Is a fake staged photo fit to print? What if it staged in a way that makes the US forces fighting the War on Terror look cruel and ineffective? The evidence argues that yes, it can run, and in a prominent position — at least in the case of the New York Times website.
It appears that the Times, once—upon—a—time regarded as the last word in reliability when it comes to checking before publishing (which makes them so much better than blogs, of course), has run a fake photo on the home page of its website. The photo has since been removed from the home page, but still can be seen here.
The picture shows a sad little boy, with a turbaned man next to him, a little bit further from the camera, amid the ruins of a house. Other men and boys peer in from the background. The photo is captioned
"Pakistani men with the remains of a missile fired at a house in the Bajur tribal zone near the Afghan border."
The story it accompanies is about the apparently failed attempt to take out al Qaeda's #2 man al Zawahiri, with a missile attack from a Predator drone.
'How sad!' readers are encouraged to think. 'These poor people are on the receiving end of awful weapons used by the clumsy minions of Bush. And all to no avail. Isn't it terrible? Why must America do such horrible misdeeds? Bush must go!'
The only problem is that the long cylindrical item with a conical tip pictured with the boy and the man is not a missile at all. It is an old artillery shell. Not something that would have been fired from a Predator. Indeed, something that must have been found elsewhere and posed with the ruins and the little boy as a means at pulling of the heartstrings of the gullible readers of the New York Times.
Others have noticed the fakery, too.
Ned Barnett is an expert on military technology, and frequently serves as a contributor to The History Channel on mil—tech issues. He has plenty of experience researching military ordnance. He told me:
'Based on my extensive experience in researching military technology, I can verify that this is a 152mm or 155mm artillery shell — unfired — and by the looks of it, fairly old. It also looks like it has a fuse in it, suggesting that the guys in the photo are either ditch—water dumb or have a death—wish.
'At a glance, it's hard to tell the exact caliber — 152mm or 155mm (they're so close) but the Soviets tended to favor 152 (going back to WW—II) while we and the Brits, the French and most of the rest of the non—Soviet world (including, oddly, the PRC) preferred the 155. For all intents and purposes, they were functionally identical (but were not interchangeable). In caliber, this is also virtually identical to Naval 6" rounds (routinely used by the Brits, the Imperial Japanese Navy and the USN), but of course, it's unlikely that the Pakistanis would unearth a Naval round not widely used since Vietnam (much more common in WW—I and WW—II) hundreds of miles from the nearest salt water.
'These shells could fire high explosive (HP), chemical white smoke (white phosphorous — aka "Willie Pete" — a smoke—producing shell that's also hideous if you get the WP on you, as it burns on contact with air and nothing much will put it out), armor—piercing and semi—armor piercing — even poison gas (there's much evidence that Saddam used French 155 shells for poison gas purposes against the Kurds, and possibly the Iranians). They are very common, and have been so since WW—I. They remain common throughout the world as one of the "standard" artillery sizes. To me, this looks like a HP shell, but the proof would come in interpreting the markings (that yellow band, plus stenciling).
'Small—caliber artillery comes in a casing with the propellant and shell in the same package — like a very large rifle bullet — but larger artillery has the shell (seen in the photo) packed separately from the propellant charge (which is generally in silk bags or other combustible containers). Rockets of all calibers also have integral propellant. The pictured shell does not have integral propellant, so it couldn't possibly be a rocket (by the way, the standard ex—Soviet rocket caliber was 122mm — noticeably smaller than this puppy).
(A 'decent basic primer' on artillery shells can be found here.)
'Just as this one does, all artillery shells have markings (usually colored bands) which show the cannon—cockers at a glance what kind of shell they're loading (blue for practice, other colors for different types of "live" shells). Somewhere I have an old standard reference on Soviet markings (and another on standard US markings), but they're buried in my library, so I can't immediately ID who made this shell.
'The make, however, is immaterial. The 152/155mm artillery shell has been in common, world—wide distribution since at least 1918. While it doesn't look old enough to be of even WW—II vintage, that's no guarantee. When it comes to artillery shells, most countries are pack—rats. At the time of their fall, the Soviets still had stockpiles of WW—II era shells, and they worked. (In Vietnam, most of the bombs we dropped from airplanes had been manufactured in '41—'45.) They don't wear out, and as long as the fuses are live, most of the shells will be, too.
'Bottom line: the "provenance" of this shell, given it's location in the world, could be Soviet (or ex—Soviet), [PRC] Chinese, British, French, American, NATO, Yugoslavian, Warsaw Pact (Czech, most likely, if WarPac), or as a long shot, potentially (though unlikely) even Imperial Japanese. In short, absent a manual on color—bands and a close look at stenciling, there's no way to tell who made the damned thing. Nor is it important.
'The New York Times claim that it was the remains of a rocket is nonsense. Rockets are frail, light—weight, flimsy things (for obvious reasons). Artillery shells are robust, mostly cast steel (the explosive weight is really rather small considering the overall weight of the shell), again for obvious reasons. Take a look yourself. In addition, artillery shells have bands that grab onto the rifling of the cannon barrel — this is obvious (the lower segmented brass—over—white—paint band) on the shell in this photo. Rockets do not have this, as they use fins or directional exhaust nozzles to spin—stabilize themselves.'
So the formerly authoritative New York Times has published a picture distributed around the world on the home page of its website, using a prop which must have been artfully placed to create a false dramatic impression of cruel incompetence on the part of US forces. Not only did the editors lack the basic knowledge necessary to detect the fake, they didn't bother to run the photo past anyone with such knowledge before exposing the world to it.
There is an old saying in journalism about stories which editors really want to run: 'too good to check.' It is plainly clear that the New York Times thought this story was too good to check. Their standard of 'good' is painfully obvious to all.
Without the internet and blogosphere, probably they would have gotten away with it.
Note: comments have poured in about the technical analysis and the Times' editorial prcess. They are being blogged here.
The New York Times has now corrected the caption. But the correction misspells "ordnance" as "ordinance."
UPDATE: 1/19 06
I received the following email today from an account named "Executive Editor Desk" at the New York Times website:
Sir, in reply to your article: A caption Saturday, January 14, on NYTimes.com with a photograph of damage from a U.S. airstrike in Pakistan misidentified an item in the photograph. Agence France—Presse, the agency that provided the photograph, later changed the caption to report that the item appears to be an unexploded artillery shell, not a piece of a missile from Friday's attack.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.