The Media's Chance At Redemption
Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is also the founder of the Real News Project , a new not-for-profit investigative journalism outlet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When, oh when, will the U.S. “mainstream media” finally stop hemming and hawing, parsing and understating? When will they simply go for the jugular to confirm what any thoughtful American has already learned from “less reputable” but increasingly relevant alternative information sources: that from the beginning of the Bush administration, invading Iraq has always been as much an article of faith for the president as, well, promoting faith over reason?
After countless leaks, several stunning British memos and enough piecemeal admissions by Bush administration alumni, it’s surely time for the old media to rise to the occasion if they are to remain relevant in a rapidly changing news environment.
Instead, what we see on television news and in major print media amounts to little more than journalism by Chinese water torture. Drip, drip, drip.
This was best exemplified by the article on the front page of The New York Times last week, which provided the most complete cataloguing thus far of a memo by Tony Blair’s national security adviser, David Manning. The memo summarized the key moments and statements from a meeting that took place between Bush and Blair at the end of January, 2003, just weeks before the Iraq invasion. The memo’s existence and some central elements had previously been revealed in a book and in the British press; last week’s Times front-pager was playing catch-up on behalf of virtually the entire American mainstream media.
The Times report was full of throat-clearing and arcane notations that, while the memo had previously been reported, it had never been as fully reported, or that a particular passage had thus far eluded widespread scrutiny. And, indeed, the article did contribute new insights. But a careful reading of the Times piece turns up numerous opportunities where reporters could have offered—and, more importantly, still can offer—more context and thereby lead readers to the dark heart of the matter. To wit, the Times could not quite summon the courage for a sufficiently bold lead. It began:
In the weeks before the United States-led invasion of Iraq, as the United States and Britain pressed for a second United Nations resolution condemning Iraq, President Bush's public ultimatum to Saddam Hussein was blunt: Disarm or face war.
But behind closed doors, the president was certain that war was inevitable.
Even though the overall thrust of the article was that Bush and Blair were hell-bent on invading Iraq, with or without justification, there was that second sentence summarizing, blandly, that “the president was certain that war was inevitable.” This is soft-pedaling in the extreme. Bush wasn’t certain war was inevitable—he wanted to make it inevitable.
The article certainly makes that clear, describing all manner of shockers—from Bush musing about painting a U.S. reconnaissance plane in U.N. colors and deliberately drawing Iraqi fire as a casus belli , to the possibility of bringing out an Iraqi defector who would assert that WMDs existed even while Bush tacitly admitted they likely did not.
This pussyfooting, the burying of the lead, does a disservice to readers. News organizations like the Times abetted the march to war through their unquestioning acceptance of highly debatable administration assertions, and, in the specific case of the Times , its tolerance of the rampaging cowboy reportage of its correspondent Judith Miller.
But time is a corrective. We now have a chance to restore the honor and basic viability of conventional journalism and show the public that there is a difference between a skilled and experienced practitioner of a complex craft and anyone with a talent for argumentation, a computer and a high-speed connection.
In the case of Iraq, digging into the intelligence analysis and planning of the pre-war period is not just of historical interest. It is clear that many assertions made in those crucial months were wrong. Yet, in its current PR campaign to distract Americans from the spiraling chaos in Iraq—and the colossal incompetence and recklessness that precipitated it—the Bush administration continues to peddle half-truths and serve volleys of spin. Journalism’s central function is to tell the truth, and that calls for cutting through the spin and taking readers beyond the talking points that still rule the day.
What follows are some issues that need to be raised, questions asked and answered—whether based on a close reading of the recently-disclosed Manning memo or of the original “Downing Street memo ” which recounted similar evidence of a will to war from six months earlier. Or, for that matter, simply inspired by (dare we say it) common sense.
Iraq is in the midst of what many believe is a civil war. The White House treats the sectarian violence as coming out of nowhere, a complete surprise that couldn’t possibly have been anticipated. But basic reporting would show that this isn’t the case. Before the invasion, Bush repeatedly ignored warnings that exactly this might transpire, declaring blithely that the war would be a cinch, and the aftermath a cakewalk. In the most recent memo to surface, Bush predicted that it was “unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups,” and Blair concurred. Do they pull these assertions out of their hats, wing colossal decisions like they’re predicting basketball championships? Let’s see some hard scrutiny of the presidential decision-making process, and some explicit reporting on the many examples like this for which Bush continues to escape responsibility—and on the role of artful double-talk and media incompetence in making this Houdini act possible again and again.
Let’s also explore how exactly it is that a huge chunk of the American populace seems not to have been clearly informed of this stunning miscalculation. Even with a decisive majority now disappointed by the situation in Iraq, many still seem utterly unaware of the president’s willful rejection of counsel from countless knowledgeable, respected figures.
So much about Bush’s war of choice gets swept under the rug, or at least buried deep amidst long exhalations of spectacular understatement. For example, the Times piece archly notes, far from the lead paragraphs, that “The latest memo is striking in its characterization of frank, almost casual, conversation by Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair about the most serious subjects. At one point, the leaders swapped ideas for a postwar Iraqi government.” It then quotes from the Manning memo: “’As for the future government of Iraq, people would find it very odd if we handed it over to another dictator,’ the prime minister is quoted as saying…. Bush agreed," Mr. Manning wrote.
With regard to Bush’s suggestion of painting a U.S. spy plane in U.N. colors as a way of jump-starting a war, reporters covering this memo should be offering some context. For instance, how typical is this ploy of Bush’s notions of responsibility and legality? And how does it fit into a broader emerging pattern of disrespect for the formal and informal canon of presidential behavior, including but not limited to authorizing illegal wiretaps on American citizens? And is an American president allowed to simply hijack the United Nation’s image for his own purposes, to sneakily involve the world community in precipitating a war? Presumably not, but inquiring minds want to know how Bush could even imagine such a scheme possible, and what that says about his own temperament and—how to put it delicately—suitability for such a position of trust and power. Is he cribbing his playbook from the melodrama served up weekly on “24”?
The Manning memo cites Bush suggesting to Blair that the United States might be able to bring out a defector who would publicly assert that Saddam had WMD. Given that Bush himself admitted in the same meeting that he had no evidence of any WMD in Iraq, was he really saying that the administration was prepared to produce someone who would “pipe” that testimony? This wouldn’t happen to be the mysterious and subsequently-discredited "man in the baseball cap" whom the now-equally-discredited Times reporter Miller produced for an article that ran on Page One right after the invasion wound up, would it? We need to know more. As any journalism school grad knows, answering questions like these is the very essence of the craft.
Bush spoke of assassinating Saddam Hussein. It would be nice to get an update on what U.S. government policy is on assassinations. Are they permitted at all? And if so, what criteria need be met before such an order is issued?
The White House did not deny the authenticity of the memo, which after all, has already been confirmed as authentic by insiders. But a spokesman told the Times , "We are not going to get into discussing private discussions of the two leaders." Well, why not? Almost everything the president does is based on “private discussions.” No journalist should accept such a quote without challenging its premise. Indeed, the very use of such ludicrous rebuttals should be the subject of journalistic inquiry.
Bush was paraphrased in the memo as saying, "The U.S. would put its full weight behind efforts to get another resolution and would twist arms and even threaten." Beyond belated reports of the NSA directive that authorized spying on allies during this period, we’ve never, as best as I can recall, seen a really thorough account of this campaign of intimidation. Nor an overview of U.S. policy on pressuring other countries—especially pressure for rash actions fostering global destabilization.
Looking backward, virtually everyone now agrees that the media did not ask the right questions, or enough questions, as the war drums telegraphed impending conflict. Well, that was then. But now, major mysteries still beg for resolution: including, most fundamentally, how George W. Bush convinced the bulk of his fellow Americans, including some of the brightest lights of our society, to support such an ill-conceived war.
Any journalist with a nose for news ought to be all fired up these days. It’s rare that we hacks are offered so many chances to show what we are made of—or to make up for errors of omission and commission that will otherwise haunt us in perpetuity.
It’s never too late to start looking for answers.