From the Headlines
Not Found, Media Coverage Likewise
The world little noted, but at some point late last year the American
search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ended. We will, however,
long remember the doomsday warnings from the Bush administration about
mushroom clouds and sinister aluminum tubes; the breathless reports
from TV correspondents when the invasion began, speculating on when
the 'smoking gun' would be unearthed; our own failures to deconstruct
all the spin and faulty intelligence.
York Times editorial, Jan. 13
timorous admission made by the White House last week that it had
given up pretending to search for WMDs in Iraq was an occasion for much
smugness and finger-pointing in most of the major dailies.
the rest of the population, this laughably tiny news item—I'm writing
this column on Jan. 13, but by the time this hits the newsstands on
the 26th, it will surely, and amazingly, have been a dead story for
days—was mainly fodder for two minutes of office water-cooler gloating
among the anti-Bush crowd.
is unrealistic to expect anything different. In the run-up to the war,
every major daily and television network in the country parroted the
White House's asinine WMD claims for months on end, all but throwing
their panties on stage the instant Colin Powell showed what appeared
to be a grainy aerial picture of a pick-up truck to the U.N. Security
would seem to demand that a roughly equivalent amount of coverage be
given to the truth, now that we know it (and we can officially call
it the truth now, because even Bush admits it; previously the truth
was just a gigantic, unendorsed pile of plainly obvious evidence). But
that isn't the way things work in America. We only cover things around
the clock every day for four or five straight months when it's fun.
was fun. Monica Lewinsky was fun. "America's New War" was
fun—there was a war at the end of that rainbow. But "We All Totally
Fucked Up" is not fun. You can't make a whole new set of tv graphics
for "We All Totally Fucked Up." There is no obvious location
where Wolf Blitzer can do a somber, grimacing "We All Totally Fucked
Up" live shot (above an "Operation We All Totally Fucked Up"
bug in the corner of the screen). Hundreds of reporters cannot rush
to stores to buy special khakis or rain slickers or Kevlar vests in
preparation for "We All Totally Fucked Up." They would have
to wear their own clothes and stand, not in front of burning tanks or
smashed Indonesian hovels, but in front of their own apartments.
is why we will never get four months of the truth, to match four months
of preposterous bullshit. The business is not designed for it. It just
Americans instinctively understand this and accept it. Even those people
who are consciously offended by this set of circumstances accept it.
It is as natural to us as the weather.
there are times when this phenomenon seems to go a little too far. This
is one of those times.
news organizations last week took the same pathetic, transparently disingenuous
position vis a vis the WMD flap that the New York Times did in
the above passage. The basic media lie—the new lie, not the old lie—was
a two-pronged thing. It went something like this:
Bush admitted there were no WMDs, but so few people cared that it was
"little noted" around the world. Phrases such as "quiet
conclusion" (CBS News) or "quietly ended" (USA Today)
or "quiet denouement" (the Virginia Pilot) reinforced
this idea that the story was somehow inherently quiet and of small import.
of the story's small stature were usually followed by a similarly quiet
mea culpa. They usually read something like this: Now that we
know the truth for sure, we media organizations must try to unravel
how it "could have happened"—how we failed to see through
it all, or "deconstruct all the faulty spin and intelligence,"
as the Times put it.
the first point, what could be funnier than the sight of the New
York Times calling a story "little noted," when the paper
itself only gave the story 3.5 inches on Page A16! Like almost
all the rest of the papers in the country, what the Times meant
was not "little noted," but little covered. Amazingly,
only two major dailies in the entire country—the Washington Post
and the Dallas Morning News—even put the official end to the
WMD search on the front page. The rest of the country's news organs
buried the story deep in the bowels of their news sections, far behind
Prince Harry's Nazi suit and the residual tsunami stuff. And then they
have the balls to turn around and say this news was "quiet"?
for the second question—how it could have happened—I have an answer.
It is an answer that will not require the convening of a special symposium
at the Columbia Journalism School, the commission of a new study by
the Brookings Institution, or a poll by Poynter. The answer is this:
really as simple as that. Everyone knew it was bullshit. I defy Bill
Keller to stare me in the face and tell me he didn't know the whole
Iraq war business was a lie from the start. Whether or not there were
actually WMDs in Iraq is a canard; this was essentially unknowable at
the time. It was the rest of it that was obviously idiotic, yet even
the pointiest heads in the business, like the folks at the Times,
swallowed it with a smile.
was the idea that Saddam Hussein, a secular dictator whose chief domestic
enemies were Islamic fundamentalists, was somehow a natural potential
ally for bin Laden. There was the supposition, credulously reported
for months, that if Saddam "disarmed," we would back off (we
were going in anyway, everyone could see that; all of the "inspections"
coverage, that whole drama, was a pathetic fraud). There was the idea
that Bush and Co. were sincerely moved to grave concern by "intelligence"
about Saddam's weapons (on the contrary, there was a veritable mountain
of evidence that the Bush administration was turning over every couch
pillow in Washington in search of even the flimsiest fig-leaf to stick
on its WMD claims; the source of the WMD panic was clearly the White
House, not Langley or any other place). There was the idea that a preemptive
invasion was not a revolutionary idea, not illegal, not an outrage.
And so on.
problem wasn't a small, isolated ethical error, like Judith Miller's
Chalabi reporting. The error here was not a mistake of fact. The problem
was that a central tenet of our system of news reporting dictates that
lies of consensus will never be considered punishable mistakes. In other
words, once everyone jumps in the water, a story acquires its own legitimacy.
now we get papers like the Times wondering aloud why they didn't
feel the ground under their feet. Answer: you jumped in the water. And
you knew what you were doing.