The NY Times’ Tortured Explanation of Its Abu Ghraib Photo-Op Flop

As Tim Graham noted this weekend, the Times "messed up in its attempt at yet another juicy Abu Ghraib story."

Reporter Hassan Fattah’s interview with Ali Shalal Qaissi, who claimed to be the subject of an infamous Abu Ghraib photo, made the front page of the March 11 Times, complete with a picture of Qaissi holding a photograph of “himself” -- that archetypal image of a hooded man standing on a box attached to wires.

The headline trumpeted: "Symbol of Abu Ghraib Seeks to Spare Others His Nightmare."

Fattah stated:

“Mr. Qaissi, 43, was prisoner 151716 of Cellblock 1A. The picture of him standing hooded atop a cardboard box, attached to electrical wires with his arms stretched wide in an eerily prophetic pose, became the indelible symbol of the torture at Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad.”

Just one problem: Qaissi wasn’t the man in the photograph.

(Fattah’s reporting for the Times often paints Muslims as victims -- even those who support acts of terror.)

This time, prodded by a detailed expression of doubt posted at Salon, the Times was obliged to run an embarrassing correction and a “clarifying article” by Kate Zernike (with additional reporting, ironically, by Fattah himself. The article, which ran on March 18 a week after the original story, was accompanied by an “Editor’s Note” blaming PBS and Vanity Fair.

“A front-page article last Saturday profiled Ali Shalal Qaissi, identifying him as the hooded man forced to stand on a box, attached to wires, in a photograph from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal of 2003 and 2004. He was shown holding such a photograph. As an article on Page A1 today makes clear, Mr. Qaissi was not that man.  The Times did not adequately research Mr. Qaissi's insistence that he was the man in the photograph. Mr. Qaissi's account had already been broadcast and printed by other outlets, including PBS and Vanity Fair, without challenge. Lawyers for former prisoners at Abu Ghraib vouched for him. Human rights workers seemed to support his account. The Pentagon, asked for verification, declined to confirm or deny it.”

Here’s an excerpt from the clarifying article that ran on the front page the same day. Notice how the paper again tries to lighten its responsibility in the manner while purportedly coming clean.

“Ali Shalal Qaissi, soon emerged as their chief representative, appearing in publications and on television in several countries to detail his suffering. His prominence made sense, because he claimed to be the man in the photograph that had become the international icon of the Abu Ghraib scandal: standing on a cardboard box, hooded, with wires attached to his outstretched arms. He had even emblazoned the silhouette of that image on business cards. The trouble was, the man in the photograph was not Mr. Qaissi.”

Captain’s Quarters has more on the paper’s shoddy reporting: “In other words, the Times didn't bother to do its own research; it relied on the ‘independent’ reporting of PBS and Vanity Fair -- wait, I can't even write that with a straight face -- to identify Qaissi as the man in the photograph.”

Tom Maguire digs out the Times’ old reporting that correctly identified the actual man on the box.

“Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh testified that he was the prisoner in the photograph showing a man standing on a box, his arms outstretched and his body draped with a blanket.”

Maguire gives the paper the benefit of the doubt: “Look, it is an understandable mistake -- the rest of us don't have a lot of confidence in the Times, either, so why should they?”

And a hat-tip to Villainous Company for inspiring the headline.

For more New York Times bias, visit TimesWatch.

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Clay Waters's picture