Memo To: David Broder
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Your Sunday column
Dear David: I read your excellent Sunday column in the Washington Post, “The Media, Losing Their Way.” As the dean of the Washington press corps, you certainly have the standing to make the argument as you did in your opening paragraph: “We don't yet know who will win the 2004 election, but we know who has lost it. The American news media have been clobbered.”
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:
In 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 blow.
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 this week 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 a 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 “disinformation.”
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 “suspected” 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 standards.
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.