The Media, Losing Their Way

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Memo To: David Broder
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Your Sunday column

Dear David: I read your excellent Sunday column in the Washington
Post, u201CThe
Media, Losing Their Way
.u201D As the dean of the Washington press
corps, you certainly have the standing to make the argument as you
did in your opening paragraph: u201CWe don’t yet know who will win the
2004 election, but we know who has lost it. The American news media
have been clobbered.u201D

As you correctly note, the standards of American journalism that
you and I grew up with several decades ago have deteriorated in
a most fundamental way. Major news organizations in print and electronic
media are more and more having to apologize for falling down on
the job, with both the New York Times and your newspaper
recently having to run mea culpas for doing such a poor job
of covering the issues leading up to the President's decision 18
months ago to take the country to war with Iraq. Your column put
it well:

a year when war in Iraq, the threat of terrorism and looming problems
with the federal budget and the nation’s health care system cry
out for serious debate, the news organizations on which people
should be able to depend have been diverted into chasing sham
events: a scurrilous and largely inaccurate attack on the Vietnam
service of John Kerry and a forged document charging President
Bush with disobeying an order for an Air National Guard physical.

With these events coming after the editors of two respected national
newspapers, the New York Times and USA Today, were forced to resign
because their organizations were duped by lying staff reporters,
it is hard to overcome the sense that the professional practices
and code of responsibility in journalism have suffered a body

After almost a half-century in this business, I certainly feel
a sense of shame and embarrassment at our performance. The feeling
is not relieved by the awareness that others in journalism not
only did fine work on other stories but took the lead in exposing
these instances of gross malpractice.

The common feature – and the disturbing fact – is that none
of these damaging failures would have occurred had senior journalists
not been blind to the fact that the standards in their organizations
were being fatally compromised.

We need to be asking why this collapse has taken place.

You will get lots of different answers to that question, David,
including those you raise. On this website, I have made a nuisance
of myself with the many journalists I know who are in senior positions,
at times begging them to ask questions of our political leaders
that were not being asked in the run-up to the war. What you and
I were taught in the old days was to ask questions and get answers
and to take them wherever they lead, not simply to a preconceived
objective that would in itself dictate the reporting process. Nowadays,
even the best reporters are taking short cuts, rushing to print
in order to get ahead of the competition.

Just last week, as an example, I wrote Steve Weisman of the
NYT when he had a report on the Iran nuclear issue, near
the top referring to Iran’s “nuclear weapons program,” as if it
were a fact, when it is not. The AP reporter in Vienna who covers
the International Atomic Energy Agency has also been slipshod
for as long as I have been observing him, apparently being spoonfed
by John Bolton, whose mission in life at the State Department
is to destroy the credibility of the IAEA. Weisman wrote back
that he should have said “suspected” nuclear weapons program.
But there is nobody at the Times, or Post, who is
willing to pick up the phone and get the story straight. If there
were, they would find Tehran has agreed to everything Saddam Hussein
agreed to in terms of intrusive, perpetual inspections, and that
there should be no “suspected” nuclear program. Unless the free
press we have stops political propaganda in its tracks, we will
find ourselves in more unnecessary wars.

If you will remember, I tried to get the senior print reporters
to look into the charge that Saddam had “gassed his own people,”
and committed genocide la Hitler. I’ve urged them to read the
reports of the CIA and DIA analysts on what happened at Halabja
and they would find that Saddam did not gas the Kurds there. I’ve
also urged them to look into the reports that Saddam killed between
80,000 (George Shultz) or 200,000 (Kenneth Pollack of Brookings)
or 300,000 (Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of Senate intelligence)
Kurds in 1988 in the last year of the war with Iran. If there
were a serious attempt to certify these charges, David, you would
find enough material to write a column stating authoritatively
that these assertions were all part of the process to demonize
Saddam by the Iraqi exile crowd, i.e., Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad
Allawi, plus the Iraqi Kurds, Talibani and Barzani, who fought
on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war. Imagine the sensation
it would cause, to have the Dean of the Washington Press Corps
find there is no factual support for the genocide assertion –
an assertion that continues to be made every day by supporters
of the President as a “good enough” rationale for having gone
to war with Iraq.

If you would like to start the process of getting the press corps
used to taking the time it needs to get to the bottom of things
instead, I will suggest you start with Stephen Pelletiere, the
CIA’s top analyst covering this period. Give him a call or send
him an e-mail. He will be happy to talk to you. You can then call
Pat Lang of the DIA, who will back up Pelletiere. They will explain
to you that there was no genocide at Halabja. This was such a
stupendous error by the press corps in taking the word of Iraqis
who had an interest in Saddam's downfall, instead of the work
of our intelligence community, that in itself paved the way to
the war last year. I'll bet you a dollar President Bush still
believes that u201Cdisinformation.u201D

You will say, “What about the mass graves?” Prime Minister Allawi
mentioned them in every interview this last week. As far as I
know, there was no genocide involved in any of the u201Csuspectedu201D
sites and no forensic work completed to even determine who is
buried in what in most cases appear to be cemeteries. To this
day, Human Rights Watch has not been able to find the sites of
the 100,000 Kurds they claim were killed by Saddam in the last
year of the war with Iran. HRW says it is still looking. Ask Pelletiere
about them. He will surprise you with his explanation. I've tried
again and again to get old friends in journalism to call up Pelletiere
and dig into the story, but I suppose it is too hot to handle.
You can even ask George Tenet if he believes Saddam gassed Halabja,
which Bush believes, when the CIA’s top guy on that topic said
he didn’t. See what I mean?

What I mean to say, David, is that you hit the nail on the head
in your column yesterday. But if you can’t drive it home yourself,
you can’t expect the rest of your colleagues in the press corps
to do so. Don’t you agree? Go ahead and take the lead. At least
put a fire under the Post editors to assign reporters to
the story. Bob Woodward? They'll be astonished at how much they
will learn. And you will have served the cause of restoring journalistic

Best wishes, as always,

PS There are a host of other questions the news media is not
asking. I'll supply them one at a time.

28, 2004

Wanniski [send him mail]
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