Iraqi Bridge Murder Co-conspirator or Star Quarterback?

Oregonian readers already saw this Sunday morning’s paper, but there are parallels between this incident and the national media that I though might be interesting to a wider audience here.

On July 6, the Oregonian, one of the largest-circulation papers west of the Rockies, published a laudatory profile of Army Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman in the Sports section. Sassaman, 41, was a high-school football star in Aloha, Oregon in the late 1970s, and quarterbacked a Cherry Bowl win for West Point’s football team in 1984.

Opening with a bit of his speech to a local church group, the 1,500-word article described how Sassaman ran the Iraqi city of Balad — 40 miles north of Baghdad — as a commander of First Battalion, Eighth Infantry; how he won two Bronze Stars, and dealt with the death of two of his soldiers. The tone of the article was very upbeat, although some might have had doubts when they saw phrases like “He commandeered a 54-inch television set, and on Saturdays everybody watched American college football.” or this paragraph:

“The sheiks and imams would complain when I made decisions they didn’t like,” Sassaman said. “I told them, ‘Next time you guys let a tyrant run the country, don’t wait for a 41-year-old Judeo-Christian white guy to make your decisions for you.

One little thing that didn’t get mentioned by Sassaman to the Oregonian reporters or picked up in their “research” was this little gem, reported on the wire services the week before:

U.S. Soldiers Charged in Iraqi Drowning Death

The Army charged three soldiers with manslaughter and a fourth with assault in connection with an incident last January in which they forced two Iraqi detainees to jump into the Tigris River.

Documents released by the Army name several superior officers, including the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, as unindicted co-conspirators. Sassaman has been one of the highest-profile young officers in the Army for years because he quarterbacked West Point’s football team to its first bowl game, the 1984 Cherry Bowl against Michigan State University.

When questioned about the incident, Saville and the others told military investigators that they had released the two Iraqis and seen them walking away, the Army said. Saville and Perkins also conspired with Sassaman, their battalion commander, Capt. Matthew Cunningham, their company commander, and one other officer to impede the criminal investigation, the Army said.

The Oregonian‘s Public Editor, Michael Arrieta-Walden, published a column July 11 stating:

When reporting the story, Norm Maves Jr. reviewed past stories in The Oregonian and checked the Google search engine for information about Sassaman. He said he did not find any stories that described the reprimand in his two searches, including one the day before the story appeared. My Google search this week yielded at least one in The Washington Post on April 5 and one in The Washington Post and other newspapers July 3.

And they say bloggers aren’t fact-checked or edited.

[Thanks to my father, David Plant, for noticing this and bringing it to my attention before the Oregonian managed to get around to it.]