Monday, April 30, 2007

Fear and Loathing in the Fourth Estate

Bill Moyers has a new show on PBS called Bill Moyers Journal. It premiered last week with an episode about how the media completely failed in its obligations to question the rationale behind the Bush regime's call for war against Iraq and how it became an unwitting partner in fanning the flames of war by uncritically printing and legitimizing the regime's lies.

I nearly went crazy watching the show, because, at each step, I remember how obvious it was to me that what the regime was saying didn't add up and just didn't make any damned sense at all. It was so difficult listening to all these reporters and editors talking about how and why they let themselves become complicit in the regime's schemes, how they were afraid to dig too deeply or be too critical because it might be seen as unpatriotic, and how they decided that the war was inevitable anyway so they spent their time getting ready instead of questioning it.

The saving grace was a couple of guys from the Knight-Ridder news organization, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, who I had never heard of who actually did their jobs and questioned all the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the regime's story and didn't back down or let up. You haven't heard of them, in all likelihood, because Knight-Ridder doesn't have outlets in New York or Washington and so their reporting wasn't picked up by the larger news outlets. But they are a bright spot in an otherwise dark chapter in the history of American press.

They had all the same questions as I did. For one thing, it was known -- despite what Republicans will tell you -- that the neocons in the Bush regime wanted to go to war with Iraq from the earliest days of the regime, before 9/11. PBS' Frontline did an entire episode on the internal debate in the White House with Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz pushing war with Iraq. So there was ample reason to question using 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq, since there was no clear link between Al-Qaeda and Iraq and a preexisting desire to topple Hussein.

As such, you'd think the media would be skeptical of the regime's justifications for a war they wanted before the justifications existed. But no. In fact, according to Strobel, "There was a lot of skepticism among our editors because what we were writing was so at odds with what most of the rest of the Washington press corps was reporting..."

Think about that. The Washington press corps was so uncritical of the push for war that editors were skeptical of critical pieces, not on the basis of the facts, but on the basis of what everyone else was writing. The press wasn't reporting reality: they were deciding what reality was, even when it was at odds with the facts. Because Landay and Strobel weren't liberal reporters with a bias and a point of view to push. They were just good reporters who had built up a network of trusted sources within government who were telling them that the facts just didn't add up. As Strobel said:

When you're talking to the working grunts, you know-- uniform military
officers, intelligence professionals-- professional diplomats, those people are more likely than not-- not always, of course, but more likely than not to tell you some version of the truth, and to be knowledgeable about what they're talking about when it comes to terrorism or the Middle East, things like that...

We were basically I think hearing two different messages from-- there's a message-- the public message the administration was giving out about Iraq — it's WMD-- the fact there was an immediate threat-- grave threat-- gathering threat and — but the was so different from what we were hearing from people on the inside, people we had known in many cases for years and trusted.

I didn't have access to these sources, and yet I still couldn't shake the feeling that, having seen the summer 2001 episode of Frontline that WMDs were just an excuse. And yet the rest of the Washington press corps, with their own sources similar to Strobel's and Landay's, failed to consider this possibility, to ask the questions, and to get the information Strobel and Landay did.

And then there were the reports that an Iraqi Kurd named Al-Haideri was claiming that Hussien had chemical and biological weapons sites hidden underneath his presidential palaces. I mean, come on! I didn't buy that one for a minute. Only some cardboard Dungeons & Dragons villain would hide that sort of stuff under his own house, right? And yet the media reported this as if there were any chance it was true. And, once again, only Strobel and Landay had my back, as Landay said:

And there were others [red flags], like the idea that Saddam Hussein would put a biological weapons facility under his residence. I mean, would you put a biological weapons lab under your living room? I don't think so.
Exactly!!! How could anyone possibly believe that shit? The stuff Al-Haideri and Chalabi were selling to the Bush regime sounded like the kind of crap I would make up myself if I had no idea what I was talking about. Bad stories geeks would tell if they were trying to convince you they knew a bunch of secret James Bond type shit. As Landay said:

As you track their stories, they become ever more fantastic, and they're the same people who are telling these stories, 'til you get to the most fantastic tales of all, which appeared in Vanity Fair Magazine... [like] jumping into pits of fouled water and having to kill a dog with your bare teeth.

Who would believe crap like that? Only in movies do you train guys by making them kill dogs with their bare teeth. Wouldn't telling stories like that make you doubt someone's credibility? Well, apparently not if you're a member of the Bush regime or the Washington press corps. Then there's this, from Landay:

...and this was coming from people, who are appearing in all of these-- these stories, and as I-- and-- and-- and sometimes their rank would change...

And, you're saying, "Wait a minute. There's something wrong here, because in this story he was a Major, but in this story the guy's a Colonel. And, in this story this was his function, but now he says in this story he was doing something else.
I mean, these supposed "inside" Iraqi sources couldn't even keep straight what their ranks and jobs were, but no one was questioning that? It's freakin' unbelievable. I didn't know this either, and yet I was skeptical. How could you not be skeptical when you have facts available to you like Strobel and Landay did?

Landay also spent a lot of time familiarizing himself with nuclear proliferation, for instance, by going to website for the Iraq Nuclear Verification Office, where reports on what Iraq was doing with regards to nuclear weapons was publically available. He learned that, even though inspectors hadn't been in Iraq since 1998, that it was unlikely Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program: "During the period of time between when the inspectors left Iraq, which was in 1998-- the end of 1998 and then, the United States had covered the place with spy satellites and-- U2 over flights, and-- you know, the-- other intelligence services had their eyeballs on this place."

So, when Cheney then said, in August of 2002, that "Many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon," Landay was surprised:

And I looked at that and I said, "What is he talking about?" Because, to develop a nuclear weapon you need specific infrastructure and in particular the way the Iraqi's were trying to produce a nuclear weapon was through enrichment
of uranium.

Now, you need tens of thousands of machines called "centrifuges" to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. You've gotta house those in a fairly big place, and you've gotta provide a huge amount of power to this facility. Could he really have done it with all of these eyes on his country?

No. Of course he couldn't. I knew it. Former weapons inspector Scott Ridder knew it. How could we all not know it? How could the entire Washington press corps not know it?

But Landay, unlike me, didn't just have to rely on what was plain to see. He called up one of his contacts:

So, when Cheney said that, I got on the phone to people, and one person said to me-- somebody who watched proliferation as their job-said, "The Vice President is lying."
Why in the hell was Landay the only reporter who made those calls? Why weren't alarm bells ringing in their heads like they were mine and his?

Why, when the Bush regime released an unclassified version of a white paper in which supposed "experts" said that aluminum tubes Iraq had attempted to purchase were for nuclear weapons production, did no other reporters beside Landay And Strobel notice that, as Landay said, "It turns out, though, that that majority of intelligence analysts were-- had no background in nuclear weapons"? Wouldn't that be something you'd expect a reporter to check on before filing a report? I would.

And this media groupthink that the Washington press corps succumbed to was so strong that Landay and Strobel, who were actually out gathering the facts, still wondered what the hell was going on:
WARREN STROBEL: But there was a period when we were sittin' out there and I had a lotta late night gut checks where I was just like, "Are we totally off on some
loop here? That we--"
JONATHAN LANDAY: Yeah. We-- we would--
WARREN STROBEL: "--are we-- we wrong? Are we gonna be embarrassed?"
JONATHAN LANDAY: --everyday we would lo-- everyday we'd look at each other and say-- lit-- literally-- One of us would find something out and I'd look at him and say -- What's going on here?

It just boggles the mind. It's no accident that polls show that something like 2/3rds of Americans believed (and still believe) that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. When the press fails to challenge a president and regime on the blatant falsehoods they put out day after day, then how can the average American be expected to know they are being lied to?

And there's just no excuse for this. I knew. And I can't possibly be smarter than the whole of the Washington press corps. I saw the pattern, saw how the regime manipulated intelligence and the message, saw how they grasped for any straw to justify war. I knew that the regime was debating deposing Saddam before 9/11. And I knew that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. There's just no reason why the press corps didn't know, or at least ask the questions to find out.

The information was out there. Anyone who looked at what was happening could have seen it. But the fact that reporters with resources most of us don't have and access to contacts and information we could only wish for didn't see it, is just sad. It's an utter abdication of the role of the press in a free society.

The mainstream media, during those fateful days of the runup to an ill-advised, costly, deadly, and disastrous war, acted more like Pravda than like the Washington Post or the New York times. When the only voices pointing out the obvious truth that our government is lying to us are two guys from the Knight-Ridder news service and blogger/citizens like me, there's just no way we can shout over the constant din of the mainstream media and the 24-hour news cycle.

Democracy needs a free, independent press to function. When the press doesn't do its job, this is what happens.


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