#4: The Fog of Scoops

The power of front page scoops, real or invented, to numb the mind of other news media, should never be underestimated. On October 21, 2002, the New York Times reported on its front page such a stunning scoop. It declared that President George Bush had received a phone call earlier in the year from the Czech president, Vaclav Havel, revealing that his government had no evidence of the putative meeting in Prague between the hijacker Atta and the Iraqi diplomat al-Ani.
The story by James Risen reported, "Havel has quietly told the White House he has concluded that there is no evidence to confirm earlier reports that Mohamed Atta, the leader in the Sept. 11 attacks, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague just months before the attacks on New York and Washington."

Even though the only sources given for this scoop were anonymous "Czech officials," the story was uncritically carried as front page news by almost every major newspaper in America.

The story, however, was untrue. After the story broke, President Havel stated through his spokesman that he had never spoken to President Bush or the "White House" about this meeting. The spokesman, Ladislav Spacek, stated unequivocally that the Times claim that Havel had called Bush, or any high-ranking officials of his Administration, was false. " It is a fabrication," Spacek said, "Nothing like this has occurred."

The Times acknowledged the next day that President Havel denied that he had ever had a phone conversation with Bush or any other White House official on the subject of Atta in a story by its Prague stringer, Peter Green. Green then went on to say:
that Havel spokesman added that, "Mr. Havel was still certain there was no factual basis behind the report" of an Atta-Iraqi meeting.

But what Havel's spokesman actually stated was in response to the New York times story was that Havel had only talked about Atta at a press conference during his last working visit to New York in September 2001 and that " this was Havel's sole statement about Atta over the last year." That statement did not dispute the Czech intelligence finding. If that was his sole statement than Havel had never said, as Peter Green reports "there was no factual basis" for the Atta-alAni meeting. It is simply adding fog to fog.

The foggy scoop managed to have an afterlife. Two days after it was termed a "fabrication" by Havel's spokesman, the Times recycled it into an editorial "The Illusory Prague Connection." Citing the (fictional) phone call between Havel and Bush, it stated that the "often-cited meeting between Mohamed Atta, the chief hijacker, and an Iraqi spy in Prague almost certainly never took place."

Whatever the status of that meeting-- which was re-confirmed by the Czech Ambassador to the United Nations on October 26th -- the Times' invented scoop succeeded in casting a lingering journalistic fog over the event.

 Any further examples of fogs?

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