Tag Archives: Iraq

Taking The Times

May 31, 2004

After reading The New York Times’ confession last week about its hapless reporting on Iraq’s weapons programs, I remembered Samuel Johnson’s comment after seeing a dog walk on its hind legs: It wasn’t done well, but the wonder is that it was done at all.

Truly, the Times’ Editor’s Note was a wondrous thing. Its scope alone was enough to provoke shock and awe.

The newspaper went way beyond copping to factual errors in its pre-war coverage of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Having reviewed hundreds of its articles on one of the most momentous stories of the new millennium, it fundamentally recanted.

The Times concluded that its reporters had credulously, repeatedly and wrongly bought into a reality concocted by disinformation peddlers who sought war. The result was a spate of articles from 2001 through 2003 about biological labs, terrorist training, aluminum tubes for A-bombs and the like that were enormously influential — and largely untrue.

Information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs “that was controversial then, and is questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” the Times stated. Readers weren’t told that the terrifying eventualities that unnamed “experts” warned about were considered farfetched, and even ridiculous, by other experts.

Times reporting was dependent on “a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change’ in Iraq.”

Singling out Ahmed Chalabi — for years Washington’s favorite Iraqi exile — the note continued: “Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations — in particular, this one.”

In a word The Times, the best news organization we have and are likely to see, had been had.

Though sweeping, The Times’ confession was also maladroit.

First, we never learn what prompted it. Mentioning Chalabi — newly branded a political pariah just days before when the U.S. raided his Iraq offices — unfortunately suggested that The Times felt free to discredit his information only because he had now been repudiated by official Washington.

Second, there’s a craven element to the note’s cozying up to the Bush administration as fellow victim of the same deception. That’s nonsense. It was the administration that warrantied Chalabi as credible, certifying his hysterical fictions as newsworthy and truthful.

Third, there’s nothing about the role other journalists played in forcing The Times to come clean. Excellent reporting in the New York Review of Books, the online magazines Slate and Salon and elsewhere had battered The Times for WMD errors and inconsistencies. The Editor’s Note represents a victory of professionalism over institutional pride, and the architects of that victory should have been acknowledged.

Finally, the recantation was relatively weightless. The note itself was 1,100 words, buried inside, with no front-page notice to readers and no advance word to other newspapers that had run the disputed stories.

Yet the coverage that the paper was repudiating helped bring about a war — partly by building support for it, surely by cutting the ground out from under its opponents. Last year, a team of Times reporters produced a 7,000-word treatise on the venial fabrications of a Jayson Blair, whose stories were at worst embarrassing. Why no similar commitment to exposing sins with such mortal consequence?

Still, as somebody who has castigated news media for pillorying goofball reporters over petty lies while blithely ignoring far more consequential, institutional failings, I find The Times’ admission deeply impressive. It was, as the distinguished British journalist Harold Evans put it, a “magnificent mea culpa.”

For the first time I can recall, a news organization has opened up to public scrutiny the squalid world of source relations, admitting not that it erred, but that in its haste to dominate coverage it was systematically manipulated by sources to whom its reporters became captive.

For the first time, an organization has admitted that its coverage followed a political line, and that stories consistent with that line were stressed while others were downplayed.

And for the first time, the organization has acknowledged that the wrongdoing was institutional in nature, and can’t be fixed by pitching a reporter or two over the side.

The Times’ admissions represent a step toward reasserting moral leadership within a profession that badly needs it. The step was unsteady, but it was bold.

A brave new online world of dueling icons

May 17, 2004

I was running the night city desk of the Miami Herald late one evening maybe 20 years ago when a news assistant dropped a photo from a traffic fatality on my desk. Some poor guy had stopped to help a disabled car when another car hit him. In the foreground of the picture was his shoe, which wasn’t empty.

Naturally, nobody considered putting that foot in the paper. Now, though, we’re about to tip into a new era, where the unparalleled abundance of communicating capacity will make a newspaper editor’s qualms an archaic irrelevancy. Atrocity is becoming part of the vocabulary of news.

The great Internet transformation is still in its infancy. That’s why we talk about the growing might of the online universe mainly in terms of the democratization of authorship, of all these new channels for words and ideas — the Internet as a vast extension of the printed word.

And that’s true. Even if the Internet carried nothing more than print, it would pack a revolutionary punch. It undermines two of the monopolies on which professional news media have long based their authority: exclusive access to sources and exclusive access to audiences, as Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, recently reminded the international Organization of News Ombudsmen in St. Petersburg.

The Internet gives civilians both. Witness the growing constellation of blogs — freelance information systems with news, feedback from communicants and links to authoritative sources.

But that’s still just the printed word. And as the recent flood of powerful images from the Middle East makes clear, words may assert, but it’s pictures that compel. And it’s here that the Internet is starting to have its greatest impact.

U.S. abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib had been alleged for months, but only when the pictures got loose did the world take notice. “It is the photographs that give one the vivid realization of what actually took place,” said defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “Words don’t do it. … You see the photographs, and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged.”

Columnist Jonah Goldberg argues that the hapless Nicholas Berg was savagely murdered on camera not in reprisal for the prison outrages, but in response to the pictures of them. The Abu Ghraib abuses must have been widely known in Baghdad, Goldberg reasons. But once the pictures made the humiliation truly public, vengeance became imperative.

That’s a persuasive argument, but to then blame the U.S. media for Berg’s murder entirely misses the point. It’s the total irrelevance of traditional media that the affair exemplifies. Berg’s butchers didn’t need CBS or the New Yorker to rub their noses in the jailhouse rot. They had the Web. And to bear witness to their response they again turned to the Web.

As disgusting as that episode is, the bigger story has another side. This technology can be an instrument of justice. A riveting documentary now on the Sundance Channel, titled “Seeing Is Believing,” examines the progressive potential of marrying state-of-the-art visual tools to the Internet.

The film focuses on a Filipino activist who trained a beleaguered coalition of villagers on Mindanao to use handheld video cameras to document the murderous response of the local gentry to their attempts to defend traditional land claims. They then used the Internet to pressure authorities in Manila.

Mini-cams enable even the most disenfranchised to document the conditions they endure. The Internet then lets them upload their stories and force the world to take notice.

And that’s a good thing. Just as it would have been good to have had pictures from that Baghdad prison when Saddam Hussein ran it. Or to have posted photos from Buchenwald in 1940.

The real problems come if we now plunge into a world of discourse that is even more superficial than news by sound bites, when conflict is waged with an eye — literally — to the images it will spawn, when politics becomes spectacle and spectacle becomes dueling icons. The danger iconic images — whether a toppling statue, an American led like a lamb to slaughter, or an Iraqi shackled and degraded — is that they may do no more than reaffirm belief and reassure believers.

Discourse withers, and without words pictures may say no more than a shoe in a roadway.

David Hockney, Fallujah and the camera’s truth

April 19, 2004

I got a call from a film-maker who was writing an article for a photo magazine pegged to some disparaging remarks about photojournalism made by David Hockney, the British artist, in an interview with the London newspaper, The Guardian. The interview was making a splash in photo circles and the writer wanted comment, so I went back to read it.

Hockney made two big points, both aimed at photography’s towering importance to our experience of the world.

First, he said, photos don’t have the power or expressive range of painting. Quoting the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, Hockney said photography could never depict heaven or hell. Nor could any photo equal Goya’s horrific 1808 painting of that firing squad in Madrid.

Second, he suggested, photos have no valid claim to documentary truth. They probably never did, considering the rich history of staged pictures, from Civil War dead to the Iwo Jima flag-raising.

But the notion that photos are authentic has become especially dubious in the digital age. Now they really can’t be trusted. Pictures can be nipped and tucked, recombined, fundamentally altered — easily and seamlessly. In fashion magazines, a world without pimples or cellulite, they routinely are.

So without power or truth, do photos still wield authority?

It occurred to me that Hockney’s critique has special irony in light of the fierce controversy reignited April 1 by the spectacular photos of jubilant Iraqis amid the charred body parts of slain U.S. guards in Fallujah.

The perennial newsroom debate is over which horrible images to run and which to hold back. U.S. media — fearless about exposing sordid private doings of celebrities — are notoriously prissy about frank images of war, genocide and disaster.

International press agencies often spare the United States such pictures, which get big play on the Continent. Photos of violence out of the Balkans, Mideast, Asia and Africa are routed via the United States to Latin America, where the public is more accepting of images of real bloodletting.

(Odd that people with more experience of such horrors tolerate pictures of them, while U.S. audiences are skittish — unless the mayhem is make-believe. Then, as long as it’s just for entertainment, the gore can be as promiscuous as movie magic can make it, an indulgence European audiences find repellent.)

In this case, many U.S. papers published pictures of the Fallujah celebrants and their trophies, and everybody fumed over whether that was the right thing to do — whether it pandered to anti-war sentiment, conveyed a reality we should confront, or was just needlessly gross.

More important, though, than the merits on either side was the common ground on which the fight was waged: Everyone agreed photos can really matter, and they’re eloquent and truthful witnesses to the world.

That credibility is well worth defending.

Photojournalists are struggling toward tighter vigilance over the widening temptation to manipulate pictures. A North Carolina photographer gave up a prestigious award when peers decided he had removed so much background detail from a shot of two firefighters that it was no longer a truthful image. A Los Angeles Times photographer — who achieved a more dramatic tableau by combining elements from pictures of a British soldier and a Basra crowd taken moments apart — was fired.

The response is harsh, but it’s right. It may also be futile. Our visual environment may already be so polluted with deceit that the only wonder is that people persist in believing what they see. As commentator J.D. Lasica suggested, “The 1980s may be the last decade in which photos could be considered evidence of anything.”

We know about the major felonies, such as Time darkening O.J. Simpson’s face on a 1994 cover and Newsweek fixing the teeth of the Iowa mother of septuplets.

Many others we may know nothing about. “Photo editors have zipped up open flies (Orange County Register), grafted Oprah’s head onto Ann-Margret’s body (TV Guide), moved the Great Pyramids of Egypt (National Geographic) and covered immodest women (Louisville Journal-Courier and the New York Times.),” wrote Russell Frank, a journalism ethicist at Penn State.

But something irretrievable will be lost once we can no longer distinguish an arresting image from a true one. Substantive manipulation must stop. Fallujah reminds us that the alternative is shutting a window on the world that no painter, not even David Hockney, can fully reopen.

The conceptual muddle surrounding those elusive weapons

March 22, 2004

Stripped to their basics, the far-reaching actions our country has taken in the past year seem bereft of logic: Under the banner of avenging the attacks of 9/11, the United States went to war against a ruler who had nothing to do with them, and in the name of combating weapons of mass destruction, invaded a country that had none.

Breathtaking, when you put it like that. But that isn’t the way these matters have been put. Instead, somehow, it’s all been made to make sense, this swirl of Islamist terrorism, Iraqi tyranny and hijacked airplanes, spiked with dread of germ warfare, nerve agents and nukes.

They don’t really have much to do with each other, those elements. But they’ve been crammed into a bogus unity in Bush administration political rhetoric to justify open-ended vigilance at home and fierce intervention abroad.

The problem isn’t just polemical over-reaching by politicians. As a sobering new report from the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies suggests, our news media have casually bought into the same conceptual muddle, particularly in reporting on weapons of mass destruction.

In an analysis of the work of 11 news organizations in three periods during the Clinton and Bush administrations – in 1998, 2002 and 2003 — author Susan D. Moeller argues that the media consistently defaulted to simplistic, illogical and misleading categories that did more to advance the agendas of leaders than to explain the world to their audiences.

Specifically, Moeller found, the media:

- Accepted without question the notion that “weapons of mass destruction,” beloved as a rhetorical flourish, is a coherent category of armaments; in reality, the components of this supposed unholy trinity have totally different potencies, pose markedly different threats — and are in very different hands.

- Cooperated in linking these weapons to terrorism; in reality, terrorist groups kill with bombs and box-cutters, and none has ever used those WMD (apart from the Japanese cult that killed a dozen people with sarin in the Tokyo subway in 1995.)

- Uncritically deferred to the incumbent administration when deciding which weapons were “deterrents,” which “nuclear program” was worrisome, which developments could be ignored.

Part of the problem lay with the conventions of news reporting, which routinely give officialdom the edge in defining issues and put administration statements, leaks, trial balloons and wishful thinking at the lead of the story and the top of the newscast.

That problem was deepened by the media’s special presumption of governmental competence in foreign policy and security matters, whether it was assessing the Indian and Pakistani weapons tests in 1998 or North Korea’s nuclear potential in 2002.

And it was all made worse by the cable age, 24/7 news cycle, in which the latest high-level utterance, no matter how dubious, still gets its turn in the headlines.

Accordingly, for the most part the media obligingly treated WMD as a “monolithic menace,” Moeller writes. The incomparably different destructive capacities of chemical weapons and H-bombs were, by implication, made equivalent, and the whole murderous assemblage treated “as an integral element of the global terrorism matrix.”

That proposition was key to the run-up to the 2003 invasion, when Iraq’s weaponry was repeatedly denounced as a potentially calamitous threat to this country. How? Which weapons, delivered how? Would nuclear-tipped missiles be launched across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic? Would smallpox be dribbled across the Canadian border? Nobody asked, nobody told.

Besides, as the Maryland center’s director, John Steinbruner, notes in his foreword to the Moeller report, how could any responsible U.S. military commander invade a country that he genuinely believed had the capacity for massive retaliation – without a clue as to where that capacity was and how to disable it? Nobody asked, nobody told.

And now? We understand less about the world than ever. Our leaders and our media joined Islamist terrorism, WMD and Saddam Hussein in an imaginary union, from which they politely excluded the Saudis, our friends, in defiance of all evidence. With Hussein gone, we face terrorism resurgent and Madrid and Casablanca ablaze, and an undiminished threat of nuclear proliferation in which Russia and Pakistan, our friends, figure prominently, and Osama bin Laden not at all.

Confused? That’s preferable to a clarity based on falsehoods.

Now the BBC takes a dive for ‘sexing up’ Iraq reports

February 9, 2004

Last month’s bloodshed at the British Broadcasting Corporation marks the second time since June, when The New York Times’ top two editors stepped down, that the leadership of one of the world’s most respected news organizations was forced out because of misdeeds by its journalists.

In one of the BBC’s most public embarrassments in its 82-year history, the state-chartered broadcaster’s chairman and director-general (editor-in-chief) resigned under fire. They quit soon after the release Jan. 28 of a scathing report by a senior judge, Lord Hutton. He had been assigned to investigate the suicide last summer of a government weapons expert named David Kelly.

The hapless Kelly had been pushed into a political lava flow after he was fingered as the source for a sensational BBC broadcast last May. That broadcast accused political operatives of British Prime Minister Tony Blair of improperly altering a key September 2002 assessment by British intelligence of Iraq’s strategic arms.

The alterations not only puffed up the intelligence dossier to bolster the case that Iraq was a trigger-pull away from unleashing massively destructive weapons on the world. According to the BBC broadcast, the changes also represented a deliberate deceit, since the people revising the report ”probably knew” that key elements weren’t true.

‘Defective’ controls

Hutton concluded that the allegation of lying was unfounded. The dossier was indeed tarted up by political operatives, he found, but there was no good evidence that they strayed beyond putting the best light they could on what they believed to be true.

Instead, Hutton assailed the BBC’s editorial controls as ”defective” and castigated the broadcaster for sloppy work.

In the aftermath, the BBC’s two highest officials fell on their swords, followed by the reporter on the May broadcast.

What’s baffling about the BBC crisis is that, on balance, the report that provoked it was essentially correct:

Yes, the September 2002 dossier did undergo editorial revisions at the hands of political operatives.

Yes, the purpose of those revisions was to toughen — or as the BBC put it, ”sex up” — the report’s conclusions that Saddam Hussein had battle-ready chemical and biological weapons that he was prepared to let fly.

Yes, a presumably honest intelligence assessment was released publicly only after it had been spiced and diced in a political Cuisinart by partisan flacks who aimed to cook up consent for a war.

And Blair relied on that dossier to assert that the threat to international peace was urgent and that Iraq could fire off its terrible weaponry within 45 minutes. So in March 2003, Britain joined the U.S. invasion force.

Still, even if the BBC’s disputed report was more accurate than the intelligence dossier it savaged, it doesn’t mean that the network’s conduct was above reproach.

The damaging broadcast consisted of an unscripted conversation between the anchor of the 6 a.m. Today program and defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan. Nobody had reviewed or edited Gilligan’s comments.

He based them on a week-old conversation with weapons expert Kelly. Gilligan later could produce no notes. Despite vigorous protests from Blair’s people, the BBC refused to reexamine his allegations, which Kelly would not confirm.

In short, the BBC was just as heedless and just as arrogant as the politicos who were the targets of the broadcast. The broadcaster’s new regime, it is suggested, had been trying to rejuvenate The Beeb with injections of the go-go scoop-madness that, in Britain, is associated with the upstart commercial networks (where both Gilligan and the deposed director-general cut their teeth.)

Commentators describe an odd infusion of headstrong tabloid reportage into a fusty old institution that confuses its authority with infallibility. Nevertheless it all seems, as the British would say, small beer when compared with a war justified by falsehoods — and led by politicians who, unlike their accusers, have kept their jobs.

The journalistic misconduct in the BBC affair, like that of The New York Times in the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, doesn’t seem grave enough to warrant a leadership purge. In both cases, the severity of the response suggests wider problems of management and mission — and perhaps stiff resistance to leaders with plans to change powerful and self-satisfied institutions.

The tragedy is that the misdemeanors of the BBC’s journalists drew the inquisitional focus away from the felonies of the politicians. Those are what the good lord should have been investigating.