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If 935 falsehoods fall from the White House, do the news media hear them?

COMMENTARY | February 20, 2008

Morton Mintz asks: If the president and top aides who made nearly 1,000 false statements to take us into war had been Democrats, would two national papers, the TV networks, the news magazines, and every newspaper in 33 states have ignored it? (First of two parts)

By Morton Mintz

When irrefutable evidence shows that a president has persistently and systematically abused his powers under the Constitution, or that he and his top officials have made nearly a thousand false statements to take us into, and justify, a catastrophic war, in my book it is a hugely important story. And, I also believe, a news organization's response-giving the story the attention it deserves, or burying or ignoring it-puts a spotlight on its priorities and values, certainly as of that moment.

Nearly two years ago, the Boston Globe broke one of those hugely important stories. Charlie Savage wrote: "President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.” My translation: In rejecting legislation with signing statements rather than with the veto power the Constitution provides, Bush was effectively saying, "I am the law."

Just a few weeks ago, two related journalism nonprofits released another jaw-dropper, Iraq / The War Card / Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War. The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the Fund for Independence in Journalism open their report with stunning facts "fully searchable" in a "massive" database:

President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Nearly five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.     

On at least 532 separate occasions (in speeches, briefings, interviews, testimony, and the like), Bush and these three key officials, along with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and White House press secretaries Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan, stated unequivocally that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or was trying to produce or obtain them), links to Al Qaeda, or both. This concerted effort was the underpinning of the Bush administration's case for war.

I'll recall the treatment newspapers gave the Globe article on presidential signing statements briefly, having described it elsewhere. Then I'll review how all categories of media-print newspapers, radio and TV, news magazines, Web sites and blogs-treated the report on the 935 false statements.

"Some leading newspapers took prominent notice of the Globe's report in commentaries, print as well as on-line, while taking no notice in their news columns," I wrote in the New York Review of Books in June 2006. Continuing the excerpt:

At washingtonpost.com, Dan Froomkin wrote in his "White House Briefing" column that...Savage had weighed in "with the most authoritative-and most alarming-story yet on Bush's proclivity for signing statements." On the Post's Op-Ed page, Michael Kinsley also found the disclosure "alarming." The Times, in a top-of-the-page editorial, expressed deep concern. Yet the very disclosure that greatly disturbed Froomkin, Kinsley, and the Times editorial board went unreported in the news pages of the Post and Times and other newspapers....

For real news to appear first, or only, in commentary is not uncommon....What is uncommon is for a newspaper executive to acknowledge the phenomenon. Kenneth F. Bunting, associate publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, did that on June 9 [2006], when he wrote in the P-I about "bad news judgment." One of his examples was "the infamous Downing Street memo," the London Times story that the US mainstream media initially greeted with a collective yawn....The P-I's editorial pages," he pointed out, "noted the secret British memo in columns before news of it was finally published on the news pages of ours and most other US newspapers."

What the new report says

Now to the false-statements report, co-authored by Charles Lewis, founding executive director of the CPI and founding president of the Fund, and Fund staffer Mark Reading-Smith. I'll begin with more of their summary to underscore what I see as the report's inarguable newsworthiness:

It is now beyond dispute that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have meaningful ties to Al Qaeda. This was the conclusion of numerous bipartisan government investigations, including those by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2004 and 2006), the 9/11 Commission, and the multinational Iraq Survey Group, whose "Duelfer Report" established that Saddam Hussein had terminated Iraq's nuclear program in 1991 and made little effort to restart it.

In short, the Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003. Not surprisingly, the officials with the most opportunities to make speeches, grant media interviews, and otherwise frame the public debate also made the most false statements, according to this first-ever analysis of the entire body of prewar rhetoric.

President Bush, for example, made 232 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and another 28 false statements about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda. Secretary of State Powell had the second-highest total in the two-year period, with 244 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 10 about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld and Fleischer each made 109 false statements, followed by Wolfowitz (with 85), Rice (with 56), Cheney (with 48), and McClellan (with 14).

The massive database at the heart of this project juxtaposes what President Bush and these seven top officials were saying for public consumption against what was known, or should have been known, on a day-to-day basis. This fully searchable database includes the public statements, drawn from both primary sources (such as official transcripts) and secondary sources (chiefly major news organizations) over the two years beginning on September 11, 2001. It also interlaces relevant information from more than 25 government reports, books, articles, speeches, and interviews.

Some good coverage, and some non-coverage

The CPI/Fund report, released on Jan. 23, drew impressive straightforward coverage and much favorable comment-along with striking cases of notable inattention or insufficient attention, and a smear by a right-wing columnist whose Web site is sponsored by a national newspaper (more on the last in Part Two).

Within 48 hours after the report's release, Steve Carpinelli, CPI's Media Relations Manager, told me, the project had "sparked renewed debate and called into question the need for more accountability and review of the decisions that led us into conflict....

"So far, there have been four newspaper editorials that mentioned the project and call for greater scrutiny," Carpinelli said. Co-authors Lewis and Reading-Smith had done "more than two-dozen radio and TV interviews," he continued. "All the major wire services (AFP, AP, Reuters, Xinhua) have written full-length stories about the project and we have even been mentioned at recent White House press conference held by Press Secretary Dana Perino. Other media outlets that so far mentioned the project include...National Public Radio, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox's Hannity & Colmes and [MSNBC's] Keith Olbermann."

NPR interviewed Lewis and C-SPAN interviewed CPI Executive Director Bill Buzenberg. AFP's Headline was, "Top US Officials declared war on truth when it came to Iraq: report". On the night of Jan. 25, Bill Moyers Journal opened with a lengthy segment on the report.

Olbermann said the administration had "lied" rather than having made false statements 935 times. He would not be alone on television in translating false statements into lies. On the Daily Show's Feb. 5 edition, Jon Stewart asked Fox Anchor Chris Wallace about Fox News finding a place for Karl Rove. Did Stewart have a message he'd like to have delivered to Rove? Wallace inquired. "Does lying feel bad?" Stewart proposed. "Just ask him. Just say, when he's talking . . .. just lean in every now and then and say: 'Lying. Does a little piece of you die inside when you do it?'. . .. Or wouldn't you want say, 'Hey, remember when that study came out and said you guys lied like 935 times about Iraq?'"

The elite press's handling of the report

Withal, the coverage and noncoverage of the report within the first two days after its release merit a close look, starting with four newspapers with national and even international reach.

The New York Times had a 406-word piece on page 12 and at its Web site. The report turned up "no startling new information," John H. Cushman Jr. wrote. "But,” he said, "the new computer tool is remarkable for its scope, and its replay of the crescendo of statements that led to the war”; and it also allows "simple searches for specific phrases, such as 'mushroom cloud' or 'yellowcake uranium,' in transcripts and documents totaling some 380,000 words..." The article gave the CPI's URL.

USA TODAY printed the AP story and  posted it at its Web Site, where as of Feb 16, an impressive number of readers (962) had posted comments and 70 had recommended it. The Financial Times carried five paragraphs in print and at its Web site. Neither paper linked to the report.

The Los Angeles Times printed all of four sentences in its "Nation in Brief" column on page 12 and at its Web site. The item did include the URL for the report.

The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal gave no ink at all to Iraq / The War Card. The Post's black-out was thus more extreme than in the case of the signing-statements story. While the Boston Globe's scoop didn't rate a word in its news columns, it did from a Post op-ed columnist, as noted earlier.

Overseas coverage

Abroad, by contrast, newspapers in Australia, Canada, China, France, Great Britain, India, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Qatar. and Scotland carried articles on the report.

By Carpinelli's count, and excluding one student publication, the U.S. papers that carried stories on the report were: In Texas and New York, 3 each; in Colorado and Pennsylvania,  2 each, and in Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia, 1 each.

In 33 of the 50 states, in other words, no local newspaper deemed worth a line a report that makes instantly available documentation of more than 900 false administration statements about the war in Iraq. And the L.A. Times item was the only one printed by a paper in a state that accounts for better than 12 percent of the total U.S. population.

In some states, the story was published by papers with a degree of broad or state-wide reach. In addition to the L.A. Times, they were: the Democrat-Gazette in Arkansas, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in Georgia, the Chicago Tribune in Illinois, the Courier-Journal in Kentucky, the Kansas City Star in Missouri, the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in Pennsylvania, the Memphis  Commercial-Appeal in Tennessee, and the Houston Chronicle in Texas.

If the overall performance of U.S. print newspapers leaves a lot to be desired, consider this:

And then there are the TV networks

The three leading national television networks, ABC, CBS and NBC didn't mention Iraq / The War Card.

Newsweek, TIME, and U.S. News and World Report didn't mention the report either in print or at their Web sites.

Question: If the president and  top administration officials who had been shown in a report to have made nearly a thousand false statements to take us into, and justify, a catastrophic war had been Democrats, would two national papers, every newspaper in 33 states, the TV networks, and the news magazines have ignored  it?

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