There’s nothing I hate more than hypocrisy. Unfortunately, I see it every single day in our news media. Who controls the majority of our news media is primarily to blame and the number of people who control it has been shrinking for decades. In 1983 there were 50 companies who controlled the majority of our news and information and now there are only 6. And when such consolidation happens, it means fewer individuals shape the news and that news will inevitably be shaped by their individual opinions, journalism be damned. Let me give you the perfect example.
Yesterday, I heard that Robert Redford had a new movie out called “Truth” about Rathergate. Some background–You may recall that Rathergate refers to the scandal that ended the long illustrious career of newsman Dan Rather. Two months before the 2004 Presidential election, “60 Minutes” aired a Rather segment critical of President Bush’s service record in the Air National Guard in the early 1970’s based on a set of memos called the “Killian Documents”. The memos turned out to be forgeries and Rather retired, quite unwillingly, a year later. The award-winning producer who broke the Abu Ghraib prison tortures, Mary Mapes, was fired and never worked in the field again. Mary Mapes did write a book, however, and the film is based on that book.
Interested in the movie I viewed the trailer online and saw that the New York Daily News had a review so I read that too. It panned the movie and used it as a platform to excoriate Mapes and Rather, as if the destruction of their careers had not been enough punishment. I would like to think that such a scolding comes from a wellspring of journalistic integrity and a desire to protect the profession. After a little more=e digging, I decided, unfortunately, that’s probably not what is going on here.
The author of the piece is Don Kaplan, TV editor for the NY Daily News, for whom I struggled to find any bio information. However, what I did find is that the paper is owned and run by billionaire Mortimer Zuckerman, a long time supporter of the Democratic party, who also happens to be a big supporter of Israel and Jewish causes. He has been accused by John Mearsheimer, Harvard political science professor, as being part and parcel of the “Israeli Lobby” in the U.S. Zuckerman’s response in the conservative paper, the New York Sun, to that accusation was as follows:
I would just say this: The allegations of this disproportionate influence of the Jewish community remind me of the 92-year-old man sued in a paternity suit. He said he was so proud; he pleaded guilty.
While I won’t speak about Professor Mearsheimer’s accusation as to whether Zuckerman and the Israeli Lobby have an outsized influence on US foreign policy (although I do have an opinion), I think it is fair to say that Zuckerman has a bias towards Israel when it comes to foreign policy. At this point you’re asking, what does this have to do with Rathergate and a journalistic scolding disguised as a movie review? Well I’m getting there, be patient.
In the lead up to the Iraq War one of the biggest and loudest cheerleaders supporting the Bush Administration’s desire to invade was Mortirmer Zuckerman. While the UN was saying we needed more time to investigate whether Saddam actually had WMD, Zuckerman took a very public stance saying that we didn’t need a smoking gun and assured everyone that Hussein was “clearly lying” about having abandoned WMDs. According to Robert Wright of The New York Times , Zuckerman’s writing during the build up to the invasion was “melodramatic, borderline-hysterical” about the imminent threat that Saddam posed to the U.S.
What did Zuckerman and many others base their opinions on, the opinions that shaped the national debate and led us into a disastrous war? Their world-altering opinions were based on information coming out of the White House that was in turn being trumpeted by papers like the NY Daily News and the New York Times, and at the Times specifically by Judith Miller. Indeed, while Judy Miller cooled her heels in jail for Contempt of Court she had visits from her rich and powerful friends in the Israeli Lobby including Mr. Zuckerman. I’m not making an accusation based entirely on association, there is plenty of evidence that Zuckerman’s published opinions were the same as Miller’s and that he knew the same people she used as sources and that they have both attended public and television events to discuss their shared opinions over the years.
Now we get to the meat of matter. Why was Miller in jail and why is it important to my reasoning here? She was incarcerated for refusing to be questioned by a federal prosecutor regarding her sources during the grand jury investigation into the outing of CIA officer, Valerie Plame. We learned later that her source was actually “Scooter” Libby, Assistant to President George W. Bush. We also know that many of her sources were people who had some history with the administration or were actively in the administration per her own admission in a recent book and in recent interviews. This demonstrates the types of sources she used in her reporting before the Iraq War that was so instrumental in convincing the people that we were justified in our invasion.
Judith Miller’s defense, which has been repeated by Zuckerman in his continuing justification for the Iraq War, was that they’d successfully relied on those sources before in regards to other stories and felt they were accurate. Miller was part of the NY Times team that won the Pulitizer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for it’s 2001 coverage of global terrorism before and after the 9/11 attacks. She says she used many of the same sources. Relying on a set of experts, who were essentially Administration lackeys and subject matter experts who had worked for and owed their standing to said Administration, for explanatory reporting the birth and growth of Al Qaeda when that group had openly taken responsibility for 9/11 is NOT the same as relying on that same set of people to develop a casus belli.
Furthermore, relying on those experts when the information about Al Qaeda could be found elsewhere and easily cross-checked is NOT the same as the run up to the Iraq war when the ONLY intelligence we had was being filtered and massaged by the Administration, essentially a single source. In the debate in the U.K. over whether to join us in Iraq much was made about the fact that the information came from a single source, but not here in the good ‘ol USA. To our everlasting regret, the media did not cross-check the information–and this includes Zuckerman.
And there WERE other sources to be tapped. What about Joe Wilson and the trip to Niger? Judith didn’t investigate the President’s claim that Saddam tried to buy uranium in Africa or she would have discovered Joe Wilson. What about Richard Clarke? He has said that from the day Bush entered the White House Clarke was warning Condolezza Rice about Al Qaeda but she and the President were already fixated on Saddam. Rice and Bush said that Al Qaeda was just a distraction from Saddam. The CIA repeatedly told them not to ignore Al Qaeda and that Saddam was the real distraction. In fact, they were so certain of the impending 9/11 attacks and so NOT worried about Saddam that they did a couple of telling things. First they asked Joe Wilson, a non-agent, a non-CIA employee and a diplomat, to go to Niger and investigate whether Saddam had bought enriched uranium there. If they felt it was a serious lead, they would have sent a team. Sure enough, the rumor was just that and Wilson reported that fact to the CIA at the time and later as an opinion piece in the NY Times in 2003. That didn’t stop President Bush from claiming that Saddam tried to purchase uranium in Africa. The second thing they did occurred on July 9, 2001. The CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center staffers were told in a meeting by a senior official that they should resign so that when the Al Qaeda attack occurred they couldn’t be blamed. Ironically, the Administration did just that. So, it was abundantly clear to the CIA that Al Qaeda was the imminent threat and Saddam was not.
Why didn’t Judith Miller check with any of those other sources? If she could get high level sources in the Administration wanting to go into Iraq, why could she not find people that thought we shouldn’t because there were plenty of those both inside and outside of the Administraton? She had Scooter Libby as a source and he was involved in the outing and/or cover-up of Valerie Plame, wife of Joe Wilson. The CIA and Wilson was practically doing a jig under her nose. Why wouldn’t you try to get both sides of the story because we were talking about going to war–it was too important to get wrong. War is costly and convincing us to go to war based on lies is ethically abhorrent.
And later when the Administration waved around articles by the likes of Zuckerman, Miller, Robert Novak and others saying ‘see here’s proof, Saddam is an imminent threat’ why didn’t she publicly say something like ‘wait a minute, it doesn’t work like that’. That’s like me reporting as an anonymous source to my local paper that the moon is made out of cheese. They in turn report ‘our sources say the moon is made out of cheese’, and then I take that paper as proof to my friends and family and say, ‘see I told you the moon was made out of cheese’. It was her’s and their obligation as journalists and as citizens of a country about to go to war to get the opposing side of the story and failing that, to stand up and say something when they used their articles as “proof”.
Another defense that Miller, Zuckerman, and others use to excuse their shoddy journalism (and in my opinion, spectacular failure in their civic duty) was to say “but Saddam wanted to hurt us and would have if he was given the opportunity”. That’s some specious bullpucky there. If intention and desire were the criteria by which we establish a case for war we would have to bomb half the world. And while we are still hearing all kinds of excuses and non-apologies from the likes of Miller and Zuckerman (who can forget Miller’s smirking interview with Jon Stewart), what happened in Rathergate? Rather admitted he made a mistake in judgment and apologized and Mapes, while she didn’t apologize did admit she made mistakes.
So what was the result of the shoddy and agenda-filled reporting in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq? The Iraq War resulted in over 36,000 dead and wounded U.S. soldiers, killed and wounded over 100,000 Iraqi civilians (some claims are as high 600,000) and displaced 5 million more, and we spent $1.7 trillion of the national treasure. What were the consequences of Dan Rather’s story? Dan Rather’s very distinguished and respected career in journalism ended far too soon and Mary Mapes had her professional livelihood destroyed. It had no effect whatsoever on the election. Let me be clear here…I’m not advocating for Redford’s movie, nor justifying what Rather and Mapes did. In both cases they made huge journalistic mistakes, that could have affected (and in one case did affect) the course of our nation.
The point is that Zuckerman and his paper have some kind of nerve to spank Dan Rather and Mary Mapes for not doing their due diligence and failing to verify their sources, when he and many other powerful, influential people printed stories while failing to do the same thing. Moreover, it just goes to show you that as the number of people who control the news and journalism in this country continues to shrink, this kind of hypocrisy will not only continue, it will get worse and will lead this nation into more disastrous decisions.