Yellow Journalism in Washington

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“Anonymous” Lives and Thrives in Our Nations’ Capital

Every now and then, an article catches my eye that seems to sum up the worst of Washington-based access journalism (“just the spin, ma’am”) in our imperial press. On Friday, the morning of the second presidential debate, just such a piece — Pentagon Sets Steps to Retake Iraq Rebel Sites — made it onto the front-page of my hometown newspaper and I thought it might be worth taking a little time to consider it.

Written by two veteran New York Times correspondents, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, it began, “Pentagon planners and military commanders have identified 20 to 30 towns and cities in Iraq that must be brought under control before nationwide elections can be held in January, and have devised detailed ways of deciding which ones should be early priorities, according to senior administration and military officials.”

There, right in paragraph one, were those unnamed “senior administration and military officials” who so populate our elite press that they sometimes present crowd-control problems. These are the people our most prestigious newspapers just love to trust and who, anonymous as they are, make reading those papers a ridiculous act of faith for the rest of us. At a time when Sen. Kerry has accused the Bush administration of not having a “plan” for Iraq, other than “more of the same,” here was a piece that claimed exactly the opposite. Such a plan, the “U.S. National Strategy for Supporting Iraq,” was detailed; it had been written over the summer and represented a “six-pronged strategy”; it embodied a “new” approach for the U.S. in Iraq “approved at the highest levels of the Bush administration” — and the confirmation of the truth and accuracy of all this was that lovely little kicker at the end of a sentence: “officials said.” According to Schmitt and Shanker, “the officials” (born, I assume, to Mr. and Mrs. Official) called the plan “a comprehensive guideline to their actions in the next few months.”

A “comprehensive guideline” — and this only got you through paragraph two of a front-page column of print and two more columns on page 12 (the catch-all page which held the rest of the Iraq news that day); 30 paragraphs, 1,593 words on the “plan,” including convenient-for-the-administration “news” that “President Bush has been briefed on it, administration officials said.” (This, by the way, on the same day that the Times allowed former Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer to write What I Really Said About Iraq, an op-ed in which he ate crow for his embarrassing comments that week at an insurance convention in West Virginia. These had confirmed Democratic criticisms that from second one the Bush administration had not put enough troops on the ground. Bremer was, he told Times readers, putting his remarks “in the correct context.” What he actually did, while repledging his fealty to George Bush and his “vision” for Iraq, was to subtly re-edit those “remarks” as Joshua Marshall pointed out at his Talkingpointsmemo.com website. What, according to the Washington Post, he had originally said was: “The single most important change — the one thing that would have improved the situation [in Iraq] — would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout.” In the Times op-ed, he reworded that critique thusly: “I believe it would have been helpful to have had more troops early on to stop the looting that did so much damage to Iraq’s already decrepit infrastructure.” But I digress.)

A reading of the Shanker and Schmitt piece does not reveal whether either journalist actually laid eyes on the plan they were describing; certainly, as their sources described it to them, it sounded like a remarkably empty, even laughable, set of “classified directives” to make the front-page. For instance, there is this choice passage: “For each of the cities identified as guerrilla strongholds or vulnerable to falling into insurgent hands, a set of measurements was created to track whether the rebels’ grip was being loosened by initiatives of the new Iraqi government, using such criteria as the numbers of Iraqi security personnel on patrol, voter registration, economic development and health care.”

It’s a passage that does at least contain eerie echoes of the Vietnam War. Then, our military “measured” everything from dead bodies to “enemy base areas neutralized” and toted it all up in either the Hamlet Evaluation System (after which hamlets in South Vietnam were rated A — “A superhamlet. Just about everything going right in both security and development” — to E — “Definitely under VC control. Local [government] officials and our advisers don’t enter except on military operation”), or in the many indices of the Measurement of Progress system. All of this was then quantified in elaborate “attrition” charts and diagrams with multicolored bar graphs illustrating various “trends” in death and destruction and used to give visiting politicians or the folks back in Washington a little more fantasy news on the “progress” being made in the war.

As in Vietnam, this sort of thing in Iraq is sure to prove laughable on the ground because the territories being “measured” are largely beyond the reach of American intelligence or governmental control. Such “measurements,” if ever actually carried out, will likely prove desperately surreal affairs, except back home where they may, as in the New York Times, have their uses.

Similarly, consider the six “prongs” of the new strategy (on which the President has been briefed), as related by various “officials.” These turn out to be such brain-dazzling “basic priorities” as: “to neutralize insurgents, ensure legitimate elections, create jobs and provide essential services, establish foundations for a strong economy, develop good governance and the rule of law and increase international support for the effort.” Homer Simpson, were he a Times reader, would surely have said, “Doh!”

Or here’s another gem of supposed front-page-worthy wisdom from the “plan,” as “summarized” by “one senior administration official”: “Use the economic tools and the governance tools to separate out hard-core insurgents you have to deal with by force from those people who are shooting at us because somebody’s paying them $100 a week.” Now, it’s true that military people in Iraq officially lump together terrorist groups with the home-grown and increasingly substantial Iraqi resistance and call them all “anti-Iraqi forces” (the troops we are training are, of course, the “Iraqi forces”). But if our military or civilian leaders really believe that all they have to do is use those “governance” and “economic tools” to separate the “hard-core” from unemployed Iraqis being paid to kill, then our whole counterinsurgency effort is already brain-dead and it’s not just our President and a few neocons who are living in a world of fantasy spin. The other, more logical conclusion might be that this dazzling document, worth a front-page scoop and tons of Times granted anonymity, is in fact largely a propaganda document rather than a planning one. If the speakers — you can’t quite give them the dignity or integrity of calling them leakers — had real confidence in the plan, wouldn’t they have wanted their real names associated with it?

Almost the only substantive information in the piece comes not in quotes from squadrons of unnamed officials, but in the form of periodic caveats from Schmitt and Shanker, two old pros, about the unplanned and completely disastrous situation in Iraq. (“As American military deaths have increased in Iraq and commanders struggle to combat a tenacious insurgency…”)

On close inspection, the plan, news of which was evidently offered exclusively to the New York Times, proves to be a strange mix of fantasy and emptiness, at least as reported in the imperial paper of choice. But there’s no question that getting it onto the front page of the Times with the media equivalent of immunity was a modest coup for the Bush administration. First of all, the front page of the Times ratified that there is such a “plan” at a moment when the administration has been embarrassed by Iraq’s devolution into reconstruction-less chaos and the loss of significant portions of the country to the insurgents. Under the circumstances, this was a small domestic triumph of planning.

Then, there was the hint in the piece that the administration was also putting in place a withdrawal strategy, another kind of (fantasy?) “plan.” After the January election in Iraq, which may or may not take place, American forces may be downsized a brigade at a time “if the security situation improves and Iraqi forces show they can maintain order” — a theme Donald Rumsfeld picked up on his weekend visit to a Marine base in Iraq. (“The United States may be able to reduce its troop levels in Iraq after the January elections if security improves and Iraqi government forces continue to expand and improve, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday.”)

Then there was the generally administration-friendly language of the piece in which one of those “senior administration officials” could be quoted without comment as saying, “We’re doing kinetic strikes in Falluja.” Kinetic strikes? Is that what our daily bombing of Falluja is? Or how about this sentence: “While the broad themes are not new, senior officials now make no secret that those missions have not been carried out successfully during the first year following the end of major combat operations.” Major combat operations? That has an oddly familiar ring to it — not surprisingly, since it was the President’s much-quoted phrase in his now infamous Top Gun landing and speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln. But can we any longer believe that the year after the taking of Baghdad saw no “major combat operations”?

Of course, this is not in the normal sense reporting, or rather it’s run-of-the-mill access reportage from our imperial capital. “Pentagon Sets Steps to Retake Iraq Rebel Sites” is essentially a stalking horse for the Bush administration, but to fully grasp what this means it’s necessary to leave the ostensible news in the piece and turn to the far more interesting subject of the piece’s sourcing. 1600 words and only one person — Lt. Gen. Wallace C. Gregson, the Marine commander in the Middle East — is quoted by name. (“We can start demonstrating that the course that Prime Minister Allawi’s government is on, is the one that will bring peace, stability and prosperity to Iraq.”) Poor sucker, he obviously didn’t know how this game was meant to be played, and so he alone might someday find himself accountable for what he’s quoted as saying.

Last February, perhaps feeling the sting of criticism for its prewar coverage of the Bush administration and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Times expanded its previous sourcing rules, in an official document entitled Confidential News Sources. Essentially, that document instituted a more elaborate version of policies already in use, calling among other things for more extensive descriptive labels for anonymous sources (“The word u2018official’ is overused, and cries out for greater specificity.”) and more fulsome descriptions of how and why the paper offered its grant of anonymity.

The document began:

“The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy. When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation — as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion… Exceptions will occur in the reporting of highly sensitive stories, when it is we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us. Similarly they will occur in approaches to authoritative officials in government who, as a matter of policy, do not speak for attribution. On those occasions, we may use an offer of anonymity as a wedge to make telephone contact, get an interview or learn a fact.”

It also contained the following line, which the Shanker and Schmitt piece would seem to contravene: “We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack.” But perhaps using a new “plan” to gain partisan advantage in an election campaign doesn’t come under the category of “partisan attack,” even when the journalists themselves acknowledge this to be the case in their piece. For paragraphs five and six of the article do offer a description of how the piece came about, indicating for one thing that the Times approached the administration, asking for an answer to the question, “Is there a plan for Iraq?” Shanker and Schmitt added the following on the people granted anonymity and on their motivations:

“The three military officers who discussed the plan have seen the briefing charts for the new strategy, and the three civilian officials who discussed it were involved in deliberations that resulted in the strategy. The civilians, in particular, agreed to discuss the newest thinking in part to rebut criticism from campaign of Senator John Kerry that the administration has no plan for Iraq.”

In this light, then, let’s take a look at the sourcing of this piece of hot “news.” Here are the various anonymous-sourcing descriptive words and phrases used in the piece (with multiple uses in parentheses):

Senior administration and military officials; senior officials; the officials (2); these officials; military officials; administration officials (2); senior administration, Pentagon, and military officials; the three military officers who discussed the plan; the three civilian officials who discussed it; the civilians; one [or a] senior administration official (4); one American official; one Pentagon official; American diplomats and commanders in Iraq; Defense Department and other administration officials; commanders; American commanders; Lt General Wallace C. Gregson.

In other words, 77 words in a 1,600-word piece (not even counting words that naturally go with such sourcing descriptions like “says” or “said”) were devoted to 17 different formulations of anonymity. Even with wings, a Daedalus facing the Times on Friday morning would never have made his way out of this verbal labyrinth. Not only is there no way for a non-insider to tell much about the three senior military officers and the three senior civilian officials who seem to have been the main sources for the paper; but, as the piece goes on, it becomes almost impossible to tell whether “one American official” or “Defense Department and other administration officials” are these six people or other sources entirely.

For knowledgeable Washington media or political insiders, perhaps it’s not terribly difficult to sort out more or less who was speaking to Shanker and Schmitt. The question is: why is it important that the rest of us not know? What made this piece worthy of such a blanket grant of anonymity, except the fact that Important Administration Figures were willing to speak on conditions of anonymity about a subject they were eager to put before the public? Under these circumstances, what anonymous sourcing offers is largely a kind of deniability. The “sources” will remain unaccountable for policy statements and policy that may soon enough prove foolish or failed. We’re clearly not talking of the leaking of secrets here, but of the leaking of advantageous publicity material.

This is, of course, an every day way of life in the world of the Washington media. My own feeling is that anonymity should generally be confined to use to protect the physical or economic well-being of someone, usually a subordinate and so a whistleblower, who might otherwise suffer from publicly saying something of significance to the rest of us. Hardly the situation of a group of high government and military officials trying to spin the public via a major newspaper. If you read the Times, the Washington Post or another major paper (the Wall Street Journal largely excepted) and want to check out the anonymity game, just pick up your morning rag and start counting. The practice is startlingly widespread, once you start to look for it, and was roundly attacked in the pages of the New York Times last June by the paper’s own Public Editor or ombudsman, Daniel Okrent. In An Electrician From the Ukrainian Town of Lutsk, he called for turning “the use of unidentified sources into an exceptional event.”

Jack Shafer of the online magazine Slate wrote a sharp follow-up column on the subject of anonymity (“Journalists have become so comfortable with anonymous sourcing that they’re often the first ones to propose it”), suggesting that Washington’s reporters felt comfortable as “kept men and women.” On the off-chance that this wasn’t true, he extended the following offer: “If you cover a federal department or agency and want to drop a dime on your manipulative handlers, send me e-mail at pressbox@hotmail.com. Name your anonymous briefer and point me to a press account of the briefing, and I’ll do the rest.” Two weeks later, Okrent issued a challenge of his own to the five largest papers and the Associated Press to “jointly agree not to cover group briefings conducted by government officials and other political figures who refuse to allow their names to be used.” And then life went on.

The Shanker and Schmitt piece was certainly typical of a modern form of yellow journalism, a good example of the sort of front-page “access” articles you’re likely to find any week at any of our major papers. Space on the front-page of the New York Times is, after all, a valuable commodity. As we saw before the invasion of Iraq, it’s been particularly valuable for the Bush administration, since the Times is considered a not-so-friendly outlet — and, as a consequence, confirmation of anything on its front page can be useful indeed.

Undoubtedly, a stew of factors helps explain the appearance of pieces like this. The urge of reporters to make the front-page with a scoop is powerful and easily played upon by administration officials who can, of course, hand the same “story” off to, say, reporters from the Washington Post, if conditions aren’t met. These are, in other words, bargaining situations and our imperial press, paper by paper, is seldom likely to be in the driver’s seat as long as its directors set such an overwhelming value on anything high officials might be willing to say, no matter under what anonymous designations. That much of this is likely to fall into the category of lie and spin can hardly be news to journalists. But it’s a way of life. In this context, what the grant of anonymity represents, if you think about it for a moment, is a kind of institutional kowtow before the power of the imperial presidency.

Under these circumstances, that the Times approached the administration and not vice-versa on the question of a “plan” for Iraq hardly matters. Imagine, for a minute, a tourist approaching a three-card monte game on the streets of New York and suggesting to the con man running it that perhaps they should all play cards. After all, if you can spot your mark coming, all the better that he approaches you.

This would obviously have been a very different story if it had said, for instance, that Paul Wolfowitz and/or Condoleezza Rice and/or Donald Rumsfeld and/or Joint Chiefs head Gen. Richard Myers and/or any of their underlings had by name made such statements. Without the grant of anonymity, the statements in this piece would, ironically enough, have looked far more like what they are: spin, lies, and fantasy.

What does anonymity actually do, other than counterintuitively establish the authority of sources who would have far less authority in their own skins? Through anonymity of this sort, what the press protects is not its sources, but its deals. For all of us locked out — and we are locked out of our own newspapers — there’s no way of knowing what those deals were. But behind an article like this are house rules (and we’re talking White House here), whether explicit or implicit.

For administration figures, this is an all-gain, no-pain situation. For reporters, it gets them on the front page and in line for the next set of “stories,” some of which might even be real. It keeps them in the game. Shanker and Schmitt are old pros. They normally do good, solid work. But they, like the rest of the press, live in the imperial capital of our planet. They play by the rules because their newspaper plays by (and dictates) those rules. And the rules drive them are not only cowardly but set up to drive them into the arms of any administration.

What the Shanker and Schmitt piece about the Pentagon’s “plan” did was to put this bit of Bush-spin into circulation for the administration in the election season. As it turned out, it wasn’t a major matter. It didn’t play a part in the second presidential debate. It just proved a small, passing part of the administration’s scene-setting for its version of a presidential campaign. At this moment, with so many angry bureaucrats, officials, and military officers in Washington and parts of the CIA — to take but one example — at war with the administration, Washington is a sieve with a tidal basin of information leaking out of every hole. Given that this is a wounded administration, its story right now is but one — still powerful — competing version of the news in our press.

But the Shanker and Schmitt piece should remind us, whether for a second Bush administration or any other administration, that the way of life that made much of prewar mainstream journalism a stalking horse for the administration’s mad policies and outlandish interpretations of reality is still alive and kicking. The rules of the house and the way of doing business are deeply embedded in the journalistic way of life. The allure of the imperial presidency is still powerful. Official lies, official spin, and anonymous officials are the entwined axis of evil of imperial journalism.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture.

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