Context Clues


A reporter from a respected Western news organization hears a shocking story from a trusted source about events in a foreign land, and decides to publish it. Word translates and travels fast, and soon hundreds of thousands of furious people are in the streets. The reporter learns that his source was wrong, but it's too late—the deed is done.

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, writing about Guantanamo? Nope! It's Reuters' Michael Zantovsky reporting inaccurately that Communist police in Prague killed a student demonstrator on the night of Nov. 17, 1989. Here's Ben Bradlee's retelling of Zantovsky's story, from July 1990:

Soon, he received a phone call from Peter Uhl, a Civic Forum activist who now heads the Czechoslovak News Agency. Uhl told him that a student had been killed by police.

"I asked him if he was sure and he said he had an eyewitness and that the eyewitness is completely reliable and that he was 100 percent certain that a student was dead," Zantowsky [sic] continued.

Almost at once, Zantowsky filed the story, and just as quickly it was broadcast by Voice of America. The world knows what happened next:

"This incident probably as much as anything else caused huge demonstrations on Nov. 20—about 200,000 people," Zantowsky said. "That started the whole thing and got the ball rolling. Now the government of course went absolutely wild and went to great lengths to deny that anything like that took place, but after 40 years nobody believed them and that was the end of the government."

The problem was that the story wasn't true.

"There was no student killed and actually it turned out that there was a secret policeman who lay down on the ground and let himself be covered and pretended that he was killed," Zantowsky continued.

"Why this happened—why this very intricate provocation or ruse was played—is still not quite clear. But in any case the story was not true. Peter Uhl went to jail and I didn't sleep at home for two or three days. Peter was released only after the revolution was over." […]

But, "it all went well," he concluded.