May 06, 2003

I WAS WRONG. The flag

I WAS WRONG. The flag that was draped over the statue of Saddam did not come from the Pentagon. Media Watch last night presented two impressive sources who contradict widespread international reports - and my own repeated and, as it turns out, incorrect claims - that the flag was sourced from the Pentagon on September 11.

But what Media Watch won't admit is that they didn't know they were right when they aired their initial report. It took Media Watch three weeks of research - prompted by this site and various comments at the Media Watch website - to prove their case. Their situation is analogous to someone who assumes OJ Simpson is guilty because of his race, and who is subsequently proved correct by DNA evidence.

To recap:

On April 14, Media Watch described as "incredible" a Daily Telegraph claim that the flag had been under debris at the Pentagon on September 11. Numerous sources, however, indicated that the flag had been at the Pentagon; the only dispute seemed to be whether it had been anywhere near debris.

Media Watch ducked and dived on the issue. Questions asked of Media Watch went unanswered, or were bluntly rebutted with non-specific assertions that "Media Watch's criticism stands". No evidence was offered as to the non-Pentagon origins of the flag until last night's episode.

You won't find this on the Media Watch website, but the e-mail from one of their sources confirming that the flag didn't come from the Pentagon was sent on May 1. Which tends to confirm my original comment that "Marr and his Media Watchers appear to have run with the first opinion they received that supported their prejudiced notion that the Telegraph had fabricated the flag story."

Only after three weeks did they finally locate a source supporting that claim. Still, the bigger issue is the flag story itself, which Media Watch has clearly settled with something of a global scoop.

Me totally wrong. Media Watch completely right.

And now the readers have their say. From John McBeath:

Tonight you copped the put down you so richly deserve.

The artfully named "artful me" writes:

If the latest Media Watch research is correct, and the flag in question was simply purchased as a present from a giftshop at the pentagon (apparently only coincidentally on September 11) and had no other links to that event than any more than any other pen or packet of tic-tacs bought on that day, will you be issuing any sort of acknowledgment or apology to Media Watch? Or are they not the only ones who are "Shameful and gutless"?

Certainly, it appears that the essence of the Telegraph article, that there was a direct association between the flag draped over the statue and the tragic events of September 11, seem completely unjustified, except perhaps to the chronically pedantic. It would be like saying a soldier was draping an Autralian flag flown at the 2000 Olympics when they just bought it at the corner duty free while the Olympics was on and waved it at their next door neighbour.

Just wondering what your position will be now after your attacks on Media Watch ?

Evan E. Hughes sends an SMS-style smackdown:

SUCT in, U got 2TALLY RIPT by David MA on M WATCH and that U should CHK UR SRCES Prop R ly NXT time! CUM ON how CUD that FLG EVA have cum from the 5agon?

Need a translation?

Ask David Marr, he seems to know more than you, smarty pants! (Ouch, now THAT has GOT to hurt)

From dfhannah:

tim, i think you are a disgrace - not mediawatch

And this from Stan McKeon:

Hey Tim,

Where's the flag from again?????????????

Lets go to the giftshop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sale of the Century price only $9.00

You goose!

Gareth Parker says it's game, set, and match to Media Watch, while support arrives from Matt DuPree:

You're dead-on about MW running away with their own bias, then checking the facts later. And at least you 'fess up when you're wrong, unlike so many other columnists. You're still all right.

And further from Jeffrey Collins:

In regards to your admission that Media Watch was right about the Pentagon flag, I'm surprised that you didn't point out that a major part of your original criticism still stands. As you pointed out, several news agencies reported the story, but Media Watch singled out the Telegraph because of the Murdoch connection.

Kevin V. Russell inquires about my preferred brand of cigarette:

You stated that the flag came from under the pentagon with any proof and yet you take a poke at Media Watch for saying it did not without any proof? Just what is it you are smoking?

Craig Lawrie isn't swayed by MW's latest offering:

Media Watch is a joke. David Marr is the smarmiest, most patronising person on TV. To think that they would devote all the air-time, research time, and what must be huge expense just to cover their own lack of fact checking in the first place! Why didn't they make the calls weeks ago? Then they weaseled around your argument. The issue was what the Telegraph reported and MW's initial attack on them - NOT whether the flag came from debris or not.

You have obviously got up their nose for them to come after you this way. David Marr was swinging his chair around and fidgeting about all over the place. On a commercial network he'd get a blast. He was obviously extremely nervous about the confrontation and yet still managed to be patronising, arrogant and insipid all at the same time.

Reader Rick has a tip for MW's next investigation:

You're to be commended for so manfully taking your medicine in that inestimably important story about the provenance of the U.S. flag unfurled by the jarhead in Baghdad. Since this is a tempest in a Barbie&Ken teacup, the fact that the flag carried by that one Marine, at that moment in time, had any thread going back to the Pentagon is merely Gee Whiz/Truth Stranger Than Fiction stuff.

Now, will your triumphant Media Watch conquerors ride any journalists and commentators about any big deal they may have made over the Incredible Shrinking Museum Looting story? I doubt it, too.

There are several comments on the flag story over at the Media Watch guestbook, by the way. Next, a message from Anthony Towns:

The point's evidently been missed by Mediawatch in any event. Their transcript says "... we took the Daily Telegraph to task for its incredible claim about the flag ...'' -- but that really isn't the issue. Lots of things are incredible at face value, the appropiate question for journalists is whether they're true or false. The Telegraph's claim was false by any measure, but as it turned out not particularly unbelievable at all; the surprising and unlikely fact was the relationship of the flag to the attack on the Pentagon -- but in fact that relationship did exist.

It's hard to call the Tele's error particularly misleading, but there's an interesting point to discuss that's well within Mediawatch's charter: the tendency to take significant, metaphor laden events, and exaggerate them into hyperbole, based on wishful thinking and a lack of effort put into fact checking. Hell, this story has it in spades: from the Tele's hyperbole and random blogs' exaggeration of the flag's origins, to Al Jazeera and others taking the brief showing of the US flag as a symbol of forthcoming American dominance, to, at a stretch, Mediawatch considering a single error of fact warrant to dismiss the entire story out of hand. The story alone is interesting and moving, there's no need to embellish it or pretend that it's more than it is. It's a pity that the story Mediawatch presented was just an excuse for its trademark sneering contempt.

Tim Train sends congratulations:

It appears that Media Watch was right, and you were wrong, though you did provide at least three credible sources in your April 16 post. That said, the spectacle of David Marr gloating over his victory is unpleasant, to say the least - you would have thought that they would have been gracious enough to acknowledge the sources you provided.

In this context, your post today (May 6th) was everything that it should have been - polite and gracious in defeat. Congratulations.

As a closing note, I might say that if it hadn't been for your incisive commentary, Media Watch would not have pursued the debate this far. Again, congratulations for your good journalism and your graciousness in defeat.

And finally, I think, from Bob Bunnett:

You are dead right that MW are a disgrace and this whole episode only shows that more completely than ever. Sure, they have uncovered what (at this stage) appears could be the true facts of the matter, but only after they were forced to do their research. It is clear that they have tried throughout to cover their initial sloppy performance - your criticism remains perfectly valid in that regard.

Jeffrey Collins is also correct in identifying the unfair singling out of the Telegraph as an issue that they have tried to sidestep. It seems pretty clear that their sloppy initial conclusions were influenced by their hatred of all things Murdoch rather than any kind of genuine research.

Having said that, your readiness to acknowledge the greater importance of the truth of the flag story itself is an example of the kind of journalistic values these pricks are supposed to be upholding. The contrast with David Marr's performance on Media Watch could not be starker. I don't think I have ever seen such wriggling smugness in a public place, let alone on national television! It was a truly sick-making spectacle, made all the worst by its fundamental dishonesty in relation to MW's own bias, inadequate research and subsequent attempts to cover their tracks.

Still more, from Mark Joyce:

What in the world is Media Watch crowing about? Didn't they concede that the flag came from the Pentagon, just not from out of the rubble? Or did I misunderstand their whole point. Either they were wrong then or they are wrong now, too. They can't have it both ways.

Good on you for fessing up and taking your licks, although I agree with you that your central bitch with Media Watch is not diminished. The tinny left is desperate for a win and you are it. For those of us who trust your website, however, your coming clean only demonstrates your trustworthiness.

If only Media Watch could learn what you already know: anybody can make a mistake -- it's what you do after that reveals you character.

Fight 'er fair.

Posted by Tim Blair at May 6, 2003 12:46 AM