FRIDAY, JULY 18, 2003
BUILDING A PERFECT STORM: Here at THE HOWLER, were still amazed by that Harold Meyerson piece from yesterdays Washington Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/17/03). Amazingly, it only took a couple of days to reach this pointto 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 thats 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. Lets start again with Meyersons claim that Bushs 16-word statement was baseless.
Baseless? Its a strange word to choose for a short, simple statement which carried an explicit citation. As we all know, the basis for Bushs 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 doesnt mean that the British assessment is accurate; it doesnt mean the assessment should have been in the speech. But readers, its hardly shocking to see an American. president cite an assessment by his countrys top ally. Face it: If that were the worst thing the Bush Admin ever did, this conversation wouldnt even be happening.
But if you read the Meyerson piece in the Post, you never learned what Bush actually said. Meyerson said that Bushs statement was baselessthen failed to mention the basis Bush cited. This was certainly small potatoes compared to the howling misstatements about Cheney. But this small part of Meyersons column fits the template for a certain type of spun press event. To consider a roughly similar case, lets 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 Stormif 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 judgmentBush hyped the facts on Iraq. That overall view may be perfectly fair. But heres the problemeven if thats a valid view, 238-gate just doesnt cut it as the Perfect Illustration. Perhaps the statement didnt 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 Bushs statement a hoaxand forgot to mention the British intelligence. Meyerson said Bushs charge was baselessand he failed to mention the Brit intell, too. Many of you have written in, insisting that this is all deeply moral. Sorry, youre wrongand yesterdays stunning column showed how quickly things devolve when scribes are allowed to dump basic facts. In paragraph one, Meyersons 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 ambassadors passage to Africa. Meanwhile, why does the press corps just luvvv Perfect Storms? Simple. Once you come up with a Perfect Storm, you dont 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. Weve expressed a simple point this week: As a point of fairness and simple honesty, you cant 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.
RICHARDS 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 Bushs 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 trueor 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 Bushs statement turns out not to be true. (Though it clearly hasnt been proven.) But why is Cohens account more significant than Meyersons? Cohen looks at the Bush Admins larger claimthe 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 doesnt offer a Perfect Stormbut 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.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 ambassadors report to Cheneys office. Its clear from Wilsons 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 arent at all clear. What did Fleischer say in that July 7 session? Here is one exchange:
FLEISCHER: Well, I think the Presidents statement in the State of the Union was much broader than the Niger question.In this exchange, Fleischer says that the Niger documents turned out to be fake, but that Bushs 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. Its clear what Fleischer was saying in this exchange. That doesnt mean its true, of course. But readers should be very careful when scribes constructing a Perfect Storm come bearing short, well-clipped quotes.