False 'combat video' raises many questions, cautions for media

False 'combat video' raises many questions, cautions for media
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I feel pretty safe in saying that most Americans can’t tell you off the top of their head who the Kurds are or what the U.S. relationship with them is — let alone how that factors into Iran, Russia, China, Turkey and Syria.

Without explaining as much, the topic of President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE’s “abandonment” of the Kurds and how it will surely put a resurgence of the Islamic extremist terrorist group ISIS on Trump’s shoulders, has dominated news coverage for much of the past week.

Now comes word from ABC News that it has pulled down video that aired on its flagship broadcasts, which claimed to show a “slaughter” by Turkey on the Syrian border after President Trump’s announced withdrawal of U.S. troops.

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ABC correspondent Ian Panell reported on Sunday that the video “obtained by ABC News, appears to show the fury of the Turkish attack on the border town of Tal Abyad two nights ago.”

The pictures show massive explosions lighting up the night sky. But it turns out ABC may have been hoodwinked, according to its own account.

A tweet issued by ABC News on Monday morning reads: “CORRECTION: We’ve taken down video that aired on ‘World News Tonight’ Sunday and ‘Good Morning America’ this morning that appeared to be from the Syrian border immediately after questions were raised about its accuracy. ABC News regrets the error.”

According to National Review, the alleged error was uncovered by social media users who compared the supposed combat footage to a YouTube video of a Kentucky military show — and it appears to be identical. (National Review credited Gizmodo with first reporting on the alleged error and publishing the videos side by side for comparison.)

ABC’s correction is the right move, of course. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story. It’s yet another in a long series of pretty serious media mistakes that never should have happened — and, arguably, would not have if appropriate journalistic standards had been deployed.

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I can’t help but think that part of the problem might be that the video seemed to fit in so perfectly with the narrative that the media and other interests have been pummeling viewers with for a week. Had this video not shown what many wanted to see, it might have been treated more critically on the front end, rather than represented as a great, exclusive ABC News “get” that was shown to millions of its evening news and morning news viewers.

There may well be slaughters, massacres and abuses in the battle between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria. Such events have gone on relatively nonstop in the Middle East for a long time. News coverage, analysis, public discussion and debate are all worthy. Military experts, Democrats, Republicans and pundits all seem to agree that Trump is in the wrong. But under these circumstances, when preconceived notions are being set in stone, it’s all the more important to make sure we aren’t hoodwinked.

If the video aired by ABC is actually video of a military-type demonstration in Kentucky, there are other questions we need to have answered.

Exactly who brought the video to ABC and how did they represent it? What was the process ABC used to try to verify that the video was what they presented it to be? Who did ABC believe shot the “combat video”? Did they pay for it, or did someone just offer to give it to them out of the blue? What was the motivation of those who misrepresented the video?

Many who I sense never thought about “the Kurds” a week ago are purporting to speak knowledgeably on the topic, on television and in the press, as reporters and analysts. Lives are at stake and there are questions of freedom, democracy and terrorism, but there is always an element of someone making money at the heart of many such conflicts.

Now more than ever we should be mindful that, like so many others, these are important, complex topics about which competing interests try to further their own narratives. 

The best a viewer can do in this environment is not necessarily believe much of anything presented to them at first blush, no matter how many people say it’s true — unless there is a way to independently verify what they see.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”