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Caveat lector

THE PERFECT STORM! Scribes constructed a Perfect Storm. They used an old tried-and-true method:

FRIDAY, JULY 18, 2003

BUILDING A PERFECT STORM: Here at THE HOWLER, we’re still amazed by that Harold Meyerson piece from yesterday’s Washington Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/17/03). Amazingly, it only took a couple of days to reach this point—to reach the point where the Post was running a high-profile piece which is almost bizarrely inaccurate. (It will be interesting to see how the Post handles the matter. The statements about Cheney are blatantly false.) But that’s the way the press tends to work when it starts creating a Perfect Storm, as the mainstream press corps has been doing in the case of those “16 words.” Our readers continue to shake their fists, insisting that the coverage is all quite appropriate. But, whatever a real probe of Bush-on-Iraq might show, this particular event has indeed been spun. Let’s start again with Meyerson’s claim that Bush’s 16-word statement was “baseless.”

“Baseless?” It’s a strange word to choose for a short, simple statement which carried an explicit citation. As we all know, the basis for Bush’s statement was noted; the statement was explicitly cited to British intelligence, and British intelligence stands by its assessment, as Tony Blair said again yesterday. That doesn’t mean that the British assessment is accurate; it doesn’t mean the assessment should have been in the speech. But readers, it’s hardly shocking to see an American. president cite an assessment by his country’s top ally. Face it: If that were the worst thing the Bush Admin ever did, this conversation wouldn’t even be happening.

But if you read the Meyerson piece in the Post, you never learned what Bush actually said. Meyerson said that Bush’s statement was “baseless”—then failed to mention the “basis” Bush cited. This was certainly small potatoes compared to the howling misstatements about Cheney. But this small part of Meyerson’s column fits the template for a certain type of spun press event. To consider a roughly similar case, let’s review the memorable way the Buddhist Temple was spun against Gore.

Simply put, the press corps wanted the Buddhist Temple to be a Perfect Storm. They wanted it to be the perfect example of fund-raising misconduct by Gore. Unfortunately, the actual facts of the temple case made it a rather weak parable. In fact, there was no charge to attend the temple luncheon, making it one of the strangest “fund-raisers” in political history. That same night, Gore spoke at a fund-raising dinner in San Jose; attendees paid $5000 per plate. But attendees at the luncheon paid nothing. And why was there no charge for the temple luncheon? Because when the luncheon was switched to the temple venue, the DNC dropped its plan to charge. Those who say “there is no free lunch” have failed to recall this event.

No, it was hard to make this a Perfect Storm—if you included all the facts. But the press simply loved this event. They had video of funny Asian monastics which they could play to their hearts’ content, and they had an inaccurate joke about “vows of poverty” which they all loved to recite. (Many of the temple monastics were actually millionaires.) So, to help make the luncheon a Perfect Storm, they simply decided to dump certain facts. Though they flogged the event again and again, they knew not to say that the luncheon was free, and they knew not to say that the DNC had dropped its charges because of the temple venue. With those facts removed, the story worked! Routinely, those facts were suppressed.

So too with the 16-word statement. To all appearances, the corps had reached a global judgment—Bush hyped the facts on Iraq. That overall view may be perfectly fair. But here’s the problem—even if that’s a valid view, “238-gate” just doesn’t cut it as the Perfect Illustration. Perhaps the statement didn’t belong in the speech. The statement may not even be true. But if you say that Bush was citing British intelligence, the tale becomes an Imperfect Storm. So, just as with the free temple luncheon, scribes began leaving facts out.

Kristof called Bush’s statement a “hoax”—and forgot to mention the British intelligence. Meyerson said Bush’s charge was “baseless”—and he failed to mention the Brit intell, too. Many of you have written in, insisting that this is all deeply moral. Sorry, you’re wrong—and yesterday’s stunning column showed how quickly things devolve when scribes are allowed to dump basic facts. In paragraph one, Meyerson’s column was omitting key facts. By paragraph two, it was making facts up.

Just as with the Buddhist temple, there are reasons why this item appealed to the press corps as a Perfect Storm. The famous forged documents were irresistible, just as the Asian ascetics had been. And the Joe Wilson story provided a plot: Honest ambassador’s passage to Africa. Meanwhile, why does the press corps just luvvv Perfect Storms? Simple. Once you come up with a Perfect Storm, you don’t have to do any real reporting. You repeat the Standard Story again and again. Then you break for a three-margy lunch.

American citizens deserve a full look at how their government handled intelligence on Iraq. But their press corps is lazy; it wants Perfect Storms. We’ve expressed a simple point this week: As a point of fairness and simple honesty, you can’t accuse officials of a “baseless” “hoax” unless you state their basic explanation. But you know that press corps! By Tuesday, they were dumping key facts. By Thursday, they were making facts up.

RICHARD’S LARGER ALMANAC: For our money, Richard Cohen offered a more instructive view with part of his own Thursday column:

COHEN: At the moment, the brouhaha is over Bush’s assertion in his State of the Union address that Iraq had sought to import weapons-grade uranium from Africa. That turns out not to be true—or at least not provable. It is also probably not true that Iraq was importing aluminum tubing for its purported nuclear weapons program. In fact, it may well be that Iraq had no active nuclear weapons program. At least none has been found.
Cohen makes one fleeting error; clearly, no one has shown that Bush’s statement “turns out not to be true.” (Though it clearly hasn’t been proven.) But why is Cohen’s account more significant than Meyerson’s? Cohen looks at the Bush Admin’s larger claim—the general claim that Saddam was trying to kick-start a nuclear program. This claim was frequently made in the run-up to war. But was this serious claim accurate? The tubing claim appears to have been hyped (or worse), and the uranium claim was imperfectly based. Cohen doesn’t offer a Perfect Storm—but he sketches the shape of a larger probe that might suggest that a Big Bush Claim was based on slender, hyped evidence.

Incidentally, accurate information is hard to obtain in all of these murky, security areas. For example, when the New Republic did its lengthy report on Bush-on-Iraq, it included two paragraphs on uranium from Africa. Viewed from the present perspective, the account seems to be riddled with errors:

ACKERMAN AND JUDIS: In his State of the Union address on January 28, 2003, Bush introduced a new piece of evidence to show that Iraq was developing a nuclear arms program: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa…Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.”

One year earlier, Cheney’s office had received from the British, via the Italians, documents purporting to show Iraq’s purchase of uranium from Niger. Cheney had given the information to the CIA, which in turn asked a prominent diplomat [Joe Wilson], who had served as ambassador to three African countries, to investigate. He returned after a visit to Niger in February 2002 and reported to the State Department and the CIA that the documents were forgeries. The CIA circulated the ambassador’s report to the vice president’s office, the ambassador confirms to TNR. But, after a British dossier was released in September detailing the purported uranium purchase, administration officials began citing it anyway, culminating in its inclusion in the State of the Union. “They knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie,” the former ambassador tells TNR. “They were unpersuasive about aluminum tubes and added this to make their case more persuasive.”

Though it culminates in a serious charge by Wilson (then still unnamed), much of this account is inaccurate or unproven. For example, Wilson did not “report that the documents were forgeries;” he acknowledges that he never saw them. And CIA head George Tenet says that the CIA did not “circulate the ambassador’s report to Cheney’s office.” It’s clear from Wilson’s later appearances that this was his surmise, not something he can “confirm.” Meanwhile, Ackerman and Judis are somewhat unclear when they say that “the purported [Niger] uranium purchase” was included in the State of the Union. If we ever do get that larger probe, each piece will be murky and subject to confusion and error.

The Daily update

FLEISCHER FLUMMOXED: Many e-mailers have said that statements by Ari Fleischer prove that the British intel tale is a phony. Careful! As usual, Fleischer occasionally wandered around the lot in his July 7 and 9 press avails, and people have sometimes pulled stray quotes to “prove” things that aren’t at all clear. What did Fleischer say in that July 7 session? Here is one exchange:

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President’s statement in the State of the Union was much broader than the Niger question.

QUESTION: Is the President’s statement correct?

FLEISCHER: I’m referring specifically to the Niger piece when I say that.

QUESTION: Do you hold that the President—when you look at the totality of the sentence that the President uttered that day on the subject, are you confident that he was correct?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I see nothing that goes broader, that would indicate that there was no basis to the President’s broader statement. But specifically on the yellow cake, the yellow cake for Niger, we’ve acknowledged that that information did turn out to be a forgery.

QUESTION: The President’s statement was accurate?

FLEISCHER: We see nothing that would dissuade us from the President’s broader statement.

In this exchange, Fleischer says that the Niger documents turned out to be fake, but that Bush’s broader statement was accurate. Moments later, Fleischer floundered around a bit, and a few of his quotes can be clipped to make it seem that he said or thought something different. Fleischer also floundered a bit on July 9, occasionally seeming to contradict himself. (What else is new?) But readers, scribes will sometimes clip preferred quotes, giving you the fragment they like. It’s clear what Fleischer was saying in this exchange. That doesn’t mean it’s true, of course. But readers should be very careful when scribes constructing a Perfect Storm come bearing short, well-clipped quotes.