“Joey, I think we’ve been to the place they’re talking about.”
That’s what Dean Staley told Joe Caffrey after reading last Monday’s New York Times account of explosives reportedly missing from a munitions facility in U.S.-occupied Iraq. The statement began a chain of events that resulted in politically charged video being broadcast nationally less than a week before Election Day.
Poynter Online wanted to understand and share with journalists the news judgment that resulted in these decisions, and asked me to pursue the story. I was news director at KSTP-TV from April 1998 through February 2003 and helped plan coverage of the war in Iraq, including the “embedding” of Staley and Caffrey.
Staley, now an anchor for NorthWest Cable News in Seattle, was a reporter for KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities when he covered last year’s invasion of Iraq. He and Caffrey, a veteran KSTP photojournalist, were embedded with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division when it moved north from Kuwait into Baghdad, stopping along the way near a site called Al-Qaqaa.
The two don’t get to talk much since Staley left for his new job earlier this year. But Staley called Caffrey because the location of the facility described by the Times seemed familiar. They agreed by phone that Caffrey would look through his field tapes from April 2003, and that Staley would look over his notes, to determine if what they thought they remembered matched up with the site in the news.
That was Tuesday night, one week before Election Day.
While Staley and Caffrey were researching what they had, Democratic candidate John Kerry was accusing the Bush Administration of failing to secure the explosives. President Bush accused Kerry of making “wild charges,” and administration officials have said the explosives may have been removed before the war began (see Facts and Questions about Lost Munitions).
The KSTP find is significant because it indicates that explosives were still at the site after the war began — and because it shows two American soldiers looking over the material and leaving it apparently unsecured.
KSTP reports Saturday that the video shows “our crew was at Al-Qaqaa. We can also report that at least one of the bunkers our crew saw there contained the high explosive HMX. That is the same type of explosive missing in Iraq, and an ingredient used to manufacture nuclear weapons.”
No other source has confirmed whether the material seen by the soldiers is actually the explosives the International Atomic Energy Agency says disappeared.
The KSTP footage also highlights possible implications of embedding journalists with military units. Staley says he and Caffrey never would have seen the bunkers at Al-Qaqaa had they not been embedded.
KSTP’s reports have not included the names of the soldiers who led Staley and Caffrey to the bunkers, however they do not conceal the soldiers’ identities in the video either.
The New York Times reported Saturday that Col. Joseph Anderson of the Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division said his troops were in the region but added: “We did not get involved in any of the bunkers. It was not our mission.”
As Staley reviewed his notes after calling Caffrey this past Tuesday, he says he found global positioning satellite coordinates which indicate that he and Caffrey were indeed in the area of Al-Qaqaa on April 18, 2003.
Wednesday morning, Caffrey took their findings to KSTP-TV news director Chris Berg. That night at 10, the station aired its first report using the video, and within 24 hours news organizations everywhere were chasing the station’s exclusive story.
Berg, who watched the tape for the first time Wednesday afternoon, praises Staley and Caffrey for keeping “meticulous records.” Staley says he had begun noting GPS coordinates with every move he and Caffrey made in Iraq -– not for reporting purposes, but to ensure that they could find their way back to their unit if they became separated.
Berg quickly got his boss involved in the decision of how to handle what he knew could be, literally and figuratively, explosive material. Rob Hubbard is not only general manager of KSTP, he’s a member of the family that owns the station, and several other properties that make up Hubbard Broadcasting.
“We talked about what we had been doing to try to confirm or deny or figure out what we had,” Hubbard says. ”We broadened our search for possible contacts” and experts to analyze and comment on the video.
“Most people didn’t want to talk to us.”
That, Hubbard says, included the Pentagon, the Minnesota National Guard, independent consultants, and weapons manufacturing companies. Some potential sources at first agreed, he says, and then changed their minds because of the political ramifications.
Hubbard says the proximity of Election Day made the process harder. ”If it had been three weeks before the election, we might have spent three weeks working on it,” he says. ”The last thing we want to do is to put something out there that is taken wrong or out of context …
“We were very careful not to draw conclusions.”
“Every word was scrutinized,” says Berg.
Hubbard says he gave final approval to the script 10 to 15 minutes before KSTP’s 10 p.m. newscast Wednesday. Until then, he says, “there was still a question of, ‘Do we hold this until tomorrow?’ “
KSTP’s biggest story in years led the station’s late newscast without ever having been promoted on air –- a rarity in local television news. In this case, the station couldn’t capitalize on the marketing opportunity, Hubbard says. ”We couldn’t promote it because we didn’t know what, if anything, we would have. If we would have had a story confirmed earlier, we would have run a promo.”
Hubbard says the question of how to handle the story was a tough call: “We just considered everything we possibly could and made a decision, not on whether it would or wouldn’t have an impact, but on whether what we had was important for people to know …
“If this would have been (next) Monday at 10 p.m., I don’t know that we would have run it,” Hubbard says. ”There’s no reasonable chance to put it in context.”
Even with several days left in the campaign, he adds, “This is something that’s not going to get the best of context by Election Day.”
But under the circumstances, according to Hubbard, there was never any consideration of suppressing the story -– despite his family’s widely-known conservative politics and record of campaign contributions to Republican politicians.
Hubbard says he made the decision on his own, with the best information available to him -– and with only one stop outside the newsroom: at the office of his father, who officially has handed over the family business to the next generation, but who remains a strong presence and clear voice in the company’s operations.
Stanley Hubbard also has friends in high places -– and several airplanes. When former President George H. W. Bush spoke in the Twin Cities in 2002, he opened his speech with thanks for the service of “Hubbard Air,” as Bush called it, referring to the private jet from the Hubbard fleet, on which the former president had flown in for the occasion.
When Rob Hubbard decided to air the Al-Qaqaa video, “I mentioned it to my dad so he wouldn’t be surprised,” he says. ”His reaction was, ‘We’re in the news business. News is news.’ “
Thursday, KSTP continued working the story. Hubbard says the news department was able to confirm at least that the materials in its video were actual explosives, and that the station had some of the other “basic details” right.
That afternoon, KSTP shared its video for the first time -– with ABC, its affiliated network. The footage became a story that evening on “World News Tonight” by Pentagon correspondent Martha Raddatz, who Hubbard acknowledges has better sources and access to information at the Defense Department.
“Absolutely, which is why we coughed it up,” Hubbard says.
By the following morning, Staley and Caffrey were sought for interviews by news organizations the world over. Staley never went to bed Thursday night, staying up for a 3 a.m. West Coast appearance on NBC’s “Today” show. Caffrey had his first conversation with the BBC –- on the air.
Both former embeds knew the story did not cast the best possible light on their comrades from the 101st Airborne, with whom they had lived so closely for so long.
“The headline in the journalism world today should be, for those who thought the embeds were thoroughly co-opted, maybe there is another side to that,” says Staley. He believes that the access provided by the embedding arrangement provides critics “a form of documentation that they can’t hide from.”
The critics Staley refers to questioned from the outset whether embedded journalists could maintain appropriate impartiality with respect to the troops they covered, when those same troops provided the journalists’ food, quarters, and protection.
Staley points out that he and Caffrey got their Al-Qaqaa video on an impromptu excursion a few miles from camp with a couple of soldiers who had nothing better to do while awaiting orders for their next mission.
“This was not an official mission. The purely objective reporter would not have been able to get this story,” Staley says.
KSTP remains part of the story it is reporting.
“Joe is looking through tape to put more context to it and to make sure that everything that is going to help people figure out the answer to this giant riddle is out there as soon as possible,” Hubbard says. “If this question of what happened to the munitions is a fulcrum to any sizeable number of people in terms of how they’re going to vote … It’s an obligation to citizens to take this information and get it as far as it can go, draw conclusions that can be drawn and keep it in context.”
Editor’s Note: Scott Libin left KSTP on February 28, 2003; Caffrey says he shot the Al-Qaqaa video on April 18, 2003.