Thursday, July 15, 2004
The media is to blame: A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a colleague at the Union-Tribune regarding Fahrenheit 9/11 and whether or not President Bush has purposely conflated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq war.
This guy is a talented reporter and a bright guy and -- unsurprisingly -- a liberal. Though he acknowledged that Bush has never actually said Saddam Hussein's Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks, he believed that that the way Bush talked about terrorism and the way Bush talked about Iraq was intentionally designed to lead the American people to the wrong conclusion. Bush is sneaky that way.
Over the past month or so, however, I've come to the conclusion that it isn't President Bush who has been sloppy with his words, but the media and a few of his Democratic opponents.
Last month, the 9/11 commission's staff report detailed contacts between Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but found no "operational" relationship. Just about every major newspaper in the country touted the findings as evidence that Bush lied and that one of his key rationales for going to war in Iraq was bogus.
The rash of inaccurate headlines and misleading opening paragraphs gave readers an inaccurate picture not only of the commission's staff report, but also of the President's rationales for the Iraq War.
Again this week, the American media ran into trouble. Newspapers across the country used this story from the Knight-Ridder News Service that led with the following paragraph:
President Bush yesterday continued to insist that there was an operational link between former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, despite reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that there was no evidence that Hussein and Islamic terrorists collaborated to kill Americans.
President Bush's comments that prompted this inaccurate lede were:
"Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq," the president said. "We removed a declared enemy of America, who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder, and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them."
He added: "In the world after September 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take."
There is no good explanation for the inaccurate lede. There is, however, a bad explanation: The media has stopped reporting and has instead become a dishonest and partisan attack dog, promoting their own liberal, anti-war interests.
How else do you explain Knight Ridder's "correction" that followed the story.
In a Knight Ridder News Service story yesterday based on comments made Monday by President Bush about terrorism, it was incorrectly reported that the president insisted there was an operational link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The president suggested that such a link existed, but didn't explicitly make that connection Monday. His comments, as correctly reported in the story, were: "Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq. We removed a declared enemy of America, who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder, and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them. In the world after September 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take."
Knight Ridder is damned with their own words. The president "suggested that such a link existed?" There's nothing in the president's comments to back that up. This is a non-correction correction.
You'll notice that the Knight Ridder links I've been using go to the San Diego Union-Tribune Web site, the paper I work for. The aforementioned story ran on Tuesday's front page. The "correction" ran on Wednesday's A2.
The people on the Union-Tribune's news desk are not stupid. But something definitely went wrong Monday night when this story was selected for the front page. Stories that come over the newswires have already been edited, either by an editor at the Associated Press or whatever other news service provided the story, so there is a tendency not to apply the same healthy skepticism to these stories. That is a mistake -- one that's happening much too often.
The media are failing the American people. Why do the American people (falsely) believe that President Bush linked Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks? Because the press has been telling them so.
Bush has been very careful with his words. The media hasn't been nearly as careful with their headlines and stories.
But it's not just the media. Many politicians have also been sloppy with their words, only to turn around and blame the Bush administration for their own problems.
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller is a prime example.
But the media -- and even some big name blogs -- take it as a given that certain elected officials are sloppy with their words. I pointed out on Sunday that Rockefeller claimed that President Bush personally told him that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. I don't believe it happened. I think Sen. Rockefeller misspoke. But I was unable to get big name blogs to link to the story. I've tried calling Sen. Rockefeller's office, but have been unable to get through.
It's not President Bush's fault that the American people are misinformed -- it's the media's.