No, We Didn’t Shoot Down a Libyan Scud

Remember a week ago, when some mainstream media outlets reported that NATO airplanes had intercepted and shot down a Qaddafi-launched Scud missile? Never happened, concludes Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and expert on nonproliferation issues. In a fantastic post over at his blog, Arms Control Wonk, Lewis explains 1) how shooting down a ballistic missile from a fighter jet is not possible—yet—and 2) how one unsourced rumor on Al Jazeera snowballed into a big journalistic game of Telephone:

Al Jazeera TV initially reported “A NATO warplane shot down a scud missile fired from Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s home city east of Tripoli.”…Yasmine Saleh at Reuters picked up the Al Jazeera TV report…In a separate Reuters story, however, a different reporter named Phil Stewart got a “US defense official” on condition of anonymity to confirm “Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi fired a suspected scud missile.” Stewart’s story, however, does not mention any intercept. These two separate Reuters articles got tangled, leading lots of other reporters, like Molly Hennessy-Fiske at the Los Angeles Times, to claim that Reuters had confirmed the shoot-down…

Surely most of the blame must go to Al Jazeera for its bad reporting. But some of the blames also falls on the practice, widespread, of attributing a story to a news wire or a papers rather than the individual reporters.

A good cautionary tale, for security journalists and hawkish alarmists alike.