Drowning Out the Real Issues

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005 6:28 AM

A certain and clear pattern has emerged when a damaging accusation or claim against the Bush administration or the Republican-led Congress is publicized: Bush supporters laser in on a weakness, fallacy or inaccuracy in the story's sourcing while diverting all attention from the issue at hand to the source or the accuser in the story.

Often this tactic involves efforts to delegitimize the entire news media based on the mistakes or sloppy reporting of a few. We saw this with the discrediting of CBS's story on irregularities in President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service in the 1970s. Although the CBS "scoop" was based on faked documents, the administration's response and backlash from both conservative and mainstream media essentially relieved Bush of having to deal with the story. In other words, the allegedly "liberal" media dropped the story like a hot rock.

We saw ex-members of the Bush administration -- former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill, former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John M. Shalikashvili and former director of faith-based charities John J. DiIulio Jr. --  similarly attacked by conservative bloggers and columnists. The mainstream media eventually backed away from coverage of their claims as well.

And of course, we saw this most recently with the Newsweek debacle, in which the news magazine repeated an accusation that military interrogators had flushed a Koran down a toilet. The Newsweek report was used by militants in Afghanistan to incite violent protests in which 17 people died. The ensuing backlash among conservative critics has included accusations that the report proves that media hate the military, hate the United States, hate George W. Bush and purposefully lied to hurt all of the above.

The National Review's Rich Lowry wrote Newsweek "bought into shady assumptions, partly because of the media's dire view of the U.S. military.  And so the media party continues its decline." The Wall Street Journal editorial opined that the error stemmed from media's and Newsweek's "mistrust of the military that goes back to Vietnam." And conservative media watchdog L. Brent Bozell III wrote that it was "tragic that the liberal media are willing to believe the most exotic rumors about the depredations of President Bush and the U.S. military, long before they've been verified and long after they've been retracted."

This particular "exotic rumor," of course, comes post-Abu Ghraib and in the wake of reports from the International Red Cross going back at least two years about mishandling of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay.

Some liberal Web sites and bloggers have been no less breathlessly hyperbolic, accusing the entire "corporate" mainstream media of caving in to conservative and White House pressure -- a far-fetched notion given the extent of reporting about Abu Ghraib and other abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

The liberal Web site Buzzflash.com has been screaming about Newsweek's retraction for a week. Liberal writer Greg Palast wrote in his blog: "But I don't want to leave out our President. His aides report that George Bush is "angry" about the report -- not the desecration of the Koran, but the reporting of it. And so long as George is angry and Condi appalled, Newsweek knows what to do: swiftly grab its corporate ankles and ask the White House for mercy."

True, the Newsweek story was based on a single source, who turned out not to  be as reliable as Newsweek thought he or she was. But the conservatives who view the Newsweek report as proof positive that a cabal of liberal baddies is out to persecute powerless conservatives are conveniently ignoring the fact that the main Newsweek reporter in question, Michael Isikoff, was among the people most responsible for Bill Clinton's impeachment. (It was the Drudge Report's item about Isikoff's spiked story and his subsequent stories that set off the Monicagate frenzy.) Also, Isikoff's questionable use of a single source is fairly standard practice among Washington journalists of all ideological stripes.

For conservatives and liberals alike, attacking the media has become a cottage industry, the very thing that drives both talk radio and blogs. Delegitimizing the media is seen as a legitimate way by some to protect those you support politically from the media's critical eye.

To be clear about something, the Bush administration's attacks on Newsweek don't represent a new phenomenon. The Clinton administration often attacked its accusers and criticized unflattering media reports. The big difference is that the Clinton administration didn't have any such supportive echo chamber of talk radio and blogs that now exist to amplify it.

It was almost surreal listening to White House spokesman Scott McClellan describing the fallout from the now-retracted Newsweek.

"The report had real consequences," McClellan said last Monday. "People have lost their lives. Our image abroad has been damaged. There are some who are opposed to the United States and what we stand for who have sought to exploit this allegation. It will take work to undo what can be undone."

It was equally mind boggling listening to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who used information from a now discredited source known as "Curveball" to take make the case for war against Iraq, calling out Newsweek: "Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny. Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations."

It was almost as if the Newsweek fiasco had occurred in a vacuum, or in an alternate reality, where the Iraq war, fought over non-existent weapons of mass destruction, had never occurred. The scenario unfolded over the past two weeks in a Twilight Zone-like atmosphere in which an administration that has held neither itself nor any of its underlings accountable for a war that has so far cost more than 1,600 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives worked itself into a tizzy for a brief report in a news magazine -- based on an anonymous source -- that turned out to be unsubstantiated.

It's a curious line of attack from an administration known for rarely admitting a mistake.

In this alternate reality universe, the president never bestowed upon former director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, who told the president that the Iraq WMD intelligence was a "slam dunk," the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.

In this alternative reality universe, Vice President Cheney never suggested that the evidence of ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were "overwhelming." In this alternate reality universe, the president never warned that Iraq was seeking "yellowcake" uranium from Nigeria to build a nuclear weapon.

In this alternative reality universe, former Secretary of State Powell did not go to the U.N. to make an extensive argument about Iraq's renewed WMD program. In this alternate reality universe, America's image with Arabs and Muslims was pristine until Newsweek showed up, with its little Periscope item, and ruined everything.

This is all hyperbole, of course. This is not to suggest that the media shouldn't be held accountable for its mistakes. It should.

Some mistakes, such as the one Dan Rather made, are more serious and compounded by a string of mistakes that include not quickly acknowledging error. The Newsweek mistake is something that could have happened to almost any journalist who relies or has relied on a single source for information.

"There but for the grace of God go I," most Washington reporters are saying this week.

But is that proof of liberal conspiracy?

"Excuse me, guys, but this is craziness," wrote David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, on Thursday. "I used to write for Newsweek. I know Mike Isikoff and the editors. And I know about liberals in the media. The people who run Newsweek are not a bunch of Noam Chomskys with laptops. Not even close. Whatever might have been the cause of their mistakes, liberalism had nothing to do with it."

The historic role of the free press in free democratic societies is that of government watchdog. There have always been journalistic mistakes, controversies and scandals, and there always will be, as long as media are run by human beings. Today, however, what's clearly objectionable is how those mistakes are being used to deflect attention from more important government and political scandals and controversies.

Some conservative bloggers have suggested that the media should never criticize or raise critical questions of the military in wartime. Some have extended that criticism, conveniently, to cover the president's wartime policies. But that's such a different standard than what most journalists are taught. No wonder people think most reporters are liberal. It's because journalism is in itself, as a profession, by definition liberal.

"I think you can second guess whether Newsweek should have had two sources or not," Thomas G. Weston, a 35-year career U.S. diplomat who left his post as ambassador to Cyprus last year and now teaches at Georgetown University, told me. "You will always have, if you have a free press . . . to deal with stories that can have very adverse reactions, both in our own public and other publics in the world. I think that's one of the costs we bear for having a free press."

Whatever the case, had the White House accepted the same kind of accountability it now seeks from Newsweek, Bush would have taken complete responsibility for the faulty WMD claims, rather than blaming the intelligence community. He would have accepted Rumsfeld's resignation last year. And he never would have given Tenet the Medal of Freedom.

Since this is the accountability era, and it is widely agreed upon that Newsweek should account for its errors and apologize for its mistakes, perhaps we can get back to applying similarly stringent requirements on the elected officials who make grave decisions, such as whether to go to war.

When the media finish scrutinizing Newsweek, it should get back to asking tough questions of the Bush administration. Questions like:

  • Who should be held responsible for the faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that led the United States to declare war against Iraq?
  • Why has the president not apologized for warning America that Iraq presented an imminent threat, when that turned out to be the case?
  • Will Rumsfeld, who claimed prior to the war to know the precise locations of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, personally apologize to the families of the troops who died in the search for those weapons?
  • Given that McClellan has suggested that Newsweek editors need to go on Arab TV and explain and apologize for their errors, will Bush also go on Arab television to explain and apologize for the mistakes made in gathering and analyzing the pre-war intelligence?
  • Will the administration, which downplayed the costs of the war in Iraq, publicly apologize to taxpayers now that the costs have already exceeded $300 billion?
  • Some will argue that such questions are irrelevant or miss the point because Bush's bold action in Iraq got rid of a tyrant who was abusing his own people and because it will eventually lead to the spread of democracy in the area. Both may be true. But the case for war was built neither on humanitarianism nor on spreading democracy. Those arguments were, at most, used to bolster the main case, which was that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction and presented an imminent threat to America and its allies.

    Some will also argue that the media only push aggressively to investigate Republican administrations. That's a difficult case to make. A simple Lexis search shows, for instance, that the Washington Post ran 415 stories about Monicagate on its front page in the 1998 calendar year.

    Some on the left will argue that the Clinton scandal was trumped up, overblown, media madness. I disagree. It was an important story and deserved the front-page treatment it was given. But it also seems true that questions about a war that was fought on an acknowledged false premise are at least as important as questions about one president's efforts to lie about a consensual affair with another adult.

    © 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive