Adwan: We need journalists to counter ‘official’ narratives

The New York Times investigation into the botched Kabul drone strike serves as a reminder of the importance of an essential function of journalism.

Noor Adwan

The Pentagon admitted Sept. 17 that a drone strike conducted in Kabul, Afghanistan was a “tragic mistake” following the publication of a New York Times investigation that revealed the target was an aid worker – not an ISIS-K facilitator as originally believed.

Journalists at the New York Times pieced together security camera footage and accounts from friends and family to reconstruct the final movements of Zemari Ahmadi, 43, who was employed by a California-based aid group fighting malnutrition. They found that he spent much of Aug. 29, the date of the missile strike, running work-related errands and filling up water canisters before returning home to his family.

Once he pulled into the courtyard, children ran out to greet the car, a white Toyota Corolla that the U.S. military had been tracking extensively. The vehicle was then struck by a Hellfire missile, killing Ahmadi, seven children and two others.

“Almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, and then days, and then weeks after the Aug. 29 drone strike turned out to be false,” reported the New York Times on Sept. 17. What were thought to be explosives inside the vehicle were likely water canisters, and the secondary explosion observed was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.

The investigation forced the military to acknowledge its mistake and Ahmadi’s name was subsequently cleared.

This story itself is tragic, but its coverage is indicative of solid and honest journalistic practices. Too often, it seems, do journalists fall into the trap of relying too heavily on “official” narratives over individual reporting. Had this happened after the deadly strike in Kabul, it seems possible that the military never would have been held accountable.

The issues with an overreliance on “official” reports are obvious, and it seems doubly obvious that one should avoid using them as their only source of information. But, of course, mistakes happen.

Sometimes, these “official” reports aren’t even reports at all – they’re little more than rumor. Following the police killing of Winston Smith, 32, in June, the Star Tribune falsely reported that Smith was a murder suspect, based on chatter they had picked up over a law enforcement audio scanner. It took the Star Tribune six days to issue a correction.

Even when “official” information does take the form of a report, they’re often incomplete or misleading.

Residents of the Twin Cities and neighboring areas are intimately familiar with the police killing of George Floyd and the events that followed. But what some may not be familiar with is the police report that was issued following Floyd’s death, titled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.”

To call the report unrepresentative of the events that took place would be an understatement. When examined alongside video of the incident, the statement, issued by police spokesperson John Elder early May 26, 2020, is so misleading that it may as well have been discussing an entirely different police interaction.

“Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress,” the report states. “Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

There was no mention of Derek Chauvin’s knee, which had been pressed into Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. There wasn’t, in fact, any mention of use of force at all. Had police gotten their way, George Floyd would have simply been an unnamed man who died of unspecified medical complications.

But this is where the journalist, professional or citizen, comes in. In a day and age where the actions of police and other arms of the state, including the U.S. military, are falling under scrutiny, the role of a journalist as a watchdog and a skeptic becomes all the more important.

The state should not operate clandestinely. The public must be able to watch and hold those in power accountable.