Either the Washington Post Missed It by a Mile, or Everyone Else Did

Something strange certainly happened at the Baghdad morgue this week, as the Washington Post managed to report a death toll markedly higher than any of its colleagues.

We did a double-take yesterday when looking at the near-banner headline on the cover of the Washington Post, “Toll in Iraq’s Deadly Surge: 1,300.” We knew it had gotten bad in Iraq last week, but not this bad. Other news outlets were all reporting fatalities of a few hundred.

The Post based its information on statistics it says it received from Baghdad’s main morgue and it acknowledged that “the toll was more than three times higher than the figure previously reported by the U.S. military and the news media.”

No kidding. The New York Times, which also was working with Baghdad morgue statistics, wrote yesterday that, “at least 246 people in Baghdad alone were killed, the top two city morgue officials said Tuesday.” Granted, the Times is talking just about Baghdad and the Post apparently about the whole country, but it’s still a great discrepancy.

Nobody else reporting on the death toll came even near to the Post’s 1,300 figure. The Associated Press had it at 249, the Los Angeles Times at 519 and Knight-Ridder had 220. Some articles yesterday also took explicit swipes at the Post’s number. Knight-Ridder noted that morgue officials had told them that the 1,300 number “was nowhere close to what they’d seen. Many others, including Shiite and Sunni politicians alike, said they hadn’t heard of anything approaching that number.”

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari even gave a press conference to say that the 1,300 figure was “inaccurate and exaggerated.”

What’s going on here? How could the same morgue officials be handing out such vastly different answers? Was the Post team imagining things?

The Post tried to offer an answer today, but it took a strange, strained and stilted form. One of the two journalists who penned yesterday’s article, Ellen Knickmeyer interviewed reached out to Sydney, Australia, and talked to John Pace, the former U.N. human rights chief for Iraq who left his post this month. He told her that, as the Post’s lede put it, “Officials overseeing Baghdad’s morgue have come under pressure not to investigate the soaring number of apparent cases of execution and torture in the country.”

Pace didn’t specify from whence the “pressure” was coming from, but Knickmeyer inferred that “the statement seemed to refer to both the Shiite-led government and the Sunni insurgency fighting it.” Pace said that this multi-sided pressure would cause numbers to be underreported or ignored. “I think the pressure would be not to take into account the totality of cases. The ultimate objective is not to count the bodies” in political killings, Pace said. “The objective is to use that data in order to take measures to prevent its recurrence, and to take measures to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”

Okay, that’s interesting, if a bit opaque. But if that is the Post’s best defense, it doesn’t serve to explain the bizarre gap between its numbers and everyone else’s. Knickmeyer adds even more excuse to Pace’s hypothesis: “News media tolls generally are lower than the actual tally of the dead, because not all news of attacks reaches the media, and because killings with only one victim generally are not reported unless the victims are notable figures or killed in bombings.” Since Knickmeyer says many of the people killed last week seem to have been individually kidnapped and executed, they would be less likely to be counted.

Something strange certainly happened at the Baghdad morgue. Either the Post heard thirteen hundred when an official said three hundred - which would constitute a big screw up - or there is some kind of cover-up at work. Whether, as Pace suggests, the numerical discrepancy was a result of pressure applied to morgue officials, we, sitting here in Manhattan or Pace, in Sydney, cannot know.

And it’s worth figuring out. Was Iraq really on the verge of civil war last week? The death toll can certainly help us figure this out. But first we need to get the right numbers. And the only people who could compile an actual accounting are the journalists in Iraq.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.