The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, June 15, 2003

The Jayson Blair misdirection - and the WaPo Whopper

I said it on June 3 - and here's a really nice example from the home of Howard 'Conflict of Interest? What Conflict of Interest?' Kurtz:
The media response to the Jayson Blair story has been displacement activity, misdirection - and a whole lot of frantic onanism.

While (supposedly) their readers are blown away by the sheer humility of the media confession-fest (you know the Podunk County Fair of 1979 we said was opened by Elvis...), back at the papers towards which the plebs are meant to show awe - and not in the John Wayne sense either - it's very much business as usual.

As witness a WaPo piece from June 12, under the striking headline
CIA Did Not Share Doubt on Iraq Data

Right-thinking men were evidently meant to cast away those shreds of sympathy for hapless George Tenet in reading the first par:
A key component of President Bush's claim in his State of the Union address last January that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program -- its alleged attempt to buy uranium in Niger -- was disputed by a CIA-directed mission to the central African nation in early 2002, according to senior administration officials and a former government official. But the CIA did not pass on the detailed results of its investigation to the White House or other government agencies, the officials said.

So it wasn't George W, pumped up by Don, Paul and the rest of the neocon war boosters, that was the guilty party: they'd all been hoodwinked by the spooks! You could have knocked me down with a feather...

There's more:
A senior intelligence official said the CIA's action was the result of "extremely sloppy" handling of a central piece of evidence in the administration's case against then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

So all of us who were complaining that the war was based on a lie were right - only George wasn't to blame: it was the
extremely sloppy
USIC wot done it.

Then, we get a sort of cartoon double-take from the unnamed apparatchik - with FX of screeching of brakes on the soundtrack:
But, the official added, "It is only one fact and not the reason we went to war. There was a lot more."

He suddenly remembered that, in crapping on Tenet & Co, he shouldn't leave the war without any valid basis. That would never do.

Not that it's all unnamed sources - though most of it is. There's Sen Bob Graham (aka one of the Little League) who - mirabili dictu - is not attacking his putative '04 opponent but supporting Bush's offensive against the spooks; he's quoted as describing
the case as "part of the agency's standard operating procedure when it wants to advance the information that supported their [the administration's] position and bury that which didn't."

Now, the one question that the piece does not ask, let alone answer is: Why now? Why should this phalanx of
senior administration officials and a former government official
suddenly present themselves, briefing so against vigorously against USIC in general and George Tenet in particular, at this particular juncture.

It's as if the hack expects the reader to believe that their testimony appeared like Moses in the bullrushes, neatly wrapped in a basket. And who is the hack? Step forward, Walter Pincus. Just checking with Mr Google, this is a guy with an extensive rap-sheet when it comes to intelligence exposures. Around five minutes searching produces, for instance, a WaPo piece on 9/11 from June 3 2002 under the head
CIA Failed To Share Intelligence On Hijacker

And a WorldNetDaily piece from August 2 2000 suggests that
Walter Pincus, the Post's top national security writer
produced an article plagiarising [1] a WND piece describing how
the FBI has asked Senate security officers to enlist select committee staffers in a search for e-mails from Energy Department whistleblower Notra Trulock.

(Not that Pincus would act - if that's what happened - as a USG conduit for ideological reasons, it seems: an NRO piece (April 10 2001) from Michael Ledeen describes Pincus as
known to greater Washington as the slimer-in-chief for his many smear jobs on Republicans and other conservatives.
and suggests he may yet not have made the AEI Christmas card list!)

Just like any painting or antique, any news report comes with a provenance - knowledge of which is essential to judge its quality. Only, the Lords of the Media - unlike the auction houses - decline to give us suckers the slightest sniff of that provenance.

They will say, We must safeguard our sources. And what about Pincus' sources? Does he effectively have more than one, truly independent, source? Or were they all coordinated by the USG spin machine? How can he tell? How can we?

The fact that the USIC fights back with its own anonymous source denying the WaPo story (Knight Ridder June 13) doesn't really help any. Except to round off the he says, she says.

Today, the WaPo ombudsman steps in: starting with the stirring quote [1]
The first casualty when war comes is truth,
he fearlessly tackles the question of covering intelligence matters.

He says (another WaPo exclusive - wow!) that
it is a murky, sensitive and highly classified field of inquiry, and one that is vulnerable to being politicized.
And gives us the Gypsy's Warning that
quoting people anonymously still erodes the confidence of some readers and gives administration spokesmen an edge in the battle for making a case and molding attitudes.

Needless to say, his conclusion is not that the media should cease to be the conduit for political manipulation, accomplices in defrauding their readership:
News organizations must go all-out to get answers, to guard against being used, to test their information with multiple sources and to get as much on the record as they can. And readers must be more willing not to automatically reject stories that use unnamed sources.

So, at least in part, it's our fault! Oh, the guilt, at not having believed - where's Oprah when you need her?

The least that a paper should do, surely, in running a piece based on anonymous sources is to analyse the possible motivation of the informants; to point out the weak points in the story; to identify questions that were unanswered, or not answered satisfactorily.

If it says that that would spoil the story, that would only confirm that it's primarily a piece's merit as a work of persuasive prose in which the media is interested. Which I think we suspected all along.

Of the blizzard of pieces on the NY Times and its difficulty in sorting fact from fiction, the Village Voice (June 17) has a nice quote on media arrogance (which, despite all suggestions to the contrary, no one surely believes is confined to the Grey Lady), on the subject (coincidentally enough) of ombudsmen:
A few years ago, Bill Keller, then the managing editor and now an Op-Ed columnist (and possible candidate for executive editor), spoke for the paper when he said of the ombudsman concept: "We think it makes more sense to have problems and complaints reviewed by people with the responsibility and authority to do something about them, namely the editors of the paper, rather than by a designated kibitzer."

But perhaps there's something refreshing in such arrogance in comparison to the epidemic of Jayson-inspired hand-wringing from media bosses - as in an Editor and Publisher piece (June 12) under the head
Was Press Asleep on Pre-War WMD Issue?

Some editors are prepared to plead guilty (up to a point, at least):
I'm sure the press could have done more," Tim Connelly, international editor of The Dallas Morning News, told me last week. "Questions were being raised, not necessarily by the press, but by diplomats. The skepticism was there, but it may be the case that the press failed to ask this or that question. ..."

Others, not so much:
Paul Van Slambrouck, editor of The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, said his paper and others did a good job of presenting the Bush arguments and the opposition raised by diplomats, U.N. inspectors and other anti-war voices. "I think the press was frustrated with the answers, but I don't know if that is the fault of the press not asking aggressively enough," he said. "The press poked at it as reasonably as it could."

One is bowled over by the tornado of good old Yankee can-do spirit - poked at it, indeed!

And, from the Times's sister paper - and the guy some tip for Howell Raines' job! -
Martin Baron, editor of The Boston Globe, said newspapers cannot make the federal government disclose more than it wants to. "We raised questions about it at the time, we looked at the evidence one by one and the strength of the arguments," he said. "No one could possibly know until there was a war and U.S. officials were able to go and look for themselves."

Now, even this humble blog - kibbitzing on the kibbitzers! - reported as early as September 27 2002 that the ABC Nightly News (by no means an exclusive haunt of the cognoscenti like Mr Pincus) was crapping all over USIC product - in that case, Iraq-Al Qaida links.

If - and this may be true - USG had a lock on the facts, everyone in the media knew that at least some good part of USG's intelligence story was crooked. Haven't they heard of Cato the Elder? Even putting, day after day, the inconsistencies in USG's case - effectively calling them out as liars - might have hampered the march towards war. And would have shown a willingness on their part to do their best to get at something close to the truth. Instead
The press poked at it as reasonably as it could.

  1. A correction on the WaPo page acknowledges the plagiarism.

  2. Which I hadn't realised was one of Sen Hiram Johnson's. There are some facts in the WaPo, then. (I've not checked it, so...)

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