Memo: To Editors
From Jude Wanniski
Re: Faking It
Whatís going on in journalism these days? Thatís what my friends and clients have been asking me about lately, what with young journalists making up stories in The New Republic and the Boston Globe and getting away with it for years. And now we have CNN & Time coming together in what the Wall Street Journal editorial page Tuesday characterized as a journalistic FELONY, for goodness sakes. Reporters and producers and editors at these media outlets came together in a swarm to give us an incredible story about our own U.S. Army dropping deadly nerve gas on Vietnam deserters! And without a court martial!! When I heard the story, folks, I knew it was fake, and I knew it was fake even after all the editors stood by it. It had to be fake because it could never have happened the way CNN and Time reported it. There are certain things you know have to be faked when they are reported, stories that just do not add up.
Like when I read several years ago in the news pages of the Wall Street Journal that Michael Milken was suspected of insider trading at Drexel Burnham. Iíd never met Milken, but it did not add up that a man who had made billions of dollars with a dazzling insight about high yield financial instruments (otherwise known as junk bonds), would fool around with grabbing nickels and dimes via felonious activities. As it turns out, the longer history plays itself out, the more it turns out I was right, and that WSJ reporter James B. Stewart was faking it, and his boss at the time, WSJ editor Norman Pearlstine (who now is editor of Time), was complicit in this journalistic fakery. Stewart, who is now a top gun for The New Yorker, wrote an entire book that is mostly fiction, which the WSJ ran an excerpt of on its second front page. Yes, editors, STOP the Presses! Thereís a News Crisis!
And howís about another story that never struck me as being kosher. If I could not swallow the story that our US Army used weapons of mass destruction against soldiers who had gone AWOL, I also found it hard to believe that Saddam Hussein had gassed his own people. Now Adolf Hitler did in fact gas his own people, so there is a precedent, Iíll admit. But because we were going to go to war with Saddam on the grounds that he had gassed his own people, I decided to check it out myself. Despite the fact there are upwards of several thousand members of the Washington press corps who have access to telephones, the story of Saddam gassing his own Kurds has become etched in granite. Yet it was made up, faked by journalists who are known to have integrity. By that I mean journalists who are predisposed to believe baloney when its suits their tastes, and are willing to accept Pulitzers for the chance to be the first kids on their blocks to report same. It turns out the Pentagon investigated charges that Saddam gassed his own people, issuing its findings prior to the Iraq invasion of Kuwait. It concluded that the gassing must have been done by the Iranians, who were at war with Iraq. Now all you editors can jump up and down on CNNís Peter Arnett for having an oar in somewhere in the Vietnam nerve gas story. (Editors of conservative publications want Peter's scalp, I see. What do you expect of a fellow who has questionned US propaganda in the Gulf War? Leave Arnett alone, I humbly suggest, and look in the mirror for someone who is part of the crisis in the press corps.)
If you want me to, editors, I will list you dozens of major stories that have been fabricated by our Ruling Class and dutifully reported by your folks in the field. It goes on all the time. The rationale for the nerve gas story and the Boston Globe lady and The New Republic kid is that there is so much pressure to fill a news hole, to get ratings, to build circulation, etc., is that you are all out there hitting you teams over the head so hard that they are forced to fake it, to keep their jobs, get noticed in the general wolf pack, and advance their careers. Well, yes, okay. There are more reporters than there are stories, but thatís always been true. And please donít blame Matt Drudge for putting Milken in jail. In fact, leave Drudge alone. He makes mistakes, but he's often the only safety valve we have. When thousands or reporters and hundreds of editors make up their minds that hey don't have to make any more phone calls, that they know all they need to know, then a Drudge comes in handy.
Hereís what I think the problem is at bottom: We were at war for a long time, with a nuclear superpower that was threatening to blow us up. Our ruling class told a lot of lies in this era, putting out a lot of misinformation. When it got to the point where it went beyond all reason in telling lies to the American people, there were not only civil disturbances, but also rebellions in your ranks. And in looking back, we can now say it was worth all the deception, the disinformation, the treachery on our part, via CIA and other agents deception. Allís fair and love and war. Right?
But the war is over. We won. We have to stop thinking as if we were still at war. We have to demobilize intellectually as well as militarily. When your reporters dig up facts that cut against your own political agenda, please put the story ahead of your agenda instead of sweeping it under the rug. Eventually, you will be able to win back the confidence of the people you should be serving. There isn't one editor in the country I can completely trust on that score. Each of you has an ax to grind outside the communication process. I can't trust anything I read any more, except from a handful of reporters who I know sitll operate the old-fashioned way. Everyone has to adjust to peace. We have to reform our coverage of government. That is, the standards of American journalism also have to be restored. Stop the presses and clean them up.