Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is also the founder of the Real News Project , a new not-for-profit investigative journalism outlet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When, oh when, will the U.S. “mainstream media”
finally stop hemming and hawing, parsing and understating? When will
they simply go for the jugular to confirm what any thoughtful American
has already learned from “less reputable” but increasingly relevant
alternative information sources: that from the beginning of the Bush
administration, invading Iraq has always been as much an article of
faith for the president as, well, promoting faith over reason?
After countless leaks, several stunning British memos and enough
piecemeal admissions by Bush administration alumni, it’s surely time
for the old media to rise to the occasion if they are to remain
relevant in a rapidly changing news environment.
Instead, what we see on television news and in major print media
amounts to little more than journalism by Chinese water torture. Drip,
This was best exemplified by the article on the front page of The New York Times
last week, which provided the most complete cataloguing thus far of a
memo by Tony Blair’s national security adviser, David Manning. The memo
summarized the key moments and statements from a meeting that took
place between Bush and Blair at the end of January, 2003, just weeks
before the Iraq invasion. The memo’s existence and some central
elements had previously been revealed in a book and in the British
press; last week’s Times front-pager was playing catch-up on behalf of virtually the entire American mainstream media.
The Times report was full of throat-clearing and arcane
notations that, while the memo had previously been reported, it had
never been as fully reported, or that a particular passage had thus far
eluded widespread scrutiny. And, indeed, the article did contribute new
insights. But a careful reading of the Times piece turns up
numerous opportunities where reporters could have offered—and, more
importantly, still can offer—more context and thereby lead readers to
the dark heart of the matter. To wit, the Times could not quite summon the courage for a sufficiently bold lead. It began:
In the weeks before the United States-led invasion of Iraq, as the
United States and Britain pressed for a second United Nations
resolution condemning Iraq, President Bush's public ultimatum to Saddam
Hussein was blunt: Disarm or face war.
But behind closed doors, the president was certain that war was inevitable.
Even though the overall thrust of the article was that Bush and
Blair were hell-bent on invading Iraq, with or without justification,
there was that second sentence summarizing, blandly, that “the
president was certain that war was inevitable.” This is
soft-pedaling in the extreme. Bush wasn’t certain war was inevitable—he
wanted to make it inevitable.
The article certainly makes that clear, describing all manner of
shockers—from Bush musing about painting a U.S. reconnaissance plane in
U.N. colors and deliberately drawing Iraqi fire as a casus belli
, to the possibility of bringing out an Iraqi defector who would assert
that WMDs existed even while Bush tacitly admitted they likely did not.
This pussyfooting, the burying of the lead, does a disservice to readers. News organizations like the Times
abetted the march to war through their unquestioning acceptance of
highly debatable administration assertions, and, in the specific case
of the Times , its tolerance of the rampaging cowboy reportage of its correspondent Judith Miller.
But time is a corrective. We now have a chance to restore the honor
and basic viability of conventional journalism and show the public that
there is a difference between a skilled and experienced practitioner of
a complex craft and anyone with a talent for argumentation, a computer
and a high-speed connection.
In the case of Iraq, digging into the intelligence analysis and
planning of the pre-war period is not just of historical interest. It
is clear that many assertions made in those crucial months were wrong.
Yet, in its current PR campaign to distract Americans from the
spiraling chaos in Iraq—and the colossal incompetence and recklessness
that precipitated it—the Bush administration continues to peddle
half-truths and serve volleys of spin. Journalism’s central function is
to tell the truth, and that calls for cutting through the spin and
taking readers beyond the talking points that still rule the day.
What follows are some issues that need to be raised, questions asked
and answered—whether based on a close reading of the recently-disclosed
Manning memo or of the original “Downing Street memo
” which recounted similar evidence of a will to war from six months
earlier. Or, for that matter, simply inspired by (dare we say it)
Iraq is in the midst of what many believe is a civil war. The White
House treats the sectarian violence as coming out of nowhere, a
complete surprise that couldn’t possibly have been anticipated. But
basic reporting would show that this isn’t the case. Before the
invasion, Bush repeatedly ignored warnings that exactly this might
transpire, declaring blithely that the war would be a cinch, and the
aftermath a cakewalk. In the most recent memo to surface, Bush
predicted that it was “unlikely there would be internecine warfare
between the different religious and ethnic groups,” and Blair
concurred. Do they pull these assertions out of their hats, wing
colossal decisions like they’re predicting basketball championships?
Let’s see some hard scrutiny of the presidential decision-making
process, and some explicit reporting on the many examples like this for
which Bush continues to escape responsibility—and on the role of artful
double-talk and media incompetence in making this Houdini act possible
again and again.
Let’s also explore how exactly it is that a huge chunk of the
American populace seems not to have been clearly informed of this
stunning miscalculation. Even with a decisive majority now disappointed
by the situation in Iraq, many still seem utterly unaware of the
president’s willful rejection of counsel from countless knowledgeable,
So much about Bush’s war of choice gets swept under the rug, or at
least buried deep amidst long exhalations of spectacular
understatement. For example, the Times piece archly notes,
far from the lead paragraphs, that “The latest memo is striking in its
characterization of frank, almost casual, conversation by Mr. Bush and
Mr. Blair about the most serious subjects. At one point, the leaders
swapped ideas for a postwar Iraqi government.” It then quotes from the
Manning memo: “’As for the future government of Iraq, people would find
it very odd if we handed it over to another dictator,’ the prime
minister is quoted as saying…. Bush agreed," Mr. Manning wrote.
With regard to Bush’s suggestion of painting a U.S. spy plane in
U.N. colors as a way of jump-starting a war, reporters covering this
memo should be offering some context. For instance, how typical is this
ploy of Bush’s notions of responsibility and legality? And how does it
fit into a broader emerging pattern of disrespect for the formal and
informal canon of presidential behavior, including but not limited to
authorizing illegal wiretaps on American citizens? And is an American
president allowed to simply hijack the United Nation’s image for his
own purposes, to sneakily involve the world community in precipitating
a war? Presumably not, but inquiring minds want to know how Bush
could even imagine such a scheme possible, and what that says about his
own temperament and—how to put it delicately—suitability for such a
position of trust and power. Is he cribbing his playbook from the
melodrama served up weekly on “24”?
The Manning memo cites Bush suggesting to Blair that the United
States might be able to bring out a defector who would publicly assert
that Saddam had WMD. Given that Bush himself admitted in the same
meeting that he had no evidence of any WMD in Iraq, was he really
saying that the administration was prepared to produce someone who
would “pipe” that testimony? This wouldn’t happen to be the
mysterious and subsequently-discredited "man in the baseball cap" whom
the now-equally-discredited Times reporter Miller produced
for an article that ran on Page One right after the invasion wound up,
would it? We need to know more. As any journalism school grad knows,
answering questions like these is the very essence of the craft.
Bush spoke of assassinating Saddam Hussein. It would be nice to get
an update on what U.S. government policy is on assassinations. Are they
permitted at all? And if so, what criteria need be met before such an
order is issued?
The White House did not deny the authenticity of the memo, which
after all, has already been confirmed as authentic by insiders. But a
spokesman told the Times , "We are not going to get into
discussing private discussions of the two leaders." Well, why not?
Almost everything the president does is based on “private discussions.”
No journalist should accept such a quote without challenging its
premise. Indeed, the very use of such ludicrous rebuttals should be the
subject of journalistic inquiry.
Bush was paraphrased in the memo as saying, "The U.S. would put its
full weight behind efforts to get another resolution and would twist
arms and even threaten." Beyond belated reports of the NSA directive
that authorized spying on allies during this period, we’ve never, as
best as I can recall, seen a really thorough account of this campaign
of intimidation. Nor an overview of U.S. policy on pressuring other
countries—especially pressure for rash actions fostering global
Looking backward, virtually everyone now agrees that the media did
not ask the right questions, or enough questions, as the war drums
telegraphed impending conflict. Well, that was then. But now, major
mysteries still beg for resolution: including, most fundamentally, how
George W. Bush convinced the bulk of his fellow Americans, including
some of the brightest lights of our society, to support such an
Any journalist with a nose for news ought to be all fired up these
days. It’s rare that we hacks are offered so many chances to show what
we are made of—or to make up for errors of omission and commission that
will otherwise haunt us in perpetuity.
It’s never too late to start looking for answers.