Monday, August 25, 2008

Sources Said

Where would journalists be without sources? While reporters get the bylines that win awards, their best sources often risk loss of a job. Reporters used to honor whistleblowers’ commitment by doing hard-hitting exposes. That relationship soured with the war in Iraq. Many sources these days are taking their stories straight to the public, because self-important journalists by and large ignore or belittle them.

That’s what’s happened with many whistleblowers who challenge the official version of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Bush apologists dominating television talk shows and newspaper op-ed pages, dissenters issue books and blogs to get past a virtual news censorship of informed criticism of the War on Terrorism. The infrequent exceptions to this pattern of the US media muzzling savvy watchdogs are stunning for being so rare.

“Because of the Bush administration’s highly successful propaganda campaigns and a huge media failure in the United States, most Americans didn’t realize until recently how often the Bush administration has violated domestic and international law,” Ann Wright, a former State Department official who resigned in protest the day before the invasion of Iraq began, wrote in the preface to her recently published book, Dissent: Voices of Conscience.

Susan Dixon coauthored this collection of profiles of a number of former US diplomats and soldiers who challenged Bush’s war policies at the cost of their careers. In an interview with the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Dixon noted that “Much of what we know about the run-up to the Iraq war has come from whistleblowers. It’s also because of whistleblowers that Americans have learned about the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib, warrantless wiretapping in the U.S., etc. … The press can make the information so well-known that the administration cannot ignore it. As soon as CBS’s 60 Minutes broadcast some of the photos from Abu Ghraib, the Bush Administration was forced to deal with the scandal.”

But the usual media pattern is to present war apologists as having the only acceptable position on the war. For instance, “On March 16, the New York Times presented a discussion of the Iraq War with ‘nine experts on military and foreign affairs’--all of whom supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq,” Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) noted on its web site in May.

“As FAIR asked in a March 17 Action Alert, why should the debate over the war … be restricted to those who made erroneous predictions about the invasion? FAIR supporters sent many emails to the paper, but we received no response. On May 4, the Week in Review section featured the exact same line-up of ‘experts,’ this time reacting to the fifth anniversary of George W. Bush's ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech. Thus, Times readers could hear from Richard Perle of the American Enterprise Institute--who, five years ago, penned an op-ed for USA Today (5/2/03) headlined ‘Relax, Celebrate Victory.’ The Times also shared the views of AEI's Danielle Pletka, who five years ago said on CNBC (5/2/03), ‘We just won a war in Iraq.’

“Over the course of the Iraq War, many commentators have pointed out that the pundits and analysts who pushed for the Iraq invasion in the first place are still dominant figures in the media debate over the war--as if the fact that they were wrong were unimportant, or even evidence of their seriousness.”

War critics of the sort in Wright’s book were left out of The New York Times’ gallery of experts, five years into a war that the administration had touted would be a swift victory. As Daniel Ellsberg noted in the book’s forward, these were professional diplomats and soldiers who were “amazingly prescient … about the course in Iraq they were criticizing internally before they left office.”

Resigning from a diplomatic post in Mongolia, Wright, who was previously a military reserve officer, wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell that she couldn’t uphold Bush’s war policies. “Much of the world considers our statements about Iraq as arrogant, untruthful, and masking a hidden agenda. … I strongly believe the probable response of many Arabs of the region and Muslims of the world if the U.S. enters Iraq without UNSC [United Nations Security Council] agreement will result in actions extraordinarily dangerous to America and Americans.” Several other diplomats and military officers made critical statements before the war started and in its early days that got minimal press attention.

The previous Middle East zone commander, retired General Anthony Zinni, for instance, cautioned Congress not to rush to war yet had to publish a book with celebrated military author Tom Clancy (Battle Ready) to get the news media to take his critical views seriously.

This news media pattern of downplaying dissent was tightly woven before the war began. As FAIR noted in February 2003, “A FAIR study examines all 393 on-camera sources appearing in stories about Iraq on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer beginning one week before and ending one week after Colin Powell's February 5 presentation at the U.N. The study finds that while war skeptics are rarely seen on the network newscasts, 76 percent of all sources were current or former government officials. At a time when 61 percent of respondents were telling CBS pollsters they felt the U.S. should ‘wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time,’ just 6 percent of U.S. sources were skeptics about the need for war. Just 3 of 393 sources were identified with anti-war activism.”

A month into the war, a major news media reference to Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector who challenged the administration’s war claims that it needed to eliminate what he maintained were non-existent weapons of mass destruction, was to call him a traitor: "Do you all remember Scott Ritter, you know, the former chief U.N. weapons inspector who played chief stooge for Saddam Hussein?” MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said (4/10/03), according to FAIR. “Well, Mr. Ritter actually told a French radio network that—quote, ‘The United States is going to leave Baghdad with its tail between its legs, defeated.’ Sorry, Scott. I think you've been chasing the wrong tail, again.”

Days later, The New York Times quoted Ritter in a news article titled “A Nation at War: Outlawed Weapons; Some Skeptics Say Arms Hunt Is Fruitless” (4/18/03) by William J. Broad, and then dropped him from future coverage. (A New York Times Magazine profile of Ritter in November 2002 painted him as a vainglorious self-promoter who made contradictory statements—a description that would fit many public figures.)

More than two years later, in Oct. 2005, Amy Goodman noted a stunning juxtaposition on her Democracy Now radio program: “In a major article in The New York Times this weekend, reporter Judith Miller admitted she was wrong when she wrote several of the key articles that claimed Iraq had an extensive weapons of mass destruction program ahead of the 2003 invasion. Miller wrote, ‘W.M.D.—I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them—we were all wrong.’

“Today we are joined by someone who was not wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq–-Scott Ritter,” Goodman continued. “He was the United Nations top weapons inspector in Iraq at UNSCOM between 1991 and 1998. Before working at the UN he served as an officer in the US marines and as a ballistic missile adviser to General Schwarzkopf in the first Gulf war. Scott Ritter has just published a new book titled Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein. The book details how the CIA manipulated and sabotaged the work of UN departments to achieve the foreign policy agenda of the United States in the Middle East.”

Miller’s correction statement in The New York Times included this zinger: "If your sources are wrong, you are wrong." Apparently, she and her editors had been content to stake her front page stories that turned out to be factually wrong on a limited set of war promoters and ignored knowledgeable critics.

The underlying message in such actions seems to be: If you know what’s going on at an out-of-control government program, don’t call a news reporter—write your own book.


Jan Barry is a retired newspaper reporter. His views are his own and get no more respect in the “news cycle” than anyone else’s. He got enlisted as a “reliable source” by reporters covering the 2004 election campaign once they found he could still recall protesting the Vietnam war back in the day alongside Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

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