Veteran War Correspondents Rip Fox 'Human Shields' Lie

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

Several veteran foreign correspondents were critical of Fox News' misleading claims on Monday that reporters from other U.S. outlets, but not from Fox, were lured to Muamar Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli and successfully used as human shields.

Fox had to "clarify" the story later that evening when it turned out that someone from Fox News was also at Gadhafi's compound. At least one reporter, Nic Robertson of CNN, lashed out at Fox's reporting, calling it "outrageous and hypocritical."

Other military affairs reporters and war correspondents have since weighed in with criticism of Fox's actions, with some suggesting such misleading reports can hurt news efforts in the combat zone.

"Those war situations are always full of confusion about what dangers lurk, and I think the CNN team and other journalists probably did the right thing by taking a look at Gadhafi's compound," said Tim Johnson, a veteran McClatchy foreign correspondent, now based in Mexico. "Certainly, there were plenty of important aspects of the military campaign the Fox News team could have covered rather than choosing to cover what other reporters were doing. But if the goal was to make a splashy headline using the emotionally laden phrase of 'human shields,' they succeeded, whether accurate or not."

Otto Kreisher, a former U.S. Marine and Copley Newspaper foreign correspondent who covered U.S. forces in Grenada, Panama, and Iraq, said Fox News' actions were "not surprising from the 'fair & balanced' network."

Don North, a veteran photojournalist who has covered wars from Vietnam to Iraq and serves as vice president of Military Reporters and Editors -- an association of those who cover the military -- also criticized Fox:

"When news organizations try to make their journalists part of the story, it's a sorry way to use your people and resources, isn't it?" he asked. "The Gadhafi people can certainly be expected to show air strike damage in Tripoli to the foreign press and if there is a bus and you're our man in Tripoli, you better be on it. But as Nic Robertson of CNN, a very experienced hand in this type of situation observed, 'they didn't force us to hang around and be hostages.' "

Roy Gutman, former foreign editor of McClatchy Newspapers who is now heading to the Middle East for the chain, said Fox got its facts wrong and Robertson rightly called them on it.

"It seemed that he had a pretty cogent argument that they were not used as human shields," he said of Robertson. "The facts are the facts. That is the truth. If they have their facts right, they have a story. But I don't know that Fox had their facts right, and didn't prove their point. And they had their own [person] there."

Kelly S. Kennedy of USA Today, who serves as president of Military Reporters and Editors, pointed to the impact Fox's actions can have on the press working together in dangerous situations.

"The reporters who were covering this would have a problem with [Fox's actions] themselves, as there is such a sense of camaraderie over there," said Kennedy. "It is unnerving that they would try to pit [reporters] against each other. Everyone sort of works together and sits together and eats together there. I would like to think that they are much more supportive in the combat zone than the [Fox] people who were on the air."

She added about the working situation in Libya: "It is almost like the situation changes over there because you sit around talking about what is going on. You don't give up sources necessarily or give away your story, but part of it is you kind of have to talk about it to keep your head straight. It is important to have that camaraderie to keep yourself sane."

McClatchy's Gutman said reporters are often at the mercy of the government when they are covering a foreign leader up close, such as in the Gadhafi compound incident.

"You are always the unwilling passenger in the government bus. So if you are invited to the compound in the middle of the night, what choice do you have to go? And if you become the victim because the government set you up for that, that is tragic. But that happens if you are sitting in the capital as the guest of the government.

"The idea of [Fox] criticizing the media when they are doing the only thing they can do there is a bit presumptuous and small, it is hard to understand it."

Liz Sly of The Washington Post was among the journalists in Libya who visited the compound. She detailed the situation for Media Matters in an e-mail, making clear how and why she and others ended up in the Gadhafi compound:

All I can do is tell you about my experience of that night, which convinces me that the government was not intentionally using us as human shields, even if we inadvertently became temporary human shields because unbeknownst to us there was a plan to hit the site at that time.

We were summoned at about 11 pm to go see damage to a building in Gaddafi's compound. We had heard an explosion and had seen smoke rising from the compound, so it seemed like a plausible trip. I was concerned about getting on the bus because my deadline was approaching, and sometimes these trips can drag on for hours. So one of the government minders put me on the phone to Moussa Ibrahim, the chief government spokesman, who was at the site.

I told him I didn't want to go on a long drawn out trip because of my deadline. He assured me that we were just going to be shown the building, and we would be brought right back. In the end, it did all take about two hours, but they did try to move us briskly along. There were probably about 40 journalists in all, American, British, European, various nationalities, I can't remember exactly. There were also lots of Libyan officials with us, and they didn't show any interest in lingering either!

All day long, all the journalists had been badgering the officials to show us some actual damage from a bombing, especially the TV journalists who need pictures, so it didn't seem odd either that they were finally coming up with a trip to a bombed building.

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