The pictures of tanks, armored personal carriers, and mutilated bodies zinged around the conservative Twittersphere on Wednesday after they were published by the Washington Free Beacon as proof that the United States should intervene in Ukraine. In reality, however, many of the photos seem to date back several years and to several different conflicts.
At first blush, yesterday seemed to offer another unfortunate example of a conservative media outlet screwing up another story. But upon closer inspection, there's a little more to it.
So far, so good. The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online outlet, thought it had a big scoop -- photographic evidence of Russian troops entering Eastern Ukraine "on T-72 tanks and Russian-made BMPs." The same report highlighted photos of "the remains of Ukrainian soldiers killed by Russian troops and weapons."
The report was wrong. It's not that the photos were manipulated, but rather, the images were years old and documented entirely different conflicts.
And if that's where the story ended, we could just chalk this up to another ignominious failure for a conservative media outlet, of which there have been far too many of late.
But there's a related problem just below the surface: the Washington Free Beacon says it received the information from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). In fairness to the Free Beacon, I have to admit that if I heard from a U.S. senator's office -- a veteran lawmaker, a committee chairman, and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- offering me a scoop with photographic evidence involving Russia and Ukraine, I might have been inclined to believe it, too.
The Free Beacon could have done more to verify the evidence, but the conservative site falsely assumed Inhofe's office was a reliable source for accurate information. It wasn't.
But that leads to the next question: where'd Inhofe get the bogus story?
The far-right senator's office blamed a "Ukrainian delegation" that was recently in D.C. and provided BuzzFeed with a list of names. "None of the Ukrainians on the list are particularly well-known to Westerners and the list does not include high-level government officials," BuzzFeed noted.
Gawker added, "It's not clear what Inhofe's independent verification process involved, but it didn't work. Several national security experts on Twitter immediately set about determining the provenance of the images and found that some of them were from as far back as 2008, and a few were traceable to the conflict in Georgia and Ossetia, rather than the current war in Ukraine."
The Washington Free Beacon, not surprisingly, was forced to acknowledge that the story was wrong.