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Daily Howler: The Washington press corps loves a good fable. That may explain some Wilson coverage
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AESOP’S PRESS CORPS! The Washington press corps loves a good fable. That may explain some Wilson coverage: // link // print // previous // next //

CHEERING DIGBY: Our analysts stood and cheered for Digby as he showed—like Krugman before him—how easy it is to stand and state the most obvious fact on earth:
DIGBY (10/20/05): After eight long years of being fed the juiciest tabloid lies from a masterful Republican disinformation campaign and a group of friendly GOP special prosecutors, the media became joined with the Republican establishment and took on its cheap ethics and ruthless attitudes. They began to identify with them. They helped them destroy Bill Clinton's reputation and piled-on to keep Al Gore from the presidency with a puerile smear campaign which they admitted to waging just because they found it amusing. And when George W. Bush became president, their condescending refrain to the majority of the country who didn't vote for him was "get over it.”
As Krugman did in the Times last Friday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/14/05), Digby stated an obvious fact: The mainstream press ran a crackpot, two-year War Against Gore, and—given the narrow way Campaign 2K was decided—this two-year, “puerile smear campaign” almost surely put Bush in the White House.

Yes, this is an obvious fact. You’d have to be a fool not to know it. But try to find a member of the “liberal elite” who is willing to say this in public! Uh-oh! The War Against Gore was waged by the mainstream press—by the Washington Post, by the New York Times, by DC insiders like Russert and Matthews—and it was completely tolerated at the time by the “liberal/progressive” press—by the New Republic, the American Prospect, the Washington Monthly, the Nation. For that reason, career liberals pretend, to this very day, that this two-year war didn’t happen; they refuse to discuss it, even today. They even pretend that the Bush campaign convinced the country that Gore was a liar! This is blatantly, absurdly untrue. But it helps their careers and their party invites when they so despicably say it.

We’ve often quoted what Joe Scarborough said about this matter on Hardball. He spoke in November 2002, as the press was conducting another wave of attacks against Crackpot Gore:

SCARBOROUGH (11/18/02): I think, in the 2000 election, I think [the press corps] was fairly brutal to Al Gore. I think they hit him hard on a lot of things like inventing the Internet and some of those other things, and I think there was a generalization they bought into that, if they had done that to a Republican candidate, I’d be going on your show saying, you know, that they were being biased.
Indeed! If the corps had done anything like that to Bush, you’d be hearing about it every day, even now. You’d have heard about it every day in real time. In the year 2050 (and beyond), your grand-kids would be hearing it still.

But the boys and girls at the Prospect, the Monthly, the New Republic, still refuse to tattle about it. Their eyes are set on those big-bucks careers. Krugman, then Digby, showed that truth can be easy. But to these boys and girls, truth is hard.

Postscript: When did the media “admit to waging [the War Against Gore] just because they found it amusing?” The date was October 10, 2000. You know what to do: Just click here, then scroll down to “Howler History.”

CRUCIAL WARNING: Warning! Nothing that follows addresses the question Patrick Fitzgerald is now mulling: Did Rove or Libby (or anyone else) commit a crime in the outing of Plame? To the contrary: What follows is an attempt to determine why the press corps covered Joe Wilson as it did. You still get to think that Rove’s a big crook. Warning! Repeat: Crucial warning!!

AESOP’S PRESS CORPS: This morning, it’s the New York Times’ David Johnston who misstates the basic facts in the Approved Current Manner:

JOHNSTON (10/21/05): [Joe] Wilson had become an irritant to the administration in the late spring and early summer of 2003 even before he went public as a critic of the war in Iraq by writing a July 6, 2003 Op-Ed article in The New York Times.

In that article he wrote that he had traveled to Africa in 2002 to explore the accuracy of intelligence reports that suggested Iraq might have tried to purchase uranium ore from Niger. Mr. Wilson said that he had been sent on the trip by the C.I.A. after Mr. Cheney's office raised questions about one such report, but that he found it unlikely that any sale had taken place.

Ah, the joys of confabulation! According to Johnston, Wilson wrote that he was sent to Niger to check out reports which “suggested Iraq might have tried to purchase uranium ore from Niger.” But that isn’t what Wilson wrote at all! Here’s what Wilson actually wrote in the Times about the report which led to his trip:
WILSON (7/6/03): In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report. While I never saw the report, I was told that it referred to a memorandum of agreement that documented the sale of uranium yellowcake—a form of lightly processed ore—by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990's. The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president's office.
What did Wilson actually write? According to Wilson, he was sent to check out a report of an actual sale. He judged that, due to international supervision, it was “highly doubtful” that any such sale could have taken place. (Fuller text below.)

We’ll assume that Wilson was right about that. (No one has seriously challenged the professionalism of his actual report.) But when we understand what Wilson actually wrote, we see that his famous New York Times column didn’t really contradict what Bush said in his State of the Union Address. Bush had said that the Brits had learned that Iraq had “sought” uranium in Africa. Wilson’s column merely said that a sale hadn’t likely occurred. So no, there wasn’t a contradiction. But to this day, scribes like Johnston shave the facts to paper over this unpleasant problem. This morning, Johnston adjusts what Wilson wrote. In so doing, he creates a sharp contradiction which never quite occurred—and he heightens a standard press drama.

Yep! Bush said Iraq sought uranium from Niger. Wilson said a sale couldn’t likely take place. But from Day One, the press corps acted as if Wilson had flatly contradicted Bush’s troubling statement. Why exactly did they do that? We’ll offer two possible answers.

First, your press corps loves fables. Once they’ve made a general judgment, they tend to adopt some Simple Tale which illustrates the judgment they’ve reached. By July 2003, the press corps had begun to accept an obvious fact—the Bush Admin had “fixed the intelligence” in the run-up to war in Iraq. Having finally come around to this view, the corps began to seek a Simple Story which would convey this (accurate) judgment. “Wilson debunked Bush’s claim” felt real good. Result: To this day, they’ve been misstating facts to “punch up” this desired contradiction.

But there may be a second reason for the way the corps pimped this faux contradiction. That involves the bogus story Wilson had been telling the press in the two months before he went public.

Wilson wrote his famous op-ed in early July 2003. But in May and June of that year, he “backgrounded” some high-profile pieces about his trip—pieces which flatly misstated the facts, but presented a clear-and-pleasing contradiction. For example, here’s part of Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed piece from May 6 of that year. Wilson later told Vanity Fair that he was the source for the column:

KRISTOF (5/6/03): Consider the now-disproved claims by President Bush and Colin Powell that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger so it could build nuclear weapons...

I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.

The envoy reported, for example, that a Niger minister whose signature was on one of the documents had in fact been out of office for more than a decade.
In addition, the Niger mining program was structured so that the uranium diversion had been impossible. The envoy's debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted—except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway.

This account is highly dramatic—but it’s utterly bogus. In fact, Wilson never saw those famous forged documents; in fact, no one in the U.S. government had seen the docs at the time of his trip. No one knew whose signatures were on the documents—and Wilson didn’t make the report which Kristof described. Wilson didn’t “debunk the forgery,” as he made clear in his own later column. But Kristof’s column, though factually fake, told a highly dramatic tale, in which a fearless envoy debunked a forgery—and Bush just kept on citing it anyway. This created the illusion of a sharp contradiction—a clear-cut, perfect drama. And so did Walter Pincus’ piece in the Washington Post, another (bogus) report for which Wilson was the source:
PINCUS (6/12/03): [T]he CIA in early February 2002 dispatched a retired U.S. ambassador to the country to investigate the claims, according to the senior U.S. officials and the former government official, who is familiar with the event. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity and on condition that the name of the former ambassador not be disclosed.

During his trip, the CIA's envoy spoke with the president of Niger and other Niger officials mentioned as being involved in the Iraqi effort, some of whose signatures purportedly appeared on the documents.

After returning to the United States, the envoy reported to the CIA that the uranium-purchase story was false, the sources said. Among the envoy's conclusions was that the documents may have been forged because the "dates were wrong and the names were wrong," the former U.S. government official said.

Again, reporters heard a dramatic story, in which the ambassador performed a clear-cut debunking of some forged documents—documents Wilson never saw. When he was interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wilson acknowledged that he was the source for this Pincus report—and he offered laughable reasons for his apparent misstatements (text below). Meanwhile, Kristof published a follow-up column. His original column had been blatantly wrong, as Wilson of course had seen when he read it. But to all appearances, the honest ambassador never clued Kristof. The new column was dramatic, but wrong once again:
KRISTOF (6/13/03): The agency chose a former ambassador to Africa to undertake the mission, and that person flew to Niamey, Niger, in the last week of February 2002. This envoy spent one week in Niger, staying at the Sofitel and discussing his findings with the U.S. ambassador to Niger, and then flew back to Washington via Paris.

Immediately upon his return, in early March 2002, this senior envoy briefed the C.I.A. and State Department and reported that the documents were bogus, for two main reasons. First, the documents seemed phony on their face—for example, the Niger minister of energy and mines who had signed them had left that position years earlier. Second, an examination of Niger's uranium industry showed that an international consortium controls the yellowcake closely, so the Niger government does not have any yellowcake to sell.

A highly dramatic, clear-cut debunking—but one that is based on fake facts. Ditto for the account given by Judis and Ackerman when they discussed the honest ambassador in a New Republic cover story released on June 23:
JUDIS/ACKERMAN (6/30/03): 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, 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.”

In this passage, Judis and Ackerman misstate what Bush said in his State of the Union; Wilson can’t be faulted for that. But they too reported the bogus story in which the honest ambassador—now a “prominent diplomat”—provided a clear-cut debunking of those famous forged documents.

In fact, those documents had been forged—but Wilson himself never saw them, played no role in their debunking. But so what? Somehow, Kristof/Pincus/Judis all heard a fake tale—a pleasing tale, with direct, clear-cut debunking at its core. But then, everybody in the press had been hearing this pleasing story at the time Joe Wilson went public. Wilson’s own Times column was more circumspect; it didn’t repeat these howling misstatements. (See above. Finally speaking on the record, Wilson expressly said that he hadn’t seen the forged documents.) But perhaps it took a bit of time for the press to notice an awkward fact—Wilson’s column didn’t really contradict what Bush had said in his State of the Union. The press had been hearing Hero Tales of direct debunking for months. Perhaps they didn’t notice, right off the bat, that Wilson’s column was somewhat less dramatic.

Aesop’s press corps loves a good fable. For two months, Wilson—on background—had offered just that. At any rate, the press corps was beginning to look for a tale which would illustrate their (accurate) new conclusion: Bush misled us on the way into war. But right up to this very day, Wilson’s “contradiction” doesn’t quite parse. Result? To this day, scribes misstate what Wilson said. It builds a more dramatic tale, in which contradictions are more direct. But that’s what Aesop’s press corps typically does when it decides to convince us rubes of the truth of its latest Group Judgment.

In this case, their judgment was accurate. They just chose a rather weak tale with which to convey that new judgment.

WHAT WILSON SAID IN HIS COLUMN: Here is Wilson’s fuller account of what he found in Niger:

WILSON (7/6/03): In late February 2002, I arrived in Niger's capital, Niamey, where I had been a diplomat in the mid-70's and visited as a National Security Council official in the late 90's...

I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.

But Bush never said a transaction took place! From that day to this, Aesop’s press corps has bent, shaved and rearranged facts to create a direct contradiction.

WHAT WILSON TOLD THE SENATE COMMITTEE: According to the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wilson acknowledged that he was the source of the Pincus report. Why then did Pincus think that Wilson had debunked the forged documents? Prepare to avert your gaze:

SENATE INTELLIGENCE REPORT (page 45): The former ambassador said that he may have “misspoken” to the reporter when he said he concluded the documents were “forged.” He also said he may have become confused about his own recollection after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in March 2003 that the names and dates on the documents were not correct and may have thought he had seen the names himself.
The IAEA debunked the docs, not Wilson. But egad! According to Wilson, he may have confused his own work with that of the IAEA! Avert your gaze in embarrassment as you ponder how Kristof, Pincus and Judis/Ackerman came to write those bogus reports—reports which helped prepare the way for Wilson’s not-contradictory column.

FOR LOVERS OF IRONY ONLY: Kristof’s initial, factually flawed column was headlined, “Missing in Action: Truth.” Judis and Ackerman’s lengthy report was headlined thus: “The First Casualty.”