All Smoke, No Fire - The National Journal Smears The Lancet
Last year, we described how mainstream climate sceptics had queued up to praise film-maker Martin Durkin's now infamous documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle. The Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, and their counterparts in the United States, used the film to heap scorn on the scientific consensus that climate change is a grave and rapidly evolving threat. In the event, the film itself turned out to be a swindle, one denounced by climate scientists far and wide - its media supporters quietly moved on.
A similar propaganda wave has been generated by a January 4 article in the US-based National Journal smearing the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies on mortality in Iraq, which estimated 98,000 and 655,000 war-related deaths, respectively. Once again, distortions have been boosted through high-profile media, and through the blogosphere, to create the impression of a rational consensus. Once again, the targets are leading scientists working for some of the world's most respected research organisations.
The National Journal's 6,900-word report, 'Data Bomb,' by Neil Munro and Carl Cannon used speculation, innuendo and numerous references to mostly unnamed "critics", to smear the Lancet studies, focusing particularly on the 2006 study known as Lancet II.
The most serious charge involved Professor John Tirman, Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies (MIT). Munro and Cannon wrote:
"Tirman commissioned the Lancet II survey with $46,000 from George Soros's Open Society Institute and additional support from other funders." (Munro and Cannon, 'Data Bomb,' National Journal, January 4, 2008; http://news.nationaljournal.com/articles/databomb/index.htm)
"That means that nearly half of the study's funding came from an outspoken billionaire who has repeatedly criticized the Iraq campaign and who spent $30 million trying to defeat Bush in 2004." (ibid)
Munro and Cannon asked "whether a latent desire to feed the American public's opposition to the war might have shaped these studies". (ibid)
The Wall Street Journal picked up the story and ran with it. A January 9 editorial commented on Lancet II:
"We know that number was wildly exaggerated. The news is that now we know why.
"It turns out the Lancet study was funded by anti-Bush partisans and conducted by antiwar activists posing as objective researchers. It also turns out the timing was no accident." ('The Lancet's Political Hit,' Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2008; http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119984087808076475.html)
The Boston Globe weighed in with an article titled, 'A war report discredited':
"Much of the funding for the study came from the Open Society Institute of leftist billionaire George Soros, a strident critic of the Iraq war who, as Munro and Cannon point out, 'spent $30 million trying to defeat Bush in 2004.'" (Jeff Jacoby, 'A war report discredited,' Boston Globe, January 13, 2008)
The Globe described the National Journal article as a devastating "debunking" of the Lancet's work: "the truth, it turns out, is that the report was drenched with politics, and its jaw-dropping conclusions should have inspired anything but confidence".
Across the Atlantic, the Sunday Times followed up with an article titled, 'Anti-war Soros funded Iraq study.' (Brendan Montague, Sunday Times, January 13, 2008)
Melanie Phillips wrote in the Spectator on January 10:
"A story in the Wall Street Journal highlights a remarkable article in the National Journal, which reveals startling information about the infamous 2006 Lancet 'study' which purported to show that Iraqi casualties had totalled more than 650,000 in the three years since the fall of Saddam in 2003. The figure was clearly absurd. The NJ authors say they have now learned that this 'research' was funded by George Soros, the financier who has spent millions of dollars trying to destroy George W Bush." (Phillips, 'That study,' The Spectator, January 10, 2008; http://www.spectator.co.uk/melaniephillips/441491/that-lancet-study.thtml)
"Whatever happened to peer review? Who can take the Lancet seriously ever again?"
Phillips has form. Last year, she wrote:
"Channel Four's devastating documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle has blown an enormous hole in every fundamental claim made to support the climate change obsession..." (Phillips, 'The emperor's green new clothes,' March 9, 2007; http://www.melaniephillips.com/diary/?p=1467)
A large number of right-wing blogs have also used the National Journal article to discredit the Lancet studies. If there is no smoke without fire, the right-wing media have done their level best to generate plenty of smoke. The story is now 'in the air' and will doubtless be referenced in future media coverage.
"A Disgraceful Lie"
But now consider these allegations in light of comments sent to us by John Tirman:
"Open Society Institute funded a public education effort to promote discussion of the mortality issue. The grant was approved more than six months after I commissioned the survey, and the researchers never knew the sources of funds. As a result, OSI, much less George Soros himself, had absolutely no influence over the conduct or outcome of the survey. This was told to the authors of the National Journal article at least twice. One must conclude that their misrepresentation of this---among many other issues---was intended to sensationalize their version of the story and color the readers' opinion about 'political bias.' This is contemptible malpractice on their part. It is also a grotesque injustice to Mr. Soros, whose philanthropy has braced and enlivened whole regions of the world." (Email to Media Lens, January 15, 2008)
In other words, the fact that the study was "funded by antiBush partisans" was completely irrelevant. There was literally no story, no fire, here - the smoke was an illusion.
Lancet II co-author Gilbert Burnham responded to the Wall Street Journal editorial:
"The fact that some of MIT's financial support in 2006 came from the Open Society Institute had no effect on these reports; the researchers knew nothing of funding origins. MIT played no role in the study design, implementation, analysis or writing of the Lancet report." (Burnham, 'Researchers Respond to National Journal Article,' letter submitted to the editors of the National Journal, January 7, 2008; http://www.jhsph.edu/refugee/research/iraq/national_journal.html)
Even more disturbing is the fact that these issues were carefully explained to the National Journal authors several times as they were preparing their article. Tirman forwarded to us the following email sent by Lancet II co-author Les Roberts to Carl Cannon on November 20, 2007:
"After our interview on Friday afternoon I e-mailed the main people at Hopkins and MIT associated with sorting out the funding for the 2006 study to ask about the various funding sources (of which there were several)... Some of the MIT funding did come from the Open Society Institute, but this funding was a minority portion and found after the project was underway." (Email forwarded to Media Lens, January 14, 2008)
John Tirman told us (January 14, 2008):
"I spoke to Munro on the phone and emailed him some other data, which he essentially ignored... Upshot: the authors were told twice that OSI [Open Society] money came well after the study was commissioned."
Lancet II was commissioned in Oct 2005, with internal funds from the Center for International Studies at MIT. Tirman points out:
"I have checked my correspondence with OSI to make sure. I first approached them with an email on January 25, 2006. They made a grant to us of $46,000 on May 4, 2006." (ibid)
He has added elsewhere:
"The funds for public education (not the survey itself) came from the Open Society Institute in the following spring, long after things had started. Burnham did not know this (Roberts was not much involved at this point.) MIT was providing funds, that's all he knew or needed to know. There were other small donors involved too. I told this to Munro on the telephone and in an email. He nonetheless implied that Soros money had funded the survey from the start, possibly at Soros' behest. That is a disgraceful lie, and Munro knows it." ('John Tirman on Munro and Soros,' January 11, 2008; http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2008/01/john_tirman_on_munro_and_soros.php)
Munro and Cannon also suggested that Soros had knowledge of the report and was keen for it to appear before the 2006 US mid-term elections. Under the sub-heading "Partisan considerations," they wrote:
"Soros is not the only person associated with the Lancet studies who had one eye on the data and the other on the U.S. political calendar." (op. cit)
Did Soros in fact have an "eye on the data"? Tirman again:
"It is extremely doubtful that Soros ever knew anything about this survey. The grant was approved by his large foundation staff. For OSI, it's a small grant." (Tirman, 'Bombs Away - The Anatomy Of A Hatchet Job,' note t48; http://www.johntirman.com/Bombs%20Away%20-%20a%20dull%20hatchet%20job.pdf)
Did Munro and Cannon check with Soros? Certainly they provided no evidence at all that he knew of the report or was in some way following its progress.
The point links to the claim that the Lancet II authors were seeking to influence the US 2004 presidential and 2006 mid-term elections, the implication being that they were anti-Bush and so were "partisan" in their science. Munro and Cannon commented:
"Roberts was hardly the only American to lose confidence in Bush. The question is whether he and his team lost their objectivity as scientists as well." (op. cit)
They also wrote that, in a "much more troubling admission", Roberts "said that he had e-mailed the first study to The Lancet on September 30, 2004, 'under the condition that it come out before the election.' Burnham admitted that he set the same condition for Lancet II. 'We wanted to get the survey out before the election, if at all possible,' he said." (op. cit)
The reference to a "much more troubling admission" suggested there was something new here. But in fact the same criticism was made in 2005. A June 23, 2005 editorial in the Washington Times derided the 2004 Lancet study as an "egregious politicization of what is supposed to be an objective and scientific journal". The editors explained:
"We're referring to the Lancet's role in trying to influence the U.S. presidential election with a cynical 'study' of deaths in the Iraq war in October." (Leader, 'The Lancet's Politics,' Washington Times, June 23, 2005)
We cited Les Roberts' response in our September 12, 2005, media alert:
"We finished the survey on the 20 Sept . If this had not come out until mid-Nov. or later, in the politicized lens of Baghdad (where the chief of police does not allow his name to be made public and where all the newly trained Iraqi soldiers I saw had bandanas to hide their faces to avoid their families being murdered...) this would have been seen as the researchers covering up for the Bush White House until after the election and I am convinced my Iraqi co-investigators would have been killed. Given that Kerry and Bush had the same attitude about invading and similar plans for how to proceed, I never thought it would influence the election and the investigators never discussed it with each other or briefed any political player." (http://www.medialens.org/alerts/05/050906_burying_the_lancet_update.php)
The point is a simple one - the Lancet authors were keen for their studies to appear before US elections, but for ethical rather than political reasons. This is a million miles from aspiring to publish in order to unseat Bush. And it is further still from the possibility that such an aspiration generated biased science that went undetected by the Lancet's rigorous peer-review system. As Gilbert Burnham told us:
"I doubt any Lancet paper has gotten as much close inspection in recent years as this one has!" (Burnham, email to Media Lens, October 30, 2004)
Again, the National Journal claim was based on nothing - a nothingness that has been eagerly embraced and boosted by media in both the US and Britain.
Refutations of the rest of the National Journal's criticisms can be viewed here: http://www.jhsph.edu/refugee/research/iraq/lancet_mortality_response.html
John Tirman has provided a user-friendly demolition here: http://www.johntirman.com/Bombs%20Away%20-%20a%20dull%20hatchet%20job.pdf
Grim Reading - The National Journal's Track Record
The US media activist, David Peterson, has kindly provided us with details of the National Journal's past performance in covering the Lancet studies. The January 4 Lancet smear aside, Peterson's search for National Journal articles containing the words 'Iraq' and 'Lancet' delivered three results:
1. Alexis Simendinger, 'Grim Science of Body Counts,' October 14, 2006 (198 words) 2. Neil Munro, 'Counting Corpses,' January 5, 2008 (782 words. A remarkable piece. See here: http://news.nationaljournal.com/articles/databomb/sidebar.htm) 3. 'Vital Statistics,' January 12, 2008 (47 words)
It appears that the National Journal had nothing all to say about the 2004 Lancet report in the year it was published and almost nothing to say about the 2006 study until this month. Peterson comments:
"Until the January 5, 2008 cover stories... these topics had never really entered the NJ's purview." (Email to Media Lens, January 16, 2008)
In a bizarre article last December that did not even mention the Lancet studies, Munro produced a similar smear of the September 2007 ORB poll which estimated 1.2 million deaths in Iraq. Munro wrote:
"The poll isn't credible, said critic Michael Spagat, an economics professor at the Royal Holloway University of London, who specializes in civil conflicts, because its numbers are too high and because it doesn't offer any evidence that the survey was conducted properly." (Munro, 'Iraq's Slippery Polls,' National Journal, December 1, 2007)
If this sounds just plain childish, consider the comment that follows:
"For example, the poll says that 264,126 Iraqis have been killed by car bombs, but the Iraq Body Count website says the Iraqi media has reported only 11,700 car-bomb deaths."
This is intended as serious analysis. In fact there is no longer any excuse for this innocent reliance on Iraq Body Count (IBC). A review of Iraq deaths reported by four major US newspapers found that IBC missed more than one of every ten deaths reported by the news media. A separate study soon to be published by Columbia University found that the majority of violent deaths in a phone sample from Baghdad were not recorded by IBC. ('Answers to Questions About Iraq Mortality Surveys,' http://www.jhsph.edu/refugee/research/iraq/lancet_mortality_response.html)
One of the ironies of the January 4 National Journal piece was its concern that anti-war bias might have distorted the Lancet reports. Munro and Cannon wrote:
"Virtually everyone connected with the study has been an outspoken opponent of U.S. actions in Iraq."
Tirman, on the other hand, describes Munro as "a militant right-winger... whose professional misconduct is demonstrable".
In November 2001, Munro advocated "the destruction of Iraq" in a National Journal piece titled, 'The Iraqi Opportunity - Berlin '45. Tokyo '45. Baghdad '02.'
So how was Iraq an "opportunity"?
"He [Saddam Hussein] has little popular support, his country is a flat-desert ideal for U.S. Army's mechanized warfare and the U.S. Air Force's bombers, and his army is weakened by years of sanctions and defeat. The response suggests itself; destroy Saddam first, and the rest of the anti-American structure will collapse, regardless of bin Laden's whereabouts or Saudi politics." (Munro, National Review, November 6, 2001; http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-munro110601.shtml)
"Even the Palestinians might learn something from the destruction of Iraq. They're still refusing to make peace - albeit a bitter peace of the defeated - -because they're still hoping to push Israel into the sea. This forlorn hope has survived repeated debacles, disasters, and defeats, so there can only be a modest prospect that the destruction of their terrorist and Iraqi allies will reconcile them to peace. Maybe all those construction jobs in Iraq will serve as compensation."
Dealing with Osama bin Laden, "stuck in a rat-infested cave" as he was, posed less of a problem, although "when we do kill him, and metaphorically stick his head on a pike in downtown New York, he will still live on as a martyr, albeit a failed martyr".
Only metaphorically? Beneath its veneer of disinterested rationality, this is the malignant bias that underlies the January 4 National Journal report.
Genuine questions do of course remain about how many people have died in Iraq. On January 9, an Iraqi Ministry of Health study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) estimated the death toll from the time of the invasion in March 2003 until June 2006. (Iraq Family Health Survey Study Group, 'Violence-Related Mortality in Iraq from 2002 to 2006,' January 9, 2008; http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/NEJMsa0707782)
Journalists have focused on NEJM's estimate of 151,000 dead by violence, noting that it is lower than that offered by the 2006 Lancet study, which estimated 655,000 excess deaths from all causes. Les Roberts observes that the two articles have more in common than appears at first glance.
"The NEJM article found a doubling of mortality after the invasion, we found a tripling. The big difference is that we found almost all the increase from violence; they found half the increase from violence." (Stephen Fidler and Steve Negus, 'Post-invasion death toll in Iraq put at over 150,000,' Financial Times, January 10, 2008)
The deaths-by-violence in the latest survey remained the same from year-to-year, which is highly unlikely - all observers agree that violent deaths rose sharply in 2005 and 2006. It is possible that respondents attributed deaths to nonviolent causes in order to avoid attracting the attention of the Iraqi government and security forces. The excess mortality implied by the new study is close to 400,000. Given that the survey period ended 19 months ago, a continuation of the same death rates would give a toll, today, of more than 600,000.
The new study is identical to both Lancet studies in one key respect - it suggests that an appalling humanitarian catastrophe has taken place in Iraq under US-UK occupation. This, in the end, is the point that matters.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Neil Munro Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Write to Melanie Phillips Email: email@example.com
Please send a copy of your emails to us Email: firstname.lastname@example.org