Various matters

The media's Libby failures; embedded vs. non-embedded Iraq reporting; war supporters search for someone to blame.

Glenn Greenwald
July 11, 2007 4:09PM (UTC)

(updated below)

(1) At Media Matters, Eric Boehlert has written the definitive analysis of the media's behavior -- recent and longer-term -- concerning the Lewis Libby matter. The essay uses this specific conduct to highlight how our political press functions in general. I'm hesitant to excerpt any of it because the the whole piece ought to be read in full, but here is one representative point:

The media's performance simply highlighted scores of unflattering newsroom deficiencies that have become calcified during the Bush years.

For instance, on July 4, The New York Times tried to shed some light on how Bush came to the decision to wave off a convicted felon's jail time. The news article was headlined "Bush Is Said to Have Held Long Debate on Decision," and in it readers learned that a deliberative Bush had "delved deeply into the evidence" of the Libby trial, consulted with aides, and oversaw "almost clinical" dissection "with a detailed focus on the facts of the case" that had stretched out over several weeks. How did the Times reporters know that Bush had done his due diligence? Because anonymous Bush aides and Republican sources told them so.

Let's put a very fine point on this: The New York Times has no idea how Bush came to his decision to commute Libby's sentence. None. The decision was arguably the most momentous political verdict of Bush's second term and Times reporters were absolutely clueless -- lacking a single independent source -- as to how Bush came to it, and what went into the White House deliberations.

Their only insight was provided by obviously partisan aides who painted for the Times a portrait of a serious and thoughtful Bush pouring over his legal options, which the Times gladly printed as fact. (Read Newsweek's similarly lame, anonymous-only, "behind the scenes" account, featuring a deeply "conflicted" Bush.)

Think about it. More than 70 months after Bush took office, Beltway reporters are still clinging to anonymous Bush aides for the most basic information and granting them anonymity in exchange for providing so-called inside (i.e., fawning) details. This is the box the press corps finds itself trapped in after allowing the Bush White House to re-write the news media rules when the administration first set up shop in 2001.

On any given day, one could -- and sometimes, it feels like I do -- write this same exact passage about most of our media's leading news stories. The predominant journalistic method is to run to administration officials whose job (or at least goal) is to shape news events into a pro-Bush narrative, inexplicably grant them the cover of anonymity, write down what they say, and then report their version as "news."

It happens over and over again just like that, literally on a daily basis. It is how they function and the corruption in it is so glaring that one is hard-pressed to reach any conclusion other than the fact that this is the role they think they ought to perform. Again, I highly recommend reading Eric's entire analysis.

(2) Right-wing blogs are excitingly promoting a post by JD Johannes, who has been embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq and writes about all of the Great and Glorious Victories we are Winning over Al Qaeda. Johannes is one of those who has been trying to claim for quite some time that -- as he put it in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute a year ago -- "an unconscionable amount of what we in the press have been feeding the American public regarding the war in Iraq is fashioned by the propaganda arms of our enemies."

Johannes is a GOP political operative, having served as an Assistant to former Kansas Attorney General extremist Phil Kline and, prior to that, to Sam Brownback. In the post in question, he calls Glenn Reynolds his "blog-father" and refers affectionately to his "friends at [Michelle Malkin's]"

In other words, in the world of right-wing war cheerleaders, Johannes is the type of Objective Journalistic Source to whom we should be listening as we decide how great things truly are going in Iraq. The assurances of Great Progress from people like Johannes over the last four years have proven to be so credible and reliable -- to say nothing of the great wisdom of their pre-war prognostications -- that they are entitled to be believed.

For some reason, Johannes seems to be under the impression that his latest dispatch about all the Great Things happening in Iraq contradicts statements I have made in the past. He specifically points to this post of mine from back in May which criticized Joe Klein for granting anonymity to military officials to tout the glories of the "Anbar Awakening." Johannes' response to my denial that Sunnis are fighting against Al Qaeda in Anbar is brilliant, except for the small fact that I never denied any such thing.

In the post in question, I pointed out the deficiencies in Joe Klein's reporting methods -- i.e., that he baselessly granted anonymity to a U.S. military official to do nothing but make pro-war claims. As I explained back then (see Item (2)) in response to the same fallacy, though it ought to have been too obvious to require explanation, criticizing a reporter's use of anonymous sources is a completely distinct matter from contesting the accuracy of the anonymously conveyed claims.


From what I can tell, the crux of Johannes' argument is that because he was in Iraq (embedded with Able Company, 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment), and I wasn't, his claims of Great Progress and Glorious Victory ought to believed.

Journalist Patrick Cockburn of the British newspaper, The Independent, has lived in Iraq for 50% of the time since the war began. Unlike Johannes, Cockburn travels and reports on Iraq without attaching himself to the U.S. military, a far more independent way -- and far more dangerous way -- to report on the war. This morning, Cockburn filed an article entitled "The impossible task set for an embattled government" and reports:

The benchmarks the Iraqi government is meant to achieve in exchange for US support were never realistic and have more to do with American than Iraqi politics.

The weak and embattled Iraqi government is supposed to make changes which the US at the height of its power in Iraq failed to make stick. At stake are policies deeply divisive among Iraqis that are to be introduced at the behest of a foreign power, the US, in a way that makes the Iraqi government look as if it is a client of America.

One US benchmark is for the elimination of militias and an end to sectarian violence. But the Shia-Kurdish parties that make up the ruling coalition almost all have their own powerful militias that they have no intention of dissolving. In much of southern Iraq the militias and the local police forces are the same. In almost all cases units of the security forces are unwilling to act against their own community. . . .

Politics in Iraq is largely stalemated. The "surge", the introduction of 22,000 more US troops, has had only a limited effect on the ground. Sectarian warfare between Shia and Sunni in the capital declined for a few months but then rose again. Baghdad is increasingly a Shia-dominated city. The US Army did not in the event confront the Shia militias, something it now demands the Iraqi government should do.

Earlier this year, in February, Cockburn documented that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has done more than any other single event to radicalize the Muslim world -- including in Iraq -- and has caused a significant increase in terrorist attacks on the West.

And back in July 2005, when the JD Johannes of the world -- along with their "blog-fathers" and other assorted dear friends -- were still trying to swindle Americans into believing that things were going great in Iraq and reports about uncontrollable violence were the fabrications of a war-hating media, it was Cockburn who wrote the definitive article -- entitled "Iraq: This is now an unwinnable conflict" -- in which he warned:

The war in Iraq is now joining the Boer War in 1899 and the Suez crisis in 1956 as ill-considered ventures that have done Britain more harm than good. It has demonstrably strengthened al-Qa'ida by providing it with a large pool of activists and sympathisers across the Muslim world it did not possess before the invasion of 2003. The war, which started out as a demonstration of US strength as the world's only superpower, has turned into a demonstration of weakness. Its 135,000-strong army does not control much of Iraq. . . .

Before Iraq, those who undertook suicide bombings were a small, hunted group; since the invasion they have become a potent force, their ideology and tactics adopted by militant Islamic groups around the world. Their numbers may still not be very large but they are numerous enough to create mayhem in Iraq and anywhere else they strike, be it in London or Sharm el Sheikh.

The bombers have paralysed Baghdad. I have spent half my time living in Iraq since the invasion. The country has never been so dangerous as today. Some targets have been hit again and again. The army recruiting centre at al-Muthana old municipal airport in the middle of Baghdad has been attacked no fewer than eight times, the last occasion on Wednesday when eight people were killed. . . . For all the newspaper and television coverage of Iraq, the foreign media still fail to convey the lethal and anarchic quality of day-to-day living.

Fairness compels me to concede that Cockburn never worked for far-right, pro-war Republican politicians from Kansas -- and I doubt he considers Glenn Reynolds his "blog-father" and Michelle Malkin's minions his "friends" -- so his credentials as a war reporter are obviously suspect. That just goes without saying.

Nonetheless, Cockburn certainly has spent ample time in Iraq -- neither seeing the world from the perspective of U.S. military spokespeople nor relying upon them for his safety. And his reports have, unlike our nation's most vocal war cheerleaders, been consistently accurate, depressingly so, from the start. A rational person would use that record of journalistic accuracy, rather than deciding who has been clapping loudest for the Leader's war, as the principal method for determining who is credible and who is not.

(3) Blue Texan documents the latest efforts by war supporters to find someone -- anyone -- to blame for the disasters they have spawned, other than themselves.

(4) The discussion of the Iran chapter of A Tragic Legacy over at TPM's Book Club is now complete, including my last post on the pernicious motives behind the shift in focus from Iran's nuclear program to its alleged "proxy war" against the U.S.

And over at FDL, TRex, who has finished reading A Tragic Legacy, has posted a lengthy and insightful review of the book.

UPDATE: (5) What a difference a mere 8 days can make:


Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff, July 2, 2007:

The United States remains safe after the attack at a Scottish airport and two foiled car bombs in London, and there is no plan to raise the terror alert level, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Monday.

"We are safe, but we are safe because we continue to pay attention and we continue to add security measures," Chertoff said as the Fourth of July holiday approaches.

Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff, yesterday:

Fearing complacency among the American people over possible terror threats, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in Chicago Tuesday that the nation faces a heightened chance of an attack this summer.

"I believe we are entering a period this summer of increased risk," Chertoff told the Chicago Tribune's editorial board in an unusually blunt and frank assessment of America's terror threat level. . . .We've seen a lot more public statements from Al Qaeda," he said. "There are a lot of reasons to speculate about that but one reason that occurs to me is that they're feeling more comfortable and raising expectations.

"We could easily be attacked," Chertoff added.

Does anything they say make even basic sense any more (h/t reader CM)? Perhaps the observations today from "reasonable conservative" Jon Swift provide the clues for deciphering these statements:

Of course, no one wants another terrorist attack on American soil, but many conservatives are coming to the reluctant conclusion that, regretfully, another terrorist attack may be just what we need right now to wake the country up.

You could almost see former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum shake his head sadly as he told Hugh Hewitt on his radio show, "Between now and November, a lot of things are going to happen, and I believe that by this time next year, the American public's going to have a very different view of this war, and it will be because, I think, of some unfortunate events, that like we're seeing unfold in the UK."

While a series of "unfortunate events" even worse than the ones in the Lemony Snicket books would certainly be unfortunate, it wouldn't be all bad news since people would start supporting the War in Iraq again. Sometimes, you just have to take the bad along with the good.

Another terrorist attack, terrible as that would be, would not just reverse the war's bad poll numbers, it would also help the President. "At the end of the day, I believe fully the president is doing the right thing, and I think all we need is some attacks on American soil like we had on [Sept. 11, 2001 ]," said the chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, Dennis Milligan, last month, "and the naysayers will come around very quickly to appreciate not only the commitment for President Bush, but the sacrifice that has been made by men and women to protect this country."

I don't think Mulligan is saying that he necessarily wants another terrorist attack, he's just saying that if there was one, there would at least be an upside.

Anyone who reads enough right-wing pundits knows full well that what many of them long for more than anything else is another such attack, so that they can be proven right (as though the debate in question is whether there really is such a thing as a Terrorist Threat, as opposed to whether invading and bombing Muslim countries and lawlessly imprisoning and torturing thousands of Muslims will reduce or increase that threat).

(6) Are White House correspondents afraid to attend (as props) a ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled this week to commemorate a new White House briefing room? According to the NYT's Sheryl Gay Stolberg, they are afraid . . . because of the criticisms that have been directed at them from "liberal bloggers" (h/t goodlead):

Back when he was riding high in the polls, when his every utterance made headlines and the press planes trailing him around the country were still full, President Bush had little need to indulge reporters with ceremonial pleasantries.

But that is what Mr. Bush intends to do Wednesday, when he cuts the ribbon for the renovated White House briefing room. . . . .

Mrs. Bush will help cut the ribbon. Yet with the White House press corps under attack from liberal bloggers as being too cozy with the Bush administration, some reporters say they feel a little bit queasy about attending. Mr. Snow said the president would not take questions, which poses a quandary for journalists uneasy about being seen with him at a purely ceremonial affair.

Still, Mark McKinnon, a former Bush media strategist, senses "an opportunity for detente" in the awkward affair. "But," Mr. McKinnon said, "I wouldnb

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Washington, D.c.

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •