September 08, 2003

Will Press Roll Over Again on New WMD Report?

Do you remember the film "Network," in which, the
Peter Finch character snapped and started shouting
"I'm mad as hell and I am not going to take it
anymore?" Of course, even his magnificent outrage was
exploited, BUT the point here is that it wasn't
someone on the streets that started shouting "I am mad
as hell and I am not going to take it anymore!" It was
a TV anchor man. Until one of them cracks (i.e. has an
eruption of conscience), or until one of the networks
cracks (i.e., starts to see its own business
threatened), we are in deep trouble....If it were not
for the Information Rebellion (e.g., Buzzflash,
MediaWhoresOnline, CommonDreams, TruthOut, etc.), we
would be already shouting "Long Live Little Brother!"
to each other instead of saying "Hello."

Published on Tuesday, September 9, 2003 by the Editor
& Publisher
Will Press Roll Over Again on New WMD Report?
'E&P' Editor Cites 'Depressing' Failure in Past
by Greg Mitchell

Some time in the next two weeks, David Kay, head of
the Iraqi Survey Group, is expected to finally release
a crucial report on his findings so far in his search
for weapons of destruction.

"I am confident that when people see what David Kay
puts forward they will see that there was no question
that such weapons exist, existed, and so did the
programs to develop more," Secretary of State Colin
Powell said Sunday. "We did not try to hype it or blow
it out of proportion."

Since no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) have been
found in Iraq, close observers now report that Kay is
likely to drop on the media a massive weapon of his
own: hundreds or thousands of pages of summaries and
documents purporting to prove that Saddam Hussein had
WMDs recently (and hid them) and/or had numerous WMD
programs underway that we succeeded in pre-empting.

In the parlance once used by Howell Raines, Kay
thereby will "flood the zone" and hope the press
portrays what may be largely assertion -- not fact --
as compelling proof. Would the media possibly fall for
this? There are disturbing indications that they

Last month, one of the most important stories of 2003
appeared, and got significant play in a number of
major newspapers -- but not nearly enough. There's
still time for the rest to catch up and, in most
cases, honestly admit that they promoted one of the
most lethal rush-to-judgements of the modern
journalistic era -- and vow to do better in the
future, starting with the Kay case.

The August report was written by Charles J. Hanley,
special correspondent for the Associated Press, who
shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. It utterly demolishes
Powell's much-lauded Feb. 5 presentation to the United
Nations on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and the
need to go to war to destroy them.

Still, at this late date, why is this so significant,
since the damage (lives lost, billions spent and
billions more committed, anti-U.S. hatred inflamed in
the region) is done?

Simply put, the Powell charade was the turning point
in the march to war, and the media, in almost
universally declaring that he had "made the case,"
fell for it, hook, line and sinker, thereby making the
invasion (which some of the same newspapers now
question) inevitable.

It's a depressing case study of journalistic shirking
of responsibility. The press essentially acted like a
jury that is ready, willing and (in this case) able to
deliver a verdict -- after the prosecution has spoken
and before anyone else is heard or the evidence
studied. A hanging jury, at that.

Consider the day-after editorial endorsements of
Powell's case, all from sources not always on the side
of the White House. As media writer Mark Jurkowitz put
it at the time in The Boston Globe, Powell may not
have convinced France of the need to topple Saddam but
"it seemed to work wonders on opinion makers and
editorial shakers in the media universe."

The San Francisco Chronicle called the speech
"impressive in its breadth and eloquence." The Denver
Post likened Powell to "Marshal Dillon facing down a
gunslinger in Dodge City," adding that he had
presented "not just one 'smoking gun' but a battery of
them." The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune called Powell's case
"overwhelming," while The Oregonian in Portland found
it "devastating." To The Hartford (Conn.) Courant it
was "masterful." The Plain Dealer in Cleveland deemed
it "credible and persuasive."

One can only laugh, darkly, at the San Jose (Calif.)
Mercury News asserting that Powell made his case
"without resorting to exaggeration, a rhetorical tool
he didn't need." The San Antonio Express-News called
the speech "irrefutable," adding, "only those ready to
believe Iraq and assume that the United States would
manufacture false evidence against Saddam would not be
persuaded by Powell's case." The Dallas Morning News
declared that Powell "did everything but perform
cornea transplants on the countries that still claim
to see no reason for forcibly disarming Iraq."

And what of the two often tough-minded giants of the
East? The Washington Post echoed others who found
Powell's evidence "irrefutable." That paper's liberal
columnist, Mary McGrory, wrote that Powell "persuaded
me, and I was as tough as France to convince." She
even likened the Powell report to the day John Dean
"unloaded" on Nixon in the Watergate hearings. The
paper's George Will said Powell's speech would "change
all minds open to evidence" and Jim Hoagland called it
"a convincing and detailed X-ray." He added that he
did not believe that Powell could have lied or "been
taken in by manufactured evidence," and "neither
should you."

The New York Times, meanwhile, hailed Powell's
"powerful" and "sober, factual case." Like many other
papers, the Times' coverage on its news pages -- in
separate stories by Steven Weisman, Michael Gordon,
and Adam Clymer -- also bent over backward to give
Powell the benefit of nearly every doubt. Apparently
in thrall to Powell's moderate reputation, no one even
mentioned that he was essentially acting as lead
prosecutor with every reason to shape, or even create,
facts to fit his brief.

Weisman called Powell's evidence "a nearly
encyclopedic catalog that reached further than many
had expected." He and Clymer both recalled Adlai
Stevenson's speech to the U.N. in 1962 exposing Soviet
missiles in Cuba. Gordon closed his piece by asserting
that "it will be difficult for skeptics to argue that
Washington's case against Iraq is based on groundless
suspicions and not intelligence information." Try
reading that with a straight face today.

Why does any of this matter? It's fashionable to
suggest that the White House was bent on war and
nothing could have stopped them. But until the Powell
speech, public opinion, editorial sentiment, and
street protests were all building against the war. The
Powell speech, and the media's swallowing of it,
changed all that. An E&P survey of editorial pages of
major newspapers just after the Powell speech found
the number of papers characterized as "hawkish" rose
from 5 to 15 while those considered "war skeptics"
plunged from 29 to 11.

After Hanley's AP story appeared in the St. Petersburg
(Fla.) Times in August, a reader named William C.
Wilbur wrote to the editor, "I am surprised that the
Times has not yet commented editorially on this
further evidence of how the Bush administration has
misled Congress, the American public, and the world in
order to justify war." It's time for many papers to
admit they were hoodwinked -- and vow to be more
skeptical of official presentations, by David Kay and
everyone else, in the future.

Greg Mitchell ( is
the editor of E&P.

2003 VNU eMedia Inc.

Posted by richard at September 8, 2003 01:52 PM