As a somewhat obsessive observer of the art of “contemporary journalism,” I take a certain twisted pleasure in the contorted editorial poses that reporters so often strike as they attempt to convince the public of the correctness of their beliefs while maintaining the appearance of unbiased reporing. Journalism is too often little more than an exercise in the “cherry picking” of selected facts that serve the reporter’s purposes, while disparaging — or simply excluding — any information that might water down their thesis. It is particularly amusing to me when the facts are in direct conflict with their diatribe, but they choose to go ahead and make their case anyway.
I offer two cases in point: one from Sunday’s “Sixty Minutes” interview of George Tenet and the other from the ever-reliable Washington Post.
Mr. Tenet decided to give first crack at his new book, At the Center of the Storm the CBS News program "60 Minutes." Naturally, "60 Minutes" dutifully ignored or minimized any-and-all information that does not conform with their preexisting conclusions, and then exaggerated and emphasized points that serve their purpose.
Unfortunately for the American public, the actual purpose of the "60 Minutes" segment was not to enlighten us about the many supposed revelations in Tenet’s book. Nor did they see this as an opportunity to contribute to a well-informed public debate on terrorism and the war in Iraq. .
"60 Minutes" did little more than parrot the usual vague falsehoods to leave viewers with an impression that the pre-war intelligence on Iraq was “cooked.” The segment was a high production value version of the bumper sticker, “Bush Lied, People Died.”
CBS conflated Mr. Tenet’s taking offense at the alleged misuse by the Bush administration of Tenet’s infamous “slam dunk” characterization of the case on WMD in Iraq with the conclusion that Tenet did his best to warn the president against that casus belli, (which, of course, Tenet did not). But the suggestion fraudulently contributes to the impression that the administration “cooked the books on intelligence,” which Pelley stated they did — in direct contradiction of Tenet’s well-documented support for the conclusion.
The difference between what Tenet says he meant when he said “slam dunk” and what the public believes he meant when he said “slam dunk” is a distinction without a difference. Nevertheless, the crew at "60 Minutes" built their case with the skill of practiced campaign commercial producers. Over-inflating the significance of “slam dunk” at one point and brusquely dismissing Tenet when he said, “We do not torture people.”
Tenet didn’t help Pelley very much. Over Pelley’s protestations, Tenet insisted, repeatedly and emphatically that, “We do not torture people,” and asserted that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA have saved lives and foiled terrorist plots — while leaving nary a mark on some of the world’s most fanatical mass-murderers.
This is not exactly what "60 Minutes" wanted to hear. Mr. Tenet’s unambiguous and repeated rebuffs of the “torture” question were met with scoffing, almost guffawing incredulity by Pelley, and were quickly dismissed.
On the matter of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Tenet was also perfectly clear. He said the CIA believed with certitude in 2003 that we would find large stocks of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. The president and the vice president cited the intelligence. The Intelligence turned out to be wrong. We knew that.
But Pelley is no quitter. He claimed that, “…the vice president upped the ante, claiming Saddam had nuclear weapons.” Something Cheney never actually said. But never mind that.
Tenet said, “The intelligence community’s judgment is ‘He will not have a nuclear weapon until the year 2007, 2009.’”
"60 Minutes" made no effort to reconcile the apparent conflict. Why would they? Cheney did, after all, say something at one point about Iraq having a “reconstituted” nuclear weapons program. Which is not the same as saying they had nuclear weapons.
The 2003 assessment by the CIA concluded that Saddam might have nuclear weapons today if he were still brutalizing his country, but that was of no interest to Pelley.
Did Pelley choose to examine what the geo-political landscape of the Arab world would look like today if Saddam were still in power in 2007, in possession of nuclear weapons, with al Qaeda seeking a post-Afghanistan host-nation from which they could continue to wage their lunatic, jihadi blood-feast?
Did they take what the CIA had predicted and paint a vivid and disturbing picture of the region as it might exist today? With U.S. troops still in Saudi Arabia, trying to contain a nuclear-armed Saddam, with a panicked, fanatical and genocidal Iran on his flank — also pursuing nuclear weapons?
No, they didn’t.
And let’s not forget that the Bush administration’s CIA has captured and interrogated a significant number of al-Qaeda leaders and operatives and thwarted plots that would have taken American lives. And they have done so without using “torture.”
In the end, the inevitable conclusion that the viewer was left with was based not so much on what Tenet wrote in his book, but on the frothy, anti-Bush propaganda that CBS News set out to peddle.
Another worthwhile demonstration of “accidental journalism” which provided me with much mirth is an article that appeared in The Washington Post on April 6, 2006 with the headline, “Hussein’s Prewar Ties To Al-Qaeda Discounted.”
Based on the headline, this piece was clearly intended to put to rest once and for all the Bush administration’s claim that there were links between Saddam and al-Qaeda.
The Washington Post reporter, R. Jeffrey Smith, citied a Pentagon Inspector General report that had just been declassified at the request of Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.)
In carrying Sen. Levin’s water, Smith sought to prove the claim made in the headline.
He wrote, “The report said, the CIA had concluded in June 2002 that there were few substantiated contacts between al-Qaeda operatives and Iraqi officials…” “Few?” As in “several?” Or, “repeated?” Just how many “substantiated contacts” must take place? How about “unsubstantiated contacts?”
“The CIA had separately concluded that reports of Iraqi training (of al-Qaeda operatives) on weapons of mass destruction were ‘episodic…,” Smith continued.
The “episodic” nature of joint Iraqi-al-Qaeda WMD training must be more comforting to R. Jeffrey Smith than it is to me.
Smith continued his attack against Vice President Cheney, explaining that, Abu Musab al “Zarqawi, whom Cheney depicted (on the Rush Limbaugh Show) as an agent of al-Qaeda in Iraq before the war, was not then an al-Qaeda member but was the leader of an unaffiliated terrorists group who occasionally associated with al-Qaeda adherents…”
Oh, okay. So, he was the head of his own radical Islamic terrorist group – living comfortably in Iraq, under Saddam’s protection – that had repeatedly “associated” himself with al-Qaeda before the war – but he only received full Gold Club Membership later, when he became the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Well, he’s off the hook!
We are indeed fortunate that Senator Levin provided R. Jeffery Smith with this vital – albeit partial — assessment that so convincingly dispels the “myth” that Saddam supported terrorism or that there were links to al-Qaeda. Conveniently omitted from Smith’s report are many additional contacts, and the fact that Saddam also provided safe harbor to Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas, two of the world’s most wanted Islamo-lunatics.
Imagine what reporters could contribute to the public debate if they actually wanted to inform the public as to the facts, rather than representing political interests. If their nuanced cajoling of the English language were to shift to the other side of the debate, or, Heaven forbid, to the center — where they pretend they are.