August 18, 2003

READER JAMES SMITH EMAILS FROM BAGHDAD regarding this AP story:

I’m now working in the public affairs office in Baghdad for the CPA. Got here three weeks ago. Fascinating experience. I thought I’d forward you a good example of reporting that starts with the premise that everything is the fault of the Coalition and ignores facts simply to prove that point. Here is a humble fisking of an AP story now on the wire, which I fear will become yet another myth unless you dispell it on your blog. Feel free to use any or all of my commentary below. I think you’d agree that flaw five is truly weird.

Click “More” for the rest. I suggested that the CPA start a blog of its own, allowing it to “Fisk” stories directly, but I thought I’d reproduce this email just as an example of how this sort of thing could work. Why not?


(What follows is Smith’s “Fisking” of the story).

* The premise of the story is that this year’s date palm harvest will be a third the size of the normal harvest. He cites three reasons, all the fault of the U.S.-led invasion: not enough electricity to run irrigation pumps, less than adequate manual pollination, and the fact that the government did not spray pesticides. The numbers he uses are highly suspect, he provides no scientific basis for the alleged causes, and he provides only one relevant named source.

* First flaw: the projection for 2003. He claims “the Agriculture Ministry expects a harvest of 330,000 tons.” I spoke with Trevor Flugge, the senior advisor to that ministry, and two others in his office, and none of them were aware of where that number came from or who in the ministry could possibly have made that projection. When I asked Hurst, he said he would have to check his notes and talk to his researcher to identify their source. The experts at the ministry say there is no way to make a projection of the date harvest at this point. So, the projection is completely unreliable.

* Second flaw: the baseline. The number against which he compares his 2003 projection is an odd choice. In paragraph 10, instead of using 2002’s harvest numbers, he uses 2001’s number of “nearly 1 million tons.” I’m not sure what the production for 2001 was, but even assuming it was 1 million, why didn’t he use 2002 numbers? Wouldn’t that be a much more reliable way to measure the impact of the war on the date harvest? I asked him that, and he said he wasn’t sure if 2002’s numbers were available. Furthermore, while he notes in paragraph 10 that 2001’s harvest was a peak, he seems to indicate in paragraph 3 that the 2001 harvest is a “normal” harvest. (I say “seems” because he seems confused about the difference between the size of the fruit and the size of the harvest. Note flaw five below).

* Third flaw: the causes. 1. Low electricity: while we recognize this as a problem that date palm farmers face, he ignores the fact that for the past four years, at least, date palm farmers have struggled with intermittent electricity but thrived anyway. 2. Low manual pollination: we recognize that this too is a problem, but he offers no way of assessing the impact it will have on the harvest. 3. No aerial spraying of pesticides: he says, “insects are taking a huge toll among the dates that have appeared.” He offers no evidence of this, and he ignores a UN report that said that pest infection had not reached the threshold where spraying was necessary, and that natural predators had reduced the pest population.

* Fourth flaw: sources. As noted above, he does not name his Agriculture Ministry source, but beyond that, he quotes only one farmer. Of the other two people he quotes, one is Charles Heatly, our spokesman, the other is the owner of the land that the one farmer rents.

* Fifth flaw: bizarrely confuses size of fruit with size of harvest. In the third paragraph, his nut graph, he writes: “the clusters of gold-and-brown fruit are only a third their normal size.” Surely he doesn’t mean that the fruit itself is a third its normal size, does he? If so, he could easily provide some type of measurement by saying something like, “a normal date is x inches long, but this year’s are y inches long.” But there is no other mention to the mysteriously small size of the fruit. Instead, he provides flawed numbers to demonstrate that the projected size of the harvest is a third the size of a peak harvest two years ago.

* Sixth flaw: ignores legacy of Saddam Hussein. He mentions that in 1980, there were 32 million date palms in Iraq, and now only 20 million. (We put the current number of date palms at 16 million). He ignores the devastating impact of the Iran-Iraq War in which Hussein filled in the irrigation canals on the Al Faw Peninsula, a rich center of date palm farming for centuries, which destroyed millions of date palms.

* Seventh flaw: ignores interest of the farmer. As a former farmer, I am confident saying that it is almost always in the farmer’s interest to drive prices up by predicting a small harvest.

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