• 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]
    runs the financial/political advisory service Wanniski.com.
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