Lebanon." Ironically, he was allowed to go on leave and now the Naval Criminal Investigative Service has listed Hassoun as a "Most Wanted Fugitive," asking the public for help in his capture. (In hindsight, both Di Rita and the NCIS might acknowledge that only an informed public working in tandem with the news media can help catch military fugitives and improve counter-terrorist techniques, which call for two-way flows of information based upon authentic threats.)
Chaining the Watchdog
Terry Anderson, former Marine and Middle East bureau chief for The Associated Press, held hostage in Lebanon for seven years, recognizes a chilling outcome of the Hassoun story: The watchdog not only has been caught napping in the newsroom; the government knows when it naps and the length of its chain. Anderson believes the military and Bush administration have let the news media dictate the pace of the Hassoun story, realizing that lack of follow-up would result in "that pace slowing to a crawl." As Anderson notes, "There is a general reluctance of major American media to hold the military accountable for its actions in Iraq, and a complete refusal by the military to hold itself accountable. This story seems to involve a major screw-up. But if we allowed no one of consequence to pay the price of [prison abuses at] Abu Ghraib, why should the military or anyone else respond on any story?"
Miles Moffeit, investigative reporter for The Denver Post, observes that "the military is one of the most secretive and complex institutions on the planet" and is especially slow in responding to facts and inquiries about internal controversies. For that reason, Moffeit and colleague Amy Herdy had to be especially aggressive in compiling reports about sexual abuse against female troops in Iraq in addition to incomplete military investigations into other abuses against women. He and Herdy wrote more than 50 follow-up stories to keep public attention focused on these issues.
"Ultimately, because of that coverage, Congress acted in a big way," Moffeit notes. For instance, Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado and the Congressional Women's Caucus spearheaded investigative hearings on Capitol Hill. "But internally at the newspaper, there were battles to be fought. The gut instinct of some editors was to move on to something fresh, to drop the issue flat. In response, we kept pushing the notion that we have a social and ethical responsibility to follow this story to the bitter end."
According to Moffeit, reporters who wrote stories about the purported Hassoun beheading are responsible for seeing their coverage to completion, "and screaming at their editors to make it happen." After all, he adds, this not only was a bizarre human interest story; it very well may be a hoax, and journalists are obligated ethically to expose suspected hoaxes or verify allegations to the contrary.
Vultee agrees. Framing the Hassoun case as an ethical issue "brings up the old maxim of crime coverage: If you charge them in the front page, you need to convict or clear them on the front page too. Particularly in war coverage, when the follow-up details-like 'the bomb really did hit a wedding party'-fall through the cracks, we risk leaving an incomplete picture."
Rousing the Watchdog
The Salt Lake Tribune has been aggressive in completing that picture. The newspaper has written about 50 stories on Hassoun, according to Assistant Managing Editor Peg McEntee, "following the ins and outs of his disappearance and re-emergence, his repatriation, his leaves in Utah and certainly his desertion." Reporters based in Salt Lake City collaborate with the paper's Washington bureau, "and we make regular contact with his family members here and in Lebanon and write when it's appropriate to do so. That said, it has been difficult to get information." While public information officers at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Hassoun's base, have assisted the newspaper, "the military in general has its own reasons for keeping a lid on things."
McEntee wonders if Hassoun staged or went along with a hoax and, if so, how that could have occurred in the Marine Corps.
"So, yes, the press could be considered to be in complicity with the administration on this and other matters of profound importance in our world right now." McEntee, interviewed in August, noted that The Tribune hadn't written a story about Hassoun for several months, "for the simple reason that there has been nothing about him, specifically, to report."
Shortly after that interview, the newspaper broke a nationally distributed story, noting allegations of suspicious behavior by Hassoun, including reportedly asking Iraqis working at Camp Fallujah if they could help him escape. The latest Tribune follow-up occurred because of Freedom of Information requests filed months earlier. "We were peppering the Pentagon with FOIs relating to this story," McEntee says. "This just came literally over the transom. We walked in the door and had these reports on Hassoun."
"This is proof that putting in those FOIs works," she adds, noting that this also is part of the watchdog tradition. "It may take a long time and it may take you by surprise. But when those FOIs came through for us, they opened up a huge window into what Hassoun was thinking and what he was doing."
"Nothing in these initial reports suggests that he had a role in any hoax," she observes. "They cover what might have happened in the days just after he failed to show up for guard duty. There was no information on whether a video showing him captive had been made at that point. Nobody likes to get duped. To the degree that we could, when we suspect a hoax, we pursue it, especially given the ramifications of this story. It is huge. But even if this wasn't a hoax, it involved a Lebanese Muslim naturalized citizen Marine. No matter what the circumstances, we would have had to follow up."
Retraining the Watchdog
As the Hassoun story recedes deeper into our collective memory, journalists also might concede that story follow-up on suspected hoaxes remains an indispensable aspect of social responsibility, as these lingering questions illustrate:
What might have been the social consequences associated with the Hassoun story had news agencies followed up promptly and prominently?At the least, it seems, military officials would have had to keep stricter watch over Hassoun, which may have resulted in their forbidding him to go on holiday leave in late 2004. If that had occurred, proceedings against him for deserting his post the previous summer could have gone forward as planned, providing new perspectives and adding to the public debate about U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Why did the Washington press corps allow the government to establish the pace of this story?The Hassoun fiasco illustrates the initial willingness of the news media to go easy on and along with the government's official stance on matters involving Iraq. Ever since, the media have played catch-up on selective rather than comprehensive story follow-up, such as providing regular updates about prison abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The downside of selective story follow-up, however, is the appearance of political agenda-setting, eroding standards of balance and objectivity.
Who, specifically (names, ranks and serial numbers), were responsible for the decision to allow Hassoun to go on holiday leave last December?
Unless the media hold government and military officials accountable when following up on reports of intense national interest, journalists will repeat the ethical errors articulated here and continue to lose credibility (along with audience).
Concerning the Hassoun coverage, one has to wonder why the news media neglected to follow up aggressively, especially since there were several opportunities to re-enter the story-a false beheading, a mysterious re-emergence in Lebanon, a return to the United States, a military investigation, a subsequent charge of desertion, the granting of holiday leave, and then a second suspected desertion. One conclusion might be that reporters in today's downsized and converged newsrooms have forgotten the importance of and the ethical lessons associated with follow-up.
Miles Moffeit believes editors, in particular, must take a leadership role in committing to extensive, long-term coverage of substantive stories in the public interest. "We need greater discussion within newsrooms about why we do what we do. There are too many people in newsrooms who simply don't take our watchdog responsibility seriously enough. Unfortunately, the Pentagon knows this, and it knows we move on to other stories rather quickly."
The public is also aware when news media fail to follow up. "Readers prize good, heads-up, aggressive coverage," says Frank Fee. "If it's not on a topic that interests them, they nevertheless are reassured by the effort and the philosophy behind it" and that builds credibility, which "is sorely lacking these days."
Unless journalists practice prompt and prominent story follow-up-preventing hoaxes, correcting disinformation and providing a complete, comprehensive and independent record-the public will continue to question the role and effectiveness of traditional news outlets.
The reasoning is simple. When reporters forget, people remember.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005 (17:1),pp.5,16-17.