The media can't handle the truth

Media sheep facing truth-hungry Internet wolves

Published August 27, 2009 10:33AM (EDT)

In this March 12, 2002 file photo, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge unveils a color-coded terrorism warning system in Washington. The Homeland Security Department says it will review the multicolored terror alert system that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
In this March 12, 2002 file photo, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge unveils a color-coded terrorism warning system in Washington. The Homeland Security Department says it will review the multicolored terror alert system that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

So yet another Bush administration Cabinet-level official has petitioned to get his conscience and reputation back. This time, it's Tom Ridge, former secretary of Homeland Security. The one-time Pennsylvania governor admits in a new book that he felt political pressure from the White House to issue bogus terror alerts before the 2004 presidential election.

Big surprise, right? By 2004, anybody who didn't grasp that crying wolf was the Bush/Cheney administration's basic game plan was probably also astonished last January when the "Texas cowboy" who's never been seen on a horse chose a Dallas mansion over his beloved ranch. Golly, who's doing all that brush-cutting?

Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of the Ridge revelations has been a flame war that's broken out between establishment Washington pundits and less-reverent bloggers. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder started it by observing in smug inside-the-Beltway fashion that he and like-minded colleagues were actually right to be wrong about fake terror warnings.

People who smelled a rat, see, "based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence." Whereas, sober-sided thinkers like him credited the Bush administration's good intentions.

Confronted with ample contemporaneous evidence of Bush administration flimflams by Salon's Glenn Greenwald and the scholarly Marcy Wheeler of, Ambinder apologized for the "gut hatred" part. But he alibied: "Information asymmetry is always going to exist, and, living as we do in a democratic system, most journalists are going to give the government the benefit of some doubt, even having learned lessons about giving the government that benefit."

Yeah, sure. Purely with regard to terrorism and national security, by 2004, Bush/Cheney had already gotten caught deceiving the public about having "no warning" before the 9/11 attacks, not to mention about Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. If skepticism was still inappropriate, would it ever be warranted?

Yet people who found the timing of terror alerts suspect, such as then-Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, were dismissed as crackpots.

It was much the same after former Secretary of State Colin Powell confessed misgivings about his 2003 U.N. speech that stampeded the United States into an ill-advised war in Iraq. How could any serious American journalist possibly have seen that coming? Or, as your humble, obedient servant here wrote at the time, "War fever, catch it."

This column summarized "mainstream" opinion on Feb. 12, 2003: "The allegedly 'liberal' Washington Post responded editorially with a one-word headline, 'Irrefutable.' Columnist Mary McGrory announced that despite being almost a pacifist ... 'I'm Persuaded,' mostly by what she described as Powell's unimpeachable integrity. Joining the stampede was New York Times columnist Bill Keller, who noted that 'The I-Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk Club includes op-ed regulars at this newspaper and the Washington Post, the editors of the New Yorker, the New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek."

And yet it was all rubbish, exactly as some of us raised on intelligence hoaxes suspected. Evidence of what I called "chicanery and fraud" in the U.S. case against Iraq was obvious to anybody unafraid to see it.

But here's the big thing about "mainstream" journalism and what Ambinder calls "information asymmetry." Upton Sinclair said it best: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Furthermore, the safest place during a stampede is the middle of the herd. Establishment journalists with mortgages, car payments and children in private schools saw what happened to the Dixie Chicks. Why couldn't it happen to them? (The job I got fired from that month wasn't paying my bills.) The United States had been attacked. Feelings ran high, especially in New York and Washington.

What did it matter if we killed the wrong Arabs, so long as Arabs were being killed? In Thomas Friedman's immortal words, "We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth."

Under oath to a Senate committee, Condi Rice told a barefaced whopper about the Aug. 6, 2001, CIA terrorism briefing that Bush blew off. Media insiders pretended not to notice. Bush made a slapstick skit of searching under his Oval Office desk for Iraqi WMDs. The press laughed on cue. He claimed that Saddam Hussein forced him to invade Iraq by expelling U.N. arms inspectors. (In reality, Bush made them leave.) Pundits praised his charm.

Long under siege for "liberal bias," media careerists now find themselves confronted with people they see as passionate amateurs. True, fearless scrappers like my friend Joe Conason have always been around, and somebody like Paul Krugman -- a world-class economist who doesn't care what, say, MSNBC's Chris Matthews thinks of him -- can be very annoying.

But what's really driving these jokers up the wall is economic and intellectual competition from the Internet: people with first-class minds and a passion for truth that some of them can barely remember.

© 2009 Gene Lyons. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Association

By Gene Lyons

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

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

George W. Bush Iraq Middle East Tom Ridge U.s. Military