The Magazine

The Prof Who Can't Count Straight

And the journalists who cite him.

Aug 26, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 47 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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Herold's footnote had alluded to this report: "Human Rights Watch reported a figure of 35 deaths, but this was based only upon interviews with survivors in a Quetta hospital." This dismissal is odd since even if HRW's sources were limited to the hospital, it had conducted the only systematic investigation of what happened in the village. Moreover, as Herold must have known, Human Rights Watch made clear that its sources included more than the Quetta patients. To buttress his impugnment of HRW, Herold's footnote referred readers to an article in the webzine Swans, which describes Human Rights Watch mystifyingly as "well-funded and . . . well-connected. Its links snake through the foreign policy establishment . . . , through the State Department, and through the government's propaganda arm, Radio Free Europe."

Adding to the confusion, the footnote also mentions that a "detailed on-the-scene account" of the tragedy at Chowkar-Karez could be found in another article in Dawn. This turned out to be an Agence France-Presse dispatch from one of a group of reporters taken to the village by the Taliban. No bodies were reported seen, but villagers told the group that 60 people had been killed there. Muddling the story further, a sidebar in Herold's dossier lists the figure 93 as the combined toll of raids on Chowkar-Karez and a neighboring village. It cites as its source a single article in the Chicago Tribune. That article, however, mentioned only the neighboring village, not Chowkar-Karez. Moreover, it gave no casualty figures for either village, and it pointed out that "reports [of civilian casualties] could not be independently verified."

So I e-mailed Herold, copying his footnote and asking "what chart?" He replied: "I am not quite sure which text you are quoting." He added that his death estimate for the village was now 52 to 93 and referred me to his "massive database" on the web (www.cursor.org/stories/casualty_count.htm).

There I found a table with an entry for Chowkar-Karez (now spelled Kariz) listing "52-90-93" as the count of civilian deaths. Seven sources were given. The BBC and the Hindu were no longer mentioned, but in addition to Al Jazeera and Dawn (now up to three separate articles), there were references to Singapore News, the Independent, and Agence France-Presse. For all but Al Jazeera, dates were given, but in no case was there an author or title. So it was back to the search engines.

I found the piece in the Independent. It reported that Al Jazeera claimed there had been 93 deaths, and it also said that "journalists and human rights advocates who interviewed eyewitnesses estimated 25 to 35 civilians were killed." The Agence France-Presse item at least served to explain where the number 52 had come from. It said: "The Taliban . . . also reported that . . . 52 people died when a village . . . was attacked. None of these claims have been independently confirmed." The newly referenced item in Dawn only mentioned civilian casualties in general--no numbers and nothing about the specific case. I could not find anything in Singapore News.

I wrote Herold again, asking for the sources I could not find and the method of his own "data compilation." He began his reply by wondering "why you are so interested" and said his failure to give authors and titles was because "I do not have a staff to assist." My other questions about sources and methods went unanswered, but he appended a brief text, explaining that its "purpose . . . is to cast doubt upon both the method and reported results of Human Rights Watch." It cited new sources: the Oman Daily Observer, Al-Ahram, the Hindustan Times, the Jordan Times, and the BBC Online. The only piece I could find in the BBC Online was one citing Herold's own account. I could not find the others through Nexis or Google or the search engines of the individual papers. Presumably they repeat the same unverified assertions that have appeared elsewhere.

Herold provided no further information. He e-mailed that he had learned I am a neoconservative and therefore answering my queries did not justify "the opportunity cost of my time. . . . I 'owe' you absolutely nothing." To top it off, he accused me of "dissimulation" in signing my e-mails to him, Josh Muravchik. "I wonder why you did not 'sign' your full name (Joshua Muravchik)," he wrote, suggesting that by omitting the "ua" I had slyly cloaked my identity.