Journalistic Bomb

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 23, 2005 10:21 AM

Every once in awhile, someone reports a story that just seems way out there.

And you wonder: Could this possibly be true ? Or is it plain old media sensationalism?

That's how I felt about this British tabloid report that President Bush considered bombing al-Jazeera.

Let's say that Bush despised the Arab satellite channel, notwithstanding the fact that some administration officials have granted interviews to al-Jazeera. Let's say he considered al-Jazeera to be a hotbed of al-Qaeda sympathizers. Could the president of the United States have conceivably believed it would have been a good idea to blow up the offices of a news organization that is respected in much of the Arab world, killing innocent people in the process? Would he have sent American fighter planes into Qatar, a Middle East ally? Could he have thought this would somehow advance U.S. foreign policy at a time when we're trying to persuade Iraqis of the virtues of democracy?

I'm sorry, it just doesn't add up. (Yes, I know the U.S. bombed al-Jazeera's Kabul office during the 2001 war, but I have no reason to disbelieve the explanation that it was an accident.)

In any event, judge for yourself. Here's the Daily Mirror story:

"President Bush planned to bomb Arab TV station al-Jazeera in friendly Qatar, a 'Top Secret' No 10 memo reveals.

"But he was talked out of it at a White House summit by Tony Blair, who said it would provoke a worldwide backlash.

"A source said: 'There's no doubt what Bush wanted, and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it.' Al-Jazeera is accused by the US of fuelling the Iraqi insurgency.

"The attack would have led to a massacre of innocents on the territory of a key ally, enraged the Middle East and almost certainly have sparked bloody retaliation.

"A source said Monday night: 'The memo is explosive and hugely damaging to Bush. He made clear he wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere. Blair replied that would cause a big problem.' "

So what the Mirror has is a source. No memo. A Cabinet Office staffer, however, has been charged with illegally leaking the memo to a former aide to a member of Parliament.

Hours later, the BBC carried the denial:

"The White House has dismissed claims George Bush was talked out of bombing Arab television station al-Jazeera by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"The allegations were made by an unnamed source in the Daily Mirror newspaper.

"A White House official said: 'We are not going to dignify something so outlandish with a response.'"

Says al-Jazeera : "Aljazeera has said in a news statement that it is investigating the report and urged the US and British governments to challenge it."

Moving right along . . . Slate's Fred Kaplan says the media are missing the nuances on Murtha:

"Everyone in Washington seems to agree that Rep. John Murtha's proposal for getting out of Iraq is a bad idea. But everyone is wrong in describing just what it is that he proposes.

"Take a close look at Murtha's now-infamous statement of Nov. 17. You will not find the words 'withdrawal,' 'pullout,' or their myriad synonyms. Instead, he calls for a 'redeployment' of U.S. troops -- which may seem like a euphemism for withdrawal but in fact is very different. Toward the end of his statement, Murtha lays out the elements of what he calls his 'plan':

"To immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces. To create a quick reaction force in the region. To create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines. To diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq.

"He doesn't elaborate on any of these ideas, but it's clear they don't add up to 'cut and run.' True, his final line reads, 'It is time to bring them home,' but his plan suggests he wants to bring, at most, only some of them home. The others are to be 'redeployed' in the quick-reaction forces hovering just offshore."

At the same time, you can't fight a war from offshore.

Ed Morrissey at Captains Quarters cites a report challenging Murtha's past:

"Newsmax reported that Rep. John Murtha, the former Marine who sent Washington into a firestorm last week with a demand to withdraw American forces from Iraq, has a history of demanding retreats. They claim that Murtha himself took credit for the withdrawal of American forces from Somalia following the 'Black Hawk Down' incident, a withdrawal that allegedly inspired al-Qaeda's leaders to pursue active attacks on American assets around the world:

" After terrorists attacked U.S. troops in Mogadishu, Somalia 12 years ago, anti-Iraq war Democrat, Rep. John Murtha urged then-President Clinton to begin a complete pullout of U.S. troops from the region.

"Clinton took the advice and ordered the withdrawal -- a decision that Osama bin Laden would later credit with emboldening his terrorist fighters and encouraging him to mount further attacks against the U.S. . . .

" Two weeks later, after 18 U.S. Rangers were killed in the battle of Mogadishu, Murtha visited U.S. forces in Somalia. Upon his return he proclaimed to the world that the Mogadishu defeat had a devastating impact on the Rangers' morale. . . . Murtha said the U.S. had to no choice but to pull out now, explaining, 'There's no military solution. Some of them will tell you [that] to get [warlord Mohamed Farrah] Aidid is the solution. I don't agree with that.'

"The comments were eerily similar to Murtha's assessment of U.S involvement in Iraq last week, when he declared, 'the U.S. cannot accomplish anything further militarily. It is time to bring [the troops] home.'

"Newsmax doesn't have the greatest reliability, but when it reports on previous public statements it usually quotes accurately. . . . If this is accurate, it shows that far from being a Democratic hawk who just had a road-to-Damascus moment about Iraq, Murtha has a track record of the kind of cut-and-run that has created the problems we have with Islamofascists today."

Look who's sorry today for calling Murtha a coward: It's Mean Jean Schmidt:

"While I strongly disagree with his policy, neither Representative Bubp nor I ever wished to attack Congressman Murtha," she said in a statement. ''I only take exception to his policy position." She's right about Danny Bubp, an Ohio state rep who says he never said what Schmidt said he said.

Wait, this is even better: She's blaming the media!

"Rep. Jean Schmidt says her comments Friday on the floor of the U.S. House have been misinterpreted and that she has been made a scapegoat by a media disappointed that Congress didn't vote to withdraw troops from Iraq," reports the Dayton Daily News .

Gee, I could have sworn I heard her use "cowards" and "Murtha" in the same sentence.

Has Murtha changed the terms of the debate? Check out this Chicago Tribune piece:

"Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) injected himself Tuesday into the forefront of a growing bipartisan call to reappraise American foreign policy in Iraq, saying the U.S. should begin a gradual withdrawal of its troops next year so Iraqis become empowered to take charge of their country's fate.

"As he scolded the White House for what he called 'shameful' attempts to silence dissent about the war, Obama urged President Bush to look beyond politics and admit that mistakes were made in Iraq."

Some of DeLay's friends haven't abandoned him:

"A campaign fundraiser for embattled Rep. Tom DeLay postponed by Hurricane Rita in September is being rescheduled for Dec. 5 with Vice President Dick Cheney as the headliner." ($4,200 buys you a prime spot and picture with the veep.)

DeLay, meanwhile, keeps paying the lawyers, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

"A judge heard arguments Tuesday over whether the money-laundering and conspiracy case against Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) should be dismissed -- with the defense asserting that the charges were flawed and the prosecution arguing that the powerful lawmaker should be held accountable for circumventing election laws."

The New York Post doesn't seem to like the latest Capitol Hill maneuver:

"In the rush to head home for Thanksgiving, U.S. senators quietly agreed late last week to give themselves a $3,100 pay raise -- a month after they voted against it.

"The below-the-radar decision to swell their salary to $165,000 annually came via voice vote -- sparing a chamber full of presidential hopefuls like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton from going on the record in favor of it."

Yeah! All those greedy senators like . . . Hillary!

Have you noticed all the great press that Mark Warner is getting since his Democratic lieutenant governor was elected to succeed him? The New Republic's Michael Crowley has:

"So, Virginia Governor Mark Warner visited New Hampshire last weekend to much fanfare. I don't have a great sense of the guy (although I must confess skepticism about anyone who uses the word 'incent' as a verb). But Monday's coverage reminded me of a striking conversation I had recently with a young Democratic operative who knows everyone around town. She told me that Warner is the 2008 Democrat all her friends want to work for, and that the buzz reminds her of how people felt about John Edwards back around 2001.

"That's only worth so much, of course. But it does suggest that Warner will probably have an easy time snapping up talented campaign workers, which is one metric that can, er, incent political journalists to hype a candidate's early credibility."

Jay Rosen comes up with an unorthodox plan for the sale of Knight-Ridder.

"Knight-Ridder announces that rather than sell to another big company or get bought, it has another plan: to break itself up. It will sell all 32 newspapers it owns to local buyers who will pay a premium for the opportunity to own the local daily. If no such buyers are found to exist, there is no transaction. The plan is called the Main Street Strategy to distinguish it from Wall Street thinking.

"The goal of the plan is to maximize shareholder value. That means a total price equal to or better than what shareholders could be expected to realize from any of the options commonly talked about today in the industry and the press: takeover by another newspaper company, purchase by a private equity firm, or cutting quality further in order to halt the erosion in market share (the current strategy.) A second goal is to improve the probability that quality journalism will happen in the future in the 31 towns where Knight-Ridder operates newspapers.

"The strategy contends that local ownership is most likely to pay a premium price for each property, and also more likely to invest in quality down the road. To the plan's doubters one answer is: what strategy do you have for getting a premium price?"

But Jeff Jarvis says the nation's second largest newspaper chain (and much of the business) needs to re-invent itself.

"I have to disagree with Jay -- or at least get tougher than he does -- on a few key points:

"First, buying a paper as it stands today is a no-win deal. Newspapers are not growth businesses. Though profitable, they are shrinking businesses.

"So any owner who comes in will be forced to make no end of tough decisions: cutting back staff, including newsrooms, and shifting the business from the formerly high-margin and monopoly print world to the lower-margin and highly competitive online world. Those decisions will be costly, bringing severence and possibly shutdown liabilities, as well as considerable unpopularity.

"So I would challenge the business and editorial management and staffs of these newspapers to come up with their own tough and specific strategic plans so they can sell their future, not their past, to prospective buyers:

"Yes, they should plan their own cutbacks everywhere in the operation, including the newsroom.

"They should find the efficiencies that will allow them to increase the value of their products: Do we really need another movie critic? Do we really need to send our own guy to another damned golf tournament? Can we save money on the commodity news that takes up so much resource?"

Finally, at Open Source Media , a coalition designed to attract advertising for bloggers, Charles Johnson and Roger L. Simon are sort of rebranding:

"Once upon a time, some friends who met in the casual atmosphere of the blogosphere (us) got together and decided it would be groovy to start a blog company. 'We could call it Pajamas Media,' we said, referring to the now-famous quote by whatshisface, who disparaged bloggers as a bunch of guys sitting around in their sleepwear. Well, we were as surprised as anyone when we managed to raise a significant amount of capital to form said company.

"At our swanky launch party in the Rainbow Room at New York's Rockefeller Center on November 16, we changed out of our 'pajamas' both literally and figuratively. We went from being www.pajamasmedia.com to OSM(TM) Media, LLC, the OSM being short for Open Source Media. And oh, what a drubbing we took. Many, many readers pointed out to us that OSM(TM) was an oxymoron; the open source tech community expressed concern; and a very fine gentleman named Christopher Lydon at Open Source (www.radioopensource.org) politely pointed out that we might be trampling on his space. (We're sending him a pair of warm, fuzzy slippers, a heartfelt apology, and his name back, as we speak.)

"All of which, as it turns out, has led us to make a change for the better. We are re-assuming our identity as Pajamas Media. (Just give us a few days to sort the technical issues out.) In short, the whole experience of being caught with our pajamas down has been a bit embarrassing, but in the end, when we realized we could get our beloved name back, we were overjoyed. So a warm, hearty thanks to all of you who expressed your displeasure with our phony identity.

"So how did this happen in the first place? Back at the beginning, certain, shall we say, paternalistically minded parties (i.e., the guys in suits) decided that we should act like grownups, and being as yet somewhat immature -- at least as businesspeople -- we did as we were told."

You'd think bloggers , of all people, would ignore the suits.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive