Times of War

A strange front-page story published last Friday served notice that the L.A. Times still has trouble talking about scoops served up by reporters other than its own. But aside from poor editorial etiquette, the story suggests that during a conflict that finds the media operating under highly restrictive protocols, the paper lacks an appetite to look past the official story.

At issue is the New Yorker account by veteran muckraker Seymour Hersh casting doubt on the Pentagon’s version of the October 20 commando raids on an Afghanistan airfield and on the home of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. Pentagon officials said at the time the raids were successful and completed “without significant interference from Taliban forces.” Two weeks later, however, Hersh reported that the raid on the mullah’s home ended in “near disaster,” in which soldiers from an elite Delta Force team were ambushed by Taliban fighters and “had to fight their way to safety . . . 12 Delta members were wounded, three of them seriously.”

Hersh revealed that the attack on the airstrip, which was filmed for distribution to the media, was actually staged — Army Rangers parachuted in only after a team had checked to make sure that no enemy was present.

When the Times followed the story Friday, staff writer Paul Richter avoided any reference to Hersh or The New Yorker. Richter also skirted the question of whether the government lied in its damage assessment, instead presenting the issue as a debate over tactics.

Hersh was not alone in his reporting. The Guardian newspaper in London reported November 6 that sources in Pakistan confirmed the account that the Delta Force squad came under “heavy fire” and sustained casualties, including one soldier who had his foot blown off. And on November 8, the St. Petersburg Times reported the statement of retired Army General Wesley Clark, who directed the war in Kosovo, that he had learned from British sources that the U.S. had indeed sustained a dozen injuries in the expedition.

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