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Not So Fast: Not All Media Screwed Up the Iraq Story (Just Almost All)

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In a new piece for CNN, headlined “Media’s Failure on Iraq still stings,” the media analyst Howard Kurtz looks back on what went wrong with the media in its coverage of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. CNN summarizes his points atop the article:

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • - Howard Kurtz: News reporting before war in Iraq was media’s greatest failure in recent times
  • - He says news organizations aided Bush administration’s push to war on faulty premises
  • - Newspapers ran stories without enough skepticism, he says
  • - Kurtz: Public’s lack of confidence in media can partly be traced back to 2003

 

Kurtz writes:

Major news organizations aided and abetted the Bush administration’s march to war on what turned out to be faulty premises. All too often, skepticism was checked at the door, and the shaky claims of top officials and unnamed sources were trumpeted as fact.

The problem with Kurtz’s piece is that this kind of mass mea culpa, which comes with boring regularity after every major story the media botches, obscures the problem: people do report and predict these things accurately, but they’re routinely ignored by the mainstream media—including by Kurtz.

In the last few months, I’ve been hearing from people urging me to recycle work I did back in 2003—which got the Iraq story far more right than wrong. I don’t think horn-tooting is in good taste. But since the very reason I started WhoWhatWhy was to try to improve on the work being done by our media, it does seem relevant.

Actually, one didn’t have to be a genius to see where this was going. The signs were there all along.

-The Bush Administration seemed so eager to go to war

-This was an administration obsessed with managing perceptions that it had, in 9/11, faced a devastating setback. It needed p.r. gains—but going into Afghanistan without bagging Osama wasn’t adequate.

-Friends and advisors to the administration, especially those in the Project for a New American Century, had for years been pushing America’s need and even obligation to big-foot Middle Eastern countries that did not play ball.

Many other such signs appeared. Anyone with a nose for road apples could also detect a foul smell coming from the administration’s trail almost on a daily basis. A comparative handful of journalists bucked the tremendous pressure to get in line with the “patriotic” position.  And a handful of publications were willing, even eager, to take the Administration on. I know, because a number of them published my warnings.

Back in 2002, writing for a now-defunct online publication called TomPaine.com, I asked,

Is the Bush administration’s promise to create a democratic paradise in a post-Saddam Iraq for real — or just more salesmanship for war? To answer this crucial question, we would do well to examine recent experiences elsewhere.

Reporting from Belgrade, in the former Yugoslavia, where I was then based, I raised doubts whether the effort to rebuild and democratize Afghanistan was going to be the cakewalk we were offered, and then pointed to Yugoslavia, where promises made when the West intervened had been largely abandoned.

***

A prime example was Colin Powell’s crucial speech to the United Nations that crystallized opinion behind the need to invade. What bothered me most at the time was that Powell (or whoever wrote his speech for him) actually conflated what was heard being said by an Iraqi officer about nerve gas with what Powell interpreted his remarks to mean. And then the media repeated this gross distortion of the facts as the truth. As I wrote in 2003 for In These Times:

….Even more telling was the section of Powell’s presentation that came closest to revealing the long-sought “smoking gun.” A summary of newspaper reports, published in the influential online magazine Slate, put it this way:

[Powell] released audio tapes of Iraqis playing hide-’n-seek: In one conversation recorded a few weeks ago, an officer tells a subordinate, “Remove ‘nerve agents’ wherever it comes up in the wireless instructions.” Double-checking, the underling repeats the instructions. His boss’s response: “Stop talking about it. They are listening to us. Don’t give any evidence that we have these horrible agents.”

Note the quotation marks. Like most Americans who read the brief summaries in the following day’s papers, I was amazed that an Iraqi officer had warned someone to “stop talking about it … they are listening,” since that in itself would be an admission of guilt to those very listeners. And, even more so, that he would say, “Don’t give any evidence that we have these horrible agents.” He sounds disgusted—and practically begging for an invasion to save the world and his own skin.

I was about ready to suit up for battle myself, when I paused to double-check the transcripts of Powell’s talk for the exact language of the audio tapes. And that’s when double-check led to double-take. Because no Iraqi officer talked about “horrible agents.” Those were Colin Powell’s words. The secretary of state had simply taken the liberty to paraphrase what he believed the officers were implying in their conversation. He was putting words in their mouths. But the Slate summary, mailed to influential people all over the country, mixed up what the Iraqis had actually been heard saying with Powell’s tendentious paraphrase.

See—or listen—for yourself. A conversation in Arabic was played for the Security Council. The transcript, as translated by the State Department, goes as follows:

COLONEL: Captain Ibrahim?
CAPTAIN: I am with you, sir.
COLONEL: Remove.
CAPTAIN: Remove.
COLONEL: The expression.
CAPTAIN: The expression.
COLONEL: Nerve agents.
CAPTAIN: Nerve agents.
COLONEL: Wherever it comes up.
CAPTAIN: Wherever it comes up.
COLONEL: In the wireless instructions.
CAPTAIN: In the instructions.
COLONEL: Wireless.
CAPTAIN: Wireless.

Then Powell begins talking:

Let’s review a few selected items of this conversation. Two officers talking to each other on the radio want to make sure that nothing is misunderstood. … Why does he repeat it that way? Why is he so forceful, making sure this is understood, and why did he focus on wireless instructions? Because the senior officer is concerned that somebody might be listening. Well, somebody was. Nerve agents. Stop talking about it. They are listening to us. Don’t give any evidence that we have these horrible agents.

Naturally, the Iraqis denied Powell’s assertions. The intercepted telephone conversations were “simply not true and not genuine,” said an Iraqi general. “Any third-rate intelligence outfit could produce such a recording.”

After years of duplicity, Iraqi officials don’t have any credibility. The problem is, the arguments put forth by any party with a predetermined agenda must be viewed with skepticism. Powell’s totally fictional line about “horrible agents” may reflect the gist of the Iraqi’s actual words. Or there may be another explanation.

We’re told that, in a translation of a conversation from a scratchy recording, some person whose identity we cannot know, referred to “nerve agents.” Assuming the tape is clear enough, and the translation correct, all we have is someone telling someone to remove a reference to nerve agents. And what kind of reference? We have no idea. Anything is possible. It could be an old reference, in an old manual, to nerve agents Iraq used to have. It could be instructions on what to do if confronted with nerve agents launched by enemy troops. It could be anything at all.

It’s not that Saddam isn’t horrible, or that he doesn’t have some dangerous weapons. He probably does. It’s that the United States, despite all its high-tech intelligence-gathering, does not really know very much about Saddam’s capabilities and intentions. Instead of admitting that, which would undermine its case for a pre-emptive strike on oil-rich Iraq, the Bush administration is willing to twist the truth and pretend to know what it doesn’t know.

***

On March 20, 2003, The Nation posted a piece by me in which I questioned whether anything at all could be done to halt war that seemed all but inevitable. As it happened, most people were reading that essay the same day the invasion actually began.

In this article, I noted the timidity of the mainstream media, focusing on how Newsweek published an important scoop, but essentially buried it by placing it in “Periscope,” a column characterized by short leaked items and rumors—rather than boldly trumpeting what it had.

 In its March 3 issue, Newsweek disclosed that the Bush Administration had deliberately suppressed information exculpating Iraq–information from the same reliable source previously cited by the Administration as confirming that Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction since the 1991 Gulf War. As damning as this disclosure was, Newsweek chose to underplay it, perhaps out of a belief that the Bush Administration’s Big Lie techniques have become so pervasive that another instance of tendentious truth-twisting is no longer front-page news.

***

On May 5, 2003, TomPaine.com published another piece by me, in which I wrote:

…[M]uch of the media rather liked the idea of a jolly good war (they had long since applied for an exciting embedment). Those reporters and editors with a conscience couldn’t figure out a way to keep raising doubts. Keep reporting on that in a mainstream broadcast or publication and you appear an ideologue. The very nature of the media is that they are better at covering events and statements than exposing tendentious illogic and systematic deception by public figures. Gene McCarthy was generally hassled more than Joe McCarthy.

As a result, the public is still unaware of the fast one that was pulled on them. Witness the polls showing so many Americans believe that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks. What sets the Bush administration apart from its predecessors in Washington (and what the media never properly spotlighted) is its willingness to say anything — no matter how counter-factual or fundamentally misrepresentative of its true objectives — to advance its aims.

It’s possible that a savvy campaign of public information in response to the White House campaign of disinformation from the White Housemight have slowed or even halted the march toward war. But neither anti-war activists nor the Democratic Party’s leadership were clever enough to consistently put forward, in easily digestible form for both print and broadcast audiences, the two points that could have swayed public opinion: (1) That the administration was lying about the reasons for an invasion (2) That other options existed to free the Iraqi people.

***

On June 5, 2003, The Nation published a cover story by me taking a hard look at Judith Miller, the star New York Times reporter whose Iraq reporting was widely regarded as shaping public perceptions in favor of the invasion.

In September 2002, a year after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Miller had yet another Osama scoop provided by the authorities. Headlined “Lab Suggests Qaeda Planned to Build Arms, Officials Say,” the article begins: “Pentagon officials disclosed new details today about equipment found in a laboratory near Kandahar, Afghanistan, that they contend Al Qaeda intended to use to make biological and chemical weapons.”

Is this a real story? The headline and lead are powerful. But here’s the second paragraph: “The officials said the equipment–a centrifuge for separating liquids and an oven in which slurried agents could be dried–supported the assessment that Al Qaeda might have acquired what it needed to make ‘a very limited production of biological and chemical agents,’ one official said.”

Each time Miller produces an article that could induce panic, she almost always mentions, some paragraphs down, that Al Qaeda’s capability to deploy or develop these types of weapons has been judged by the Bush Administration to be crude at best. But the effect remains the same. Miller gets a story with a whopper of a headline, the story gets picked up and it connects with the American zeitgeist in support of extreme measures by the Administration domestically (Patriot Act) and internationally (invade Iraq), with few reading down to where Miller deflates the balloon and thereby preserves her credibility, in the same way that politicians leak and spin while preserving their deniability.

***

On July 9, 2003, TomPaine.com published a piece in which I noted:

Viva Nihilism! It must be great working in the Bush White House. Zero accountability. It’s All Spin, All the Time. Nothing matters but politics, hence no unfounded claim requires correction or apology. Unless, of course, they are pushed to the end of the plank, as they were recently with the tale about Niger and nuclear materials.

Take those elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction. Despite the failure of the concentrated might of the U.S. military-intelligence complex to find anything that might qualify in the remotest possible way, the administration labels critics “revisionist historians” and imperturbedly moves on. The initial assertions and touted “discoveries” usually get more attention than does the sound of a balloon deflating. That’s why polls find a sizable chunk of the American public still under the impression that WMD have been found.

Whatever Saddam’s interest in WMD, the administration didn’t know what he had and didn’t have solid evidence to make the claims it did — much less to launch a war over them. For those amateur “revisionist historians” out there, here is a partial, unscientific reconstruction of the claims that fizzled…..

***

Finally, in the fall of 2004, after several attempts, I was able to secure an interview with Mickey Herskowitz, a journalist and author who’d been working on a book with presidential candidate George W. Bush in 1999 before being sacked for unstated indiscretions. Herskowitz, ever proper, and still maintaining a relationship with Bush’s father, wasn’t inclined to dish. However, he did share a few eyebrow-raising revelations that Bush had offered him. For our purposes here, the most interesting was that the presidential hopeful was already looking forward to invading Iraq—way back in 1999.

Unfortunately, the media were so cowed at this point by the Bush Administration, that I was turned down by one intrigued but nervous mainstream and “alternative” news outlet after another, finally publishing my story on a now-defunct news site, Guerrilla News Network.

“He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,” said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. “It was on his mind. He said to me: ‘One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.’ And he said, ‘My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.’ He said, ‘If I have a chance to invade….if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”

Herskowitz said that Bush expressed frustration at a lifetime as an underachiever in the shadow of an accomplished father. In aggressive military action, he saw the opportunity to emerge from his father’s shadow. The moment, Herskowitz said, came in the wake of the September 11 attacks. “Suddenly, he’s at 91 percent in the polls, and he’d barely crawled out of the bunker.”

(You can read more about Herskowitz and Bush in my book, Family of Secrets.)

***

Did my series of stories expressing doubts about the Bush administration’s war-hype represent heroic journalistic effort? Hardly. Any reasonably enterprising and moderately objective reporters could have done the same, were they not blinded by corporate agendas and fear of antagonizing high-level “sources” who might punish them in the future by refusing access to “scoops” and “leaks” and the other perks of covering the White House regularly.

In his new CNN piece, Howard Kurtz mentions how “major news organizations” blew it. But honestly, how many big-picture, long-range things do they get right? If they did, how long do you suppose they would have lasted as acceptable pillars of the establishment and arbiters of permissible discussion?

Now, with a Democrat in the White House, much of the liberal “alternative” media that during the Bush Administration were the only venues for critical reporting on conflicts and their root causes, have gone rather quiet. Other than from a handful of venues and voices, we hear little about the role mineral-grabs and strategic considerations play in current or prospective wars in  Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Iran

The failures of the media—both “mainstream” and “alternative”—to bring the full range of revelations to the larger audience are a big reason I founded WhoWhatWhy.

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  • GlassTable

    The intelligence gathered in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion was arguably the most accurate, most comprehensive, and most timely pre-war intelligence ever gathered in the history of warfare. And it was all ignored by the Bush administration.

    No, I’m not talking about the supposed centrifuge tubes, or the mobile lab hoax, or the yellowcake story, or Curveball, or Condoleezza Rice’s imaginary mushroom clouds. I’m talking about the information gathered by UN weapons inspectors.

    Though the American media have been trained to look at the weapons inspectors as something other than intelligence gatherers, that’s precisely what they were. In fact, they were, by far, the most accurate, most comprehensive, and most timely source of intelligence available in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

    Just because the Bush administration told us to ignore all of the intelligence gathered by the weapons inspectors does not mean that intelligence did not exist. But that’s precisely the way history has been rewritten.

    It was easy. All the Bushes had to do is redefine the word “intelligence.” They had to convince Americans that “intelligence” was something that only they, the authorities, could have access to. They, as the guardians of the “Homeland” were in a position to know better than everybody else. Secrecy is the key to security. But that’s total nonsense.

    In reality, the vast majority of intelligence is gathered from public sources — from newspapers, television, and word of mouth. But because the Bushes trained (enough) Americans to ignore the best intelligence — to ignore the UN weapons inspectors — selling the war, both before and after the fact, was an easy task.

    Before the Iraq invasion, we had countless weapons inspectors on the ground. We had multiple spy planes flying overhead. We had helicopters dropping down unannounced out of the sky. We had bulldozers digging up decades-old weapons sites. We had a stunning amount of internal documents in hand. We had people literally inside Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces. Thanks to the UN weapons inspectors, we had it all.

    It was all ignored because Iraq was never about the WMD. For the people in charge (Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney), it was all about controlling the oil by controlling the region.

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  • Kgprophet

    What I got out of this event was that Karl Rove wanted to destroy the credibility of the major news organisations such as New York Times. The feeding of false information and manipulation to prevent scrutiny had it’s desired effect. Now, hardly ANY real journalism can be practiced by a major news organisation. Even Dan Rather, a keystone in the 60 minutes legacy, was destroyed. When everything blew-up in their faces, they were branded as being sycophants who did not dare practice proper journalism. The great foundation of hard journalism that was not afraid of pressure is probably lost forever.

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