What, indeed, is nearly as rare as hen’s teeth? Answer: A major newspaper’s correction to an erroneous story.
It happened earlier this month in the Washington Post. On September 8 last year, the Post carried a story about a little-known Ukrainian port, Oktyabrsk. It strongly implied that the Ocean Fortune, “a 384-foot-long workhorse of the global arms trade,” was loading Russian armaments to be transported to Hafez el Assad’s regime in Syria.
The story said the ship steamed south, “slipped “ through the Bosporus Strait and turned toward the Mediterranean, “Then it disappeared.… Not a trace of the ship was seen for two months.” The article indicated the ship’s automated transponder was turned off.
While Western sources are convinced some Russian arms have been trans-shipped via Oktyabrsk, the article offered no proof of it in the case of the Ocean Fortune.
The Post’s source was a non-profit Washington-based organization called C4ADS. The group says its mission statement, “...is to understand global conflict and security through on-the-ground research and data-driven analysis.”
In particular, C4ADS follows what it calls The Odessa Network, “a loose collection of logistics contractors for the governments of Russia and Ukraine, not independent arms dealers.” It lists Kaalbye Group as among the “members” of this network
C4ADS, on its website, lists a number of identified arms shipments over the last decade from various ports, including Oktyabrsk, to various areas of conflict.
In this case, its looks as if they put two and two together (Ocean Fortune’s ownership and the fact that some earlier arms shipments had departed from Oktyabrsk) but didn’t come up with “four.”
A reading of C4ADS list of verified and presumed arms shipments through Oktyabrsk seems to have led them to an “Aha!” moment that was incorrect. The Post’s published correction says its September article, “incorrectly described details about the operation of a Ukrainian cargo vessel highlighted in a feature about military aid to Syria. Information supplied by the manager of the Ocean Fortune — and subsequently verified by the Washington Post through independent sources — confirms that the ship’s automated transponder was functioning normally as it traveled through the eastern Mediterranean during an extended voyage in early 2013. An analysis of third-party data indicates that the ship, managed by Kaalbye Shipping International Ltd., made no stops at Syria port during the journey.”
News media hate to admit mistakes, yet doing so has a cleansing effect, for it indicates they will be doubly careful next time.
There has been much Ukraine news in recent months that would drive writers and editors to think the worst of anything coming out of that troubled country. President Viktor Yanukovych, on the eve of signing a long-negotiated “partnership” agreement with the European Union, turned thumbs down in favor of a pact with Russia. The proximate reason: Ukraine was running out of money with which to pay its bills and the Russian deal involved an immediate $15 billion loan.
Underlying that was months of economic strong-arming by Russian bureaucrats over trade.
Yanukovych, who comes from the more Russia-sympathetic eastern portion of Ukraine, thought this would preserve his position. He underestimated the depth of opposition and the degree of sentiment favoring close ties with the West. Opponents still occupy much of Kiev’s central square and, to Yanukovych’s surprise, a number of government buildings in eastern cities.
The troubles are far from over. A word to journalists: If you are rooting for the forces of democracy, be doubly sure the story is accurate. Or, as the late President Ronald Reagan put it when he referred to an arms reduction treaty with the Russians, “Trust, but verify.”