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New York Times Hoaxed

I check the Corrections section of the New York Times every couple of days, mainly for laughs. But occasionally you find something more serious, like this entry from yesterday’s edition:
“An article on Sunday about attacks on the American military in Iraq over the previous two days, attributed to military officials, included an erroneous account that quoted Pfc. Jose Belen of the First Armored Division. Private Belen, who is not a spokesman for the division, said that a homemade bomb exploded under a convoy on Saturday morning on the outskirts of Baghdad and killed two American soldiers and their interpreter. The American military’s central command, which releases information on all American casualties in Iraq, said before the article was published that it could not confirm Private Belen’s account. Later it said that no such attack had taken place and that no American soldiers were killed on Saturday.
“Repeated efforts by The Times to reach Private Belen this week have been unsuccessful. The Times should not have attributed the account to ‘military officials,’ and should have reported that the command had not verified the attack.”
Here is the original article. Note the detailed and somewhat lurid description of the attack on an American convoy attributed to “Pfc. Jose Belen, with the First Armored Division.” Private Belen was free with details–all invented, apparently–but refused to name the unit that the dead soldiers were purportedly from.
The correction raises several interesting questions. First, did someone really feed this false story to the Times reporter, Robert Worth, or did Worth make it up in a Jayson Blair-like fit of fantasy? I assume the former, since the fabrication would inevitably come to light.
Second, does “Private Jose Belen” actually exist? This is not clear from the Times’ correction. The Times merely says they have been unsuccessful in reaching him. If there is really such a person, he presumably is in big trouble for giving the press false information about American casualties. Other than the Times’ correction, however, I can find no published follow-up on the story.
And finally, why did the Times print the account by “Private Belen” when the reporter knew, according to the correction, that Central Command had said it was unable to confirm that the attack had taken place? The attack described by “Private Belen” could hardly have escaped notice; it supposedly took place on the outskirts of Baghdad and involved an entire convoy of American soldiers, with multiple casualties. Didn’t the fact that Central Command knew nothing of the attack make Worth suspicious? Moreover, Worth’s article notes that: “By late afternoon, all wreckage had been cleared away and no witnesses to the attack could be found.” So Worth himself visited the scene of the alleged attack and found no sign of it–notwithstanding the fact that if Belen was telling the truth, a bomb had gone off on the highway earlier the same day. And didn’t Worth wonder why no one he talked to at the scene had any knowledge of a bombing, followed by an exchange of gunfire, which supposedly had happened the same morning?
It appears that the Times reporter had ample reason to suspect that the account he got from “Private Belen” was phony. But instead of investigating further, he and the Times not only rushed the story into print, but attributed it falsely to “military officials.” It is hard to see any explanation for this, but that they couldn’t wait to report: “The deaths brought to 55 the number of soldiers killed since President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq on May 1.”
More evidence, I guess, that you simply can’t trust anything you read in the Times.

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