June 22, 2005

The Lions Who Shot Liberty Valance

This AP dispatch has been getting a lot of play, both in the blogosphere and in newspapers around the world:

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - A 12-year-old girl who was abducted and beaten by men trying to force her into a marriage was found being guarded by three lions who apparently had chased off her captors, a policeman said Tuesday.
On first reading, it tugs at the heartstring. But on second reading, doesn't it tickle the BS detector just a bit? It wouldn't be the first time that a reporter opted to print the legend, after all.

Most of the story rests on the statements of a policeman that the reporter, Anthony Mitchell, has apparently never met face to face: "Sgt. Wondimu Wedajo, speaking by telephone from the provincial capital of Bita Genet, about 350 miles southwest of Addis Ababa." The second source:

Tilahun Kassa, a local government official who corroborated Wondimu's version of the events, said one of the men had wanted to marry the girl against her wishes.

Google knows of two mentions of the name "Tilahun Kassa" outside of this article-- once for the head of the Telecommunication Industry Monitoring and Planning Department at the Ethiopian Telecommunication Agency, and once as a source in a report which lists him as "Ato Tilahun Kassa, Administrative and Finance, DOA [Department of Agriculture], Negelle-Borana." If the government official named Tilahun Kassa in the story is the same as either or both of these two, why would he have any firsthand knowledge of this case? Wouldn't all that he has "corroborated" be that he's heard the story told a similar way that Sgt. Wedajo tells it?

The only other source Mitchell quotes is Stuart Williams, an Ethiopia-based British conservationist that Google knows well:

"A young girl whimpering could be mistaken for the mewing sound from a lion cub, which in turn could explain why they didn't eat her," Williams said.
Does that sound plausible? Lions can't tell the difference between their own cubs and a member of another species who makes a vaguely similar noise? Doesn't it sound like Williams was given a scenario to explain, scratched his head, and threw out a grasping-at-straws theory for something he'd never seen before?

All of us are guilty at times of granting greater weight to stories that comport with our views. Politically, media watchdogs are split into right-wing and left-wing factions. In the case of this story, the anthropomorphic narrative of noble lions pushes the right buttons on most of us (just ask Disney) and doesn't raise anyone ideological hackles, so it slides. But ask yourself: If you heard this story at a bar, would you believe it? And do the reputations of AP reporters and third-world policemen merit greater credulity, or not?

UPDATE: More here.

Posted by John Tabin at June 22, 2005 09:09 PM