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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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

CJR checks out the Chalabi media shit list

It's pretty much After the Lord Mayor's Show to the power of several zillion. But completeness demands a mention of a piece in the July/August issue (written when, I wonder?) by Douglas McCollam (related links at the indispensable Romenesko).

He looks at the list (Knight Ridder March 15) published by the Information Collection Program (ICP) - an emanation of the Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress - of 108 articles supposedly wholly or partly sourced by the ICP; and talks to some of the hacks who begot them.

Useful background, but nothing staggering.

Several hacks pleaded that, whilst they had used ICP material, they had nevertheless flagged up the fact that sources had been supplied by the INC, and left it to the reader or viewer to judge.

Which, of course, poses a variation on the Andrew Gilligan/45 minute question: in presenting a third party allegation, how far is a news organisation to be deemed to be making that allegation itself?

However caveated, the mere fact that a 'reputable' media outlet puts out a story is bound to lend credibility to that story. The suspicion is raised that the journos have undisclosed sources of information by which they have checked that the information is basically kosher.

And, even where a story is broken in an amply caveated article, the echo chamber usually tends to water down or omit such shilly-shallying, and furnish only the red meat [1].

The questions arising that bother me most McCollam doesn't really deal with. Chalabi lies and cheats to become leader of his country: and US pols don't do likewise? Journos cream their jeans over cloak-and-dagger scoops, and think some caveat sprinkles cover their asses ethics-wise: so what is new?

It's the editors' role in the whole sorry business that needs much more attention: well before the war - perhaps from the mid-1990s - editors of the top papers will have known or suspected that Chalabi was a crook. So, in waving through INC-sourced pieces, they were not dupes but turning a Nelson's eye to their dubious foundations.

Many may not have sought the invasion of Iraq as Hearst sought the Spanish-American War; but the benefits of going along with an administration hell-bent on war were, I suspect, deemed well worth the risk of Chalabi's material proving a bust. (For the propensity of the media at the time to go along, one might take the infamous March 6 2003 Bush presser.)

And what, exactly, has been the cost of going along? A loss of circulation? Cut-backs in advertising? One might compare, say, the truly abject New York Times with the somewhat more assertive Washington Post [2]: has the Times suffered for its (relative) cowardice [3]?

My guess is that analysis would struggle to falsify the null hypothesis at the 95% level: if Times indicators have dipped, showing correlation, let alone causation, with its kow-tow to the administration, with so many confounding factors, would surely be next to impossible.

No one has resigned; Judith Miller has yet to be transferred to the obituaries section; Jack Shafer, yours truly, old uncle Dan Okrent and all have huffed and puffed; and the caravan has moved on.

Besides, there's a definite fin de régime feel to things in Washington (so far as one can determine from 3,000 miles away): with President Kerry it would, to an extent, be Year Zero, Morning in America, the Late Unpleasantness grandfathered if not forgotten. With a second term Bush, a wholesale change of personnel - and a marked reluctance to invade the bejasus out of the lesser breeds - would secure a similar drawing of the line.

There is something of a parallel, perhaps, with the mood on the Clinton impeachment after the event: with folks on both sides of the aisle ecstatic that the lunacy was finally over, with no desire for inquests [4].

The awful truth is that, in general, the current Siamese twin relationship between the media and the Administration works well for both sides. Separating Siamese twins is often a tricky business, where a number of organs are shared; independence is, of course, preferable - on the ground of human dignity alone. But twins as interconnected as the hacks and the pols?

  1. McCollam refers to Judith Miller's December 20 2001 A nation challenged: Secret sites; Iraqi tells of renovations at sites for chemical and nuclear arms as a case in point. (The list of questionable Times WMD pieces.)

  2. Characterisations according to my impression; and may relate more to the post-war period than earlier times.

  3. See note 2.

  4. The talk one hears on Air America of taking back Congress to start top-to-bottom committee investigations of Bush Administration misdeeds seems distinctly misjudged.


The desire of a new administration to start a fresh page with the media put me in mind of a line from Flanders and Swann's At The Drop of Another Hat, their second show, from c1963, happily transcribed online [1]. The pair have been touring in America:
I must say, wandering around..., things have come to a pretty underpass here in England while we've been away. It's small wonder to us that satire squats, hoof in mouth, under every bush. The purpose of satire, it has been rightfully said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cozy half-truth, and our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.

I recommend this site to social historians and others interested in plunging a thermometer into the rectum of mid-20th century English life.

The challenge is to footnote the references and allusions. For example, the reference to satire would be explained by online ferreting for (as a start) Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye, the Establishment Club and That Was The Week That Was.

(The site also has the lyrics and - vital! - the introductions to the songs for both At the Drop of a Hat and its sequel.)

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