Another Media Mea Culpa For The War In Iraq

In a book review for Bob Woodward’s latest installment of his Bush chronicles, the New York Times’ Jill Abramson decides it’s time to salve her guilty conscience. Woodward’s “The War Within” serves as the impetus for her confessional.

Abramson reveals her misgivings regarding the Times’ coverage of the build up to war with Iraq after citing a passage from Woodward’s book wherein he admits that he had not done enough at the Washington Post to expose the weakness of the administration’s arguments for the existence of WMDs and for going to war. Abramson followed up that citation by saying…

“I was Washington bureau chief for The Times while this was happening, and I failed to push hard enough for an almost identical, skeptical article, written by James Risen. This was a period when there were too many credulous accounts of the administration’s claims about Iraq’s W.M.D.”

Thanks a lot. Another too late revelation of dereliction of duty that resulted in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Iraqi civilians. How exactly does this expression of regret compensate the victims of a disastrous and deadly war? How does it repair the damage done to both Iraq and America, who is now on the brink of bankruptcy partially due to having wasted a trillion dollars fighting an imaginary enemy.

This is not the first time that prominent figures in the press have sought absolution for their failures:

Woodward previously expressed these thoughts in an online chat:
“I think the press and I in particular should have been more aggressive in looking at the run-up to the Iraq war, and specifically the alleged intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction stockpiles.”

The New York Times issued this mea culpa:
“Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper […] while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.”

New York Times editor, Bill Keller personally apologized:
“I’ve had a few occasions to write mea culpas for my paper after we let down our readers in more important ways, including for some reporting before the war in Iraq that should have dug deeper and been more sceptical about Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction.”

CNN reporter Jessica Yellin weighed in with this bit of uncharacteristic honesty:
“The press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president’s high approval ratings. And my own experience at the White House was that the higher the president’s approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives.”

Even Bill O’Reilly announced that he was wrong (but it’s OK because, he says, everyone was wrong):
“Now I supported the action against Saddam because the Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, William Cohen, the CIA, British intelligence, and a variety of other intelligence agencies all told me Saddam was making dangerous weapons in violation of the first Gulf War cease-fire […] I was wrong in my assessment, as was everybody else.”

I am willing to concede that a lot of people, reporters and politicians alike, were wrong, but not everyone. There were many who opposed the war, who saw through the administration’s lies, who spoke out about the fraud that was being forced upon the nation. The sane objections were mostly confined to alternative sources that were ignored or ridiculed. But even the mainstreamers quoted above seemed to have known at the time that they were being less than responsible with regard to their reportorial obligations.

Now Abramson joins those who have seen the error of their ways. Or have they? Abramson is the Times’s managing editor for news, but this revelation appears in a book review rather than in the news pages. And there has been little evidence that the press has altered its behavior. Keller, the Times’ editor noted last year that…

“The administration has subsidised propaganda at home and abroad, refined the art of spin, discouraged dissent, and sought to limit traditional congressional oversight and court review.”

But even with knowledge of that, the administration’s press releases are often reprinted or broadcast virtually verbatim as news. Some of that can be seen in the current Wall Street affair that is characterized as a crisis that demands the immediate implementation of the White House’s untested and hysterical solutions.

It isn’t enough for these people to confess their sins and be on their way. I don’t want to sift through another collection of apologies for the next disaster that they feel so sorry for having misreported or ignored. They need to initiate real reform that addresses the root causes of these journalistic failures. And they need to fire those who have let down their papers, their readers, and their country. When steps like these are taken, I will start to take seriously their assertions of regret. Until then, they are still just covering up for themselves and the Washington insiders on whom they are pretending to report.

New York Times Editor Gets Religion – Lacks Faith

Last week Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, spoke at forum in London hosted by The Guardian. His remarks covered a lot of territory including journalistic craft, the financial travails of print media, the Internet and blogs, editorial independence, and the influence and manipulation of governments and their representatives. In one passage Keller delivered another apology for the abysmal mishandling of the Times’ coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

“I’ve had a few occasions to write mea culpas for my paper after we let down our readers in more important ways, including for some reporting before the war in Iraq that should have dug deeper and been more sceptical about Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction.”

That’s an admission of the obvious. But it doesn’t comport with a comment earlier in the speech wherein Keller confesses that he had not foreseen…

“…the catastrophe that the war in Iraq would become, whereas I – out of a combination of contrarianism and wishful thinking – thought the United States was capable of eliminating a murderous tyrant without making a lethal hash of it.”

That’s an entirely different explanation. He is no longer merely accepting responsibility for shoddy work and misplaced trust in administration flacks. He is now conceding that the paper’s editorial position at the time was that the invasion was warranted and winnable. And what the hell does he mean by contrarianism? To what position was his contrary? Virtually every media outpost was slinging the same administration hash, and even Congress overwhelmingly went along with the fallacies peddled by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, etc. There were pockets of dissent in the populace, but even there the mood for war was palpable. However, that was due, at least in part, to the absence of honest reporting from fully compromised media relics like the Times.

Now take a moment to read this paragraph from Keller’s speech:

“Whatever you think of its policies, the current administration has been more secretive, more mistrustful of an inquisitive press, than any since the Nixon administration. It has treated freedom of information requests with contempt, asserted sweeping claims of executive privilege, even reclassified material that had been declassified. The administration has subsidised propaganda at home and abroad, refined the art of spin, discouraged dissent, and sought to limit traditional congressional oversight and court review. The war in Iraq alone is a case study of the administration’s determination to dominate the flow of information – from the original cherry-picking of intelligence, to the deliberate refusal to hear senior military officers when they warned of the potential for chaos, to the continually inflated claims about the progress in building up an indigenous Iraqi army.”

You have to wonder when Keller arrived at these conclusions. Millions of Americans have known these things for years. We have been fighting to expose this destructive and anti-democratic regime since they stole the election in 2000. We have had little support from the likes of Keller and the New York Times. On the contrary, we have been on the receiving end of endless criticism and ridicule. We have been characterized as everything from partisan to extremist to fringe to unpatriotic, and worse.

Now Keller articulates exactly what we’ve been saying all along. While it’s good to hear, there are a couple of egregious omissions. First of all, he has not retracted any of the disparaging allusions to extremism or treason, and he never acknowledges that those of us who were longstanding dissidents were right from the start. Secondly, he has not altered the editorial stance of his paper one iota in light of the opinions he now asserts above. They are still pushing the administration’s agenda; they still employ the reporters who made all the mistakes for which he is supposedly apologizing; they are committing the same errors with regard to Iran that they made with Iraq by trumpeting BushCo’s warmongering and regurgitating their unsupported allegations.

To top it all off, I think it is interesting that Keller delivered this address to an industry audience in England. Now, I have no problem with his going abroad to deliver this speech. What concerns me is that the link I provided above goes to the site of The Guardian newspaper in the UK. Guess who has not covered this speech … That’s right, the New York Times! Even their rivals at the Washington Post published excerpts from the speech (courtesy of Dan Froomkin) and linked to the full text at The Guardian. Doesn’t Keller think that his fellow citizens here in the states deserve to hear what his thoughts are about issues that are critical to his customers and his country? Was there a deliberate decision to shield Americans from views that are critical of the President and his administration? Is this a demonstration of his lack of faith in his people as well as his profession? That’s a question Keller raises himself:

“In the end, I believe the gravest danger to the future of newspapers is not a hostile administration in Washington, not the acid rain of criticism, not a business model upended by new technology, it is a loss of faith, a failure of resolve on the part of the people who make newspapers.”

I tend to agree that faith in the adversarial role of the Fourth Estate has waned as the press finds more companionship with the institutions they should be covering than with the public they were intended to serve. The interests of the corporate media and the corporate-sponsored government are so intertwined that hopes for an independent press corps that checks the abuses of government seems more remote every day. However, in that respect there seems to be no lack of resolve.

If Keller truly believes the things he said last week he needs to bring that message back the the U.S. and let people know about it. He needs to specifically outline the changes he’ll make to the paper to prevent similar failures from occurring in the future. He needs to educate his reporters (and his readers) as to the deceptive practices of this administration and the potential for future administrations for engaging in the same deceptions. If he truly believes that those who hold the reins of power will stoop to manipulate the people and the press, then he needs to make sure that we are less vulnerable to their machinations. At the very least, he must not allow his reporters to be fooled the way that he now admits he was. And if he will not do these simple things, then who knows what he truly believes? And who knows what we can believe if we read it in the Times?

Shareholders Are Killing Newspapers

This week’s episode of PBS’ “News War,” includes remarks by the vice-chairman of Ariel Capital Management, the fifth largest investor in the Tribune Company, which owns 23 television stations and 11 newspapers. Charles Bobrinskoy’s comments present a picture-perfect illustration of everything that’s wrong with the newspaper business. Here are some examples of why stock pickers (never a particularly reliable bunch) should not be allowed to shape the future of media:

“People want to read about what’s going on in their own communities, and the Web usually can’t provide that. The Web can tell you what’s going on in Iraq; the Web can tell you what’s going on in Washington, D.C. It can’t tell you what’s going on in Des Moines if you live in Des Moines.”
Somebody ought to tell Bobrinskoy about Iowa Blogs. In fact, Bobrinskoy could use a remedial course in Internet 101. While the newspaper’s intended audience is much more narrowly focused than the worldwide scope of the net, that audience is no less interested in the world outside the city limits than it is in the affairs of city hall. Just because the web has a global reach doesn’t mean it cannot serve a community. Conversely, just because a newspaper has a local audience doesn’t mean it should ignore the rest of the globe. But that is exactly what Bobrinskoy proposes:

“Readers care about the local entertainment industry, which they don’t do a very good job of covering in the L.A. Times. They care about things like fashion, which The New York Times does a very good job of covering; the L.A. Times doesn’t. They should care about issues like immigration.”
Thanks for telling us what we should care about. Bobrinskoy goes on to make some remarkably contradictory comments about what makes a paper successful. He rebukes the L. A. Times for not being to local enough, then complains that, “The paper, in hindsight, probably could have used a little bit more management out of Chicago.” Continuing to bash the Times for its global perspective, Bobrinskoy advocates reductions in news staff and the elimination of foreign bureaus:

“It’s trying to report on why Bush went to war in Iraq instead of what’s going on in Southern California” [… and …] “the L.A. Times could focus on providing news, better news, investigative news on what’s happening in L.A. City Hall and be more focused and provide a better, higher-quality news product. And allow CNN and Fox to cover Istanbul. And then we’d all be better off. The shareholders would make a better return, and my news coverage would be better.”
I’m sure the shareholders would be quite happy if we were to divvy up news coverage so that the Times would get L. A., give Western Europe to CNN, the Middle East to Fox, Asia to Reuters, etc. Every news organization would have a geographic monopoly and consumers would get a single, unchallenged view of world affairs. This plan would, to the delight of shareholders, eliminate competition in both the financial markets as well as the marketplace of ideas. But this plan completely ignores the fact that most original reporting (estimated to be as much as 80%) is currently is done by newspapers, not CNN or, God forbid, Fox. Surprisingly, Bobrinskoy feels the need to go further and insult every reader of the L. A. Times and, in fact, every consumer of local newspapers:

“Do we really need the L.A. Times devoting the resources it has to [international events]” [… and …] “We’re saying there’s a role for probably three national newspapers — The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today. Each has its own niche; all three are national newspapers. We don’t think there’s any demand for a fourth. The L.A. Times is trying to be that fourth.”
I’m going to let Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times answer that:

“…the idea that the L.A. Times is going to say to readers, ‘Buy the L.A. Times, we will tell you what’s going on with the traffic and the schools and the cops and the local stuff, and if you want to know what’s going on in Iraq, go buy The New York Times,’ that doesn’t sound like a terribly sound business approach either. And if I were a Los Angelino, I would be a little insulted by that. Why are the two mutually exclusive?”

They are not mutually exclusive, and I am insulted. We can only hope that the views of investment bankers like Bobrinskoy are rejected for the low-brow, short-term stupidity they represent. His logic is flawed and dangerous and only accelerates the rapid concentration of media voices into small groups of powerful, multinational corporations whose loyalties are bound to owners and shareholders, rather than to consumers and citizens.

Shooting The Messenger

No, this is not another swipe at Dick Cheney for shooting a guy in the face. This time the White House has a bigger target than quail.

The Bush administration has begun investigating employees at the CIA, the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies, in an attempt to stem leaks such as those about the illegal, warrantless, wiretapping that was recently disclosed. In a deliberate act of intimidation, the investigations also extend to journalists and their sources.

Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the New York Times told reporters from the Washington Post:

“There’s a tone of gleeful relish in the way they talk about dragging reporters before grand juries, their appetite for withholding information, and the hints that reporters who look too hard into the public’s business risk being branded traitors. I don’t know how far action will follow rhetoric, but some days it sounds like the administration is declaring war at home on the values it professes to be promoting abroad.”

It’s tough to argue with Keller’s statement, but it’s also tough to ignore the irony. After all, it was Keller’s newspaper that withheld the NSA wiretapping story for over a year at the request of the White House. It was also the New York Times’ reporter, Judith Miller, that published pre-Iraq war propaganda from sanctioned leaks by the Bush administration in order to shore up support for the invasion. She later went to jail to protect another approved administration leaker who sought to intimidate a critic by exposing his wife’s role as a covert CIA operative. The administration doesn’t seem too interested in solving those leaks and has publicly opposed investigations of them. So there is some selectivity as to which leaks stir their ire.

But Keller’s comments draw another kind of irony with regard to Bush’s hostility to values that he seeks to distribute to the rest of the world. Does Keller need a refresher on the numerous ideals of democracy that Bush is shredding here at home? How about…

  • The Patriot Act’s assault on privacy.
  • Planting stories in the Iraqi media.
  • Planting stories (video news releases) in the U.S. media.
  • Abu Ghraib detention and torture.
  • Guantanomo Bay detention and torture.
  • Re-classifying previously de-classified public documents.
  • Free speech zones.
  • Election fraud.

Keller’s surprise is, at best, disingenuous since he was an accomplice to much of the administration’s assault on democratic values. He has helped Bush preside over the most secrecy-obsessed White House since Nixon. Now his chickens are coming home to roost as the Justice Department is contemplating prosecuting journalists for espionage.

The truth is that BushCo’s convenient revelations about the evils of leaks are really just its most recent attempt to further paralyze free speech and neuter the press. And the press, by cozying up to the administration for so many years has left little room for itself to muster a defense. It would be easy to say that they are just getting what they deserve, but you can’t be too flippant with matters like these. Because its the American people who are not getting what we deserve – an independent and aggressively curious press that will fight for truth in the public interest.