Published on Sunday, August 22, 2004 by the Toronto Star
How the Mighty Post has Fallen
by Antonia Zerbisias
And now, let us spare a thought for Tricky Dicky, who shuffled off the presidential coil 30 years and 13 days ago.
Poor Richard Nixon. In 1972, a bunch of his re-election campaign operatives' operatives were busted breaking in to the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington's Watergate complex, eventually causing the 37th president of the United States to resign.
This was the scandal that bequeathed "gate" to political journalism. You might have the seen the movie with Robert Redford as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein, the legendary Washington Post reporters who dug up the dirt to bury poor Nixon.
That despite a threat from then-attorney general John Mitchell (now played by John "Cover up the topless statues" Ashcroft) that "(Post Publisher) Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's ever published."
The Post's Watergate coup inspired a generation of reporters. So-called "investigative journalism" as if all journalism shouldn't be investigative was the hot newsroom thing. "Truth squads," which would "reality check" political speeches to remove the spin from the news cycle, were created. Journalism became a calling, not just a craft.
Ten days ago, when the Post ran a 3,000 word front-page post-mortem of its coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq, Nixon popped into my head. Talk about bad timing. The guy couldn't get a break. Had his team pulled the same Watergate stunt today, the Post probably would have buried the story in the back of the A-section and given front-page play to his latest pronouncements on the "peace" negotiations with North Vietnam.
That's pretty much how the Post dealt with the current president George W. Bush's lies and obfuscations on Iraq. It served largely as the White House's megaphone on smoking guns and mushroom clouds while muting, or stifling, dissent and contradictory evidence.
As the Post's Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks says in the Aug. 12 post-mortem, "There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff."
Make no mistake. The Post piece was no mea culpa. It was penned by media critic Howard Kurtz, as a feature he initiated. While the paper did give it prominent play, nowhere did it officially and explicitly admit to failing its readers, the public interest or the service of truth.
"People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media's coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war," executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. tells Kurtz. "They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media's coverage had been different, there wouldn't have been a war."
Obviously not, raising the question: If the war was inevitable, and if the Bushies were hell-bent on waging it, then wasn't that a story? Isn't it still? Then why isn't it being told throughout the mainstream media?
Probably the most troubling admission comes from Karen DeYoung, a former assistant managing editor who reported on the prewar palavering: "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power," she says. "If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said."
But since when is a presidential pronouncement The Word Of God? What happened to inquiry, investigation and, what's it called again, journalism?
Consider a Post report in July 2003 by the two dogged Danas, Milbank and Priest, who must have been very frustrated by their editors' kid glove handling of the Bush cow patties.
They were reporting on an outrageous claim Bush made four months after the invasion began at a news conference: "The larger point is and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power ..."
As the Danas would write, four paragraphs into a story about Bush defending his "darn good" Iraq intelligence, "The president's assertion that the war began because Iraq did not admit inspectors appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring: Hussein had, in fact, admitted the inspectors and Bush had opposed extending their work because he did not believe them effective."
"Appeared?" Like, maybe we were dreaming? Like the president wasn't, er, um, lying? But did you hear anybody in the mainstream media call him out on that even when he repeated it this year, in his state of the union address?
Now most of the big media trumpet the line that the Bushies were misled by bad intelligence and gee, how could they know what the Pentagon itself did not know (as if there were no insiders questioning the WMD claims and Al Qaeda ties).
And there was evidence. And plenty of it. Not that you could find it on the Post's front page or in many major media.
Which recalls that old bit we'd say about Nixon: Would you buy a used car from this man?
Now it should be, would you buy anything from the newspaper that brought him down but now props up an administration with even dirtier tricks than Dicky could have imagined?
Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited