Columns » Ernest Dumas

Momentous folly


Two remarkable events in the media world in the final days of May passed barely noticed. They deserved wider attention because they explain better than anything else does the most momentous folly of our time. First, Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted on Meet the Press that when he went before the United Nations in 2002 and made the dramatic case for invading Iraq much of the alarming information that he passed on to the world was misleading or just flat wrong and that he was embarrassed and deeply sorry for it. The administration fell for purposeful lies. The Bush administration does not admit mistakes. No one else in the administration joined him in the mea culpa. We now know that many if not most of the lies about weapons of mass destruction that were peddled by Powell, the president, vice president and Defense Department came from Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who hoped to be installed as the ruler after Iraq was conquered, and his "defectors." A Chalabi rule indeed was the administration's, but not Powell's, plan. This week the government was forced to admit that Chalabi has been passing on vital intelligence secrets learned from the administration to Iran, which almost certainly has cost American lives in Iraq. Bush has finally directed that they stop filling his pockets with American taxpayers' money. This was followed in a few days by a strange editor's note in The New York Times admitting that the newspaper fell for the same garbage in the months leading up to the invasion and afterward and passed it along on the front pages. The note also praised its own coverage generally, invited the rest of the media to share its failings and did not name the men and women whose shoddy reporting and editing had so tragically misled the country. Mainly, it was Judith Miller, the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning celebrity. The newspaper's ombudsman was not so delicate or forgiving. Lots of blame indeed could be spread around, notably at that other great "liberal" newspaper, the Washington Post, which supported Bush's determination to go to war, both editorially and in its news pages. The Post front page competed with Miller in reporting what knowledgeable sources in the government and outside were saying about biological and chemical weapons programs and Saddam Hussein's drive to have nuclear weapons ready to attack its neighbors and maybe the United States. The only reporter with a bona fide claim for a Pulitzer Prize in all this mess is Walter Pincus, a veteran Washington Post reporter, whose stories from that period stand the test of history. He reported that veteran intelligence officials below the political appointees disproved much of the bunk being put out by the administration and doubted the rest. His stories typically ran on page 17A. The Times and Post stories and the reinforcing editorials in these purportedly "liberal" establishment newspapers were vital in the drive for war. They provided a sort of circular cover for the president and the hawks in the administration. In one typical news cycle, the administration leaked damning evidence that Iraq was acquiring materials for nuclear bombs to Judith Miller, who reported it breathlessly on the front page of The New York Times. On Meet the Press later in the day, Vice President Cheney said "we do know with absolute certainty" that Saddam was procuring nuclear weapons material and he cited the Times as independent verification. "There's a story in the New York Times this morning. . .and I want to attribute it to the Times," he said. If Bush and the New York Times were on the same page, who could question it? Everything he and the Times reported that day turned out to be bunk. The Times' apologia mentioned the piece and lamented that the article had buried reference to some doubts about the information 1,700 words deep into the story and that the paper had buried on age 17A a follow-up story weeks later that cast serious doubts on it. The paper only hints weakly at a systemic cause for its failings on the most important story of our time: the reporters' relationship with officialdom and the newspaper's unwholesome respect for official authority. It said it should be more questioning of official sources and that it would try to be in the future. The Times has won more than one undeserved Pulitzer for passing on garbage that it should have questioned. A couple of years ago the Times had to write a similar mea culpa, this one even more indirect, for its deeply flawed coverage of the alleged conspiracy to pass along nuclear secrets to China. It should have written another one, along with the Washington Post, for their breathless reporting of Whitewater scandals, generally phony leaks from the special prosecutor's office and from older discredited sources. But they were after more Pulitzer Prizes. That is the other lesson from this tragedy that again will not be learned. The American media's insatiable thirst for awards and self-congratulation is not only corrupting but it can cost lives and the country's honor.

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