Some time in the next two weeks, David Kay, head of the Iraqi Survey Group, is expected to finally release a crucial report on his findings so far in his search for weapons of destruction.
"I am confident that when people see what David Kay puts forward they will see that there was no question that such weapons exist, existed, and so did the programs to develop more," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday. "We did not try to hype it or blow it out of proportion."
Since no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) have been found in Iraq, close observers now report that Kay is likely to drop on the media a massive weapon of his own: hundreds or thousands of pages of summaries and documents purporting to prove that Saddam Hussein had WMDs recently (and hid them) and/or had numerous WMD programs underway that we succeeded in pre-empting.
In the parlance once used by Howell Raines, Kay thereby will "flood the zone" and hope the press portrays what may be largely assertion -- not fact -- as compelling proof. Would the media possibly fall for this? There are disturbing indications that they would.
Last month, one of the most important stories of 2003 appeared, and got significant play in a number of major newspapers -- but not nearly enough. There's still time for the rest to catch up and, in most cases, honestly admit that they promoted one of the most lethal rush-to-judgements of the modern journalistic era -- and vow to do better in the future, starting with the Kay case.
The August report was written by Charles J. Hanley, special correspondent for the Associated Press, who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. It utterly demolishes Powell's much-lauded Feb. 5 presentation to the United Nations on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and the need to go to war to destroy them.
Still, at this late date, why is this so significant, since the damage (lives lost, billions spent and billions more committed, anti-U.S. hatred inflamed in the region) is done?
Simply put, the Powell charade was the turning point in the march to war, and the media, in almost universally declaring that he had "made the case," fell for it, hook, line and sinker, thereby making the invasion (which some of the same newspapers now question) inevitable.
It's a depressing case study of journalistic shirking of responsibility. The press essentially acted like a jury that is ready, willing and (in this case) able to deliver a verdict -- after the prosecution has spoken and before anyone else is heard or the evidence studied. A hanging jury, at that.
Consider the day-after editorial endorsements of Powell's case, all from sources not always on the side of the White House. As media writer Mark Jurkowitz put it at the time in The Boston Globe, Powell may not have convinced France of the need to topple Saddam but "it seemed to work wonders on opinion makers and editorial shakers in the media universe."
The San Francisco Chronicle called the speech "impressive in its breadth and eloquence." The Denver Post likened Powell to "Marshal Dillon facing down a gunslinger in Dodge City," adding that he had presented "not just one 'smoking gun' but a battery of them." The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune called Powell's case "overwhelming," while The Oregonian in Portland found it "devastating." To The Hartford (Conn.) Courant it was "masterful." The Plain Dealer in Cleveland deemed it "credible and persuasive."
One can only laugh, darkly, at the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News asserting that Powell made his case "without resorting to exaggeration, a rhetorical tool he didn't need." The San Antonio Express-News called the speech "irrefutable," adding, "only those ready to believe Iraq and assume that the United States would manufacture false evidence against Saddam would not be persuaded by Powell's case." The Dallas Morning News declared that Powell "did everything but perform cornea transplants on the countries that still claim to see no reason for forcibly disarming Iraq."
And what of the two often tough-minded giants of the East? The Washington Post echoed others who found Powell's evidence "irrefutable." That paper's liberal columnist, Mary McGrory, wrote that Powell "persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince." She even likened the Powell report to the day John Dean "unloaded" on Nixon in the Watergate hearings. The paper's George Will said Powell's speech would "change all minds open to evidence" and Jim Hoagland called it "a convincing and detailed X-ray." He added that he did not believe that Powell could have lied or "been taken in by manufactured evidence," and "neither should you."
The New York Times, meanwhile, hailed Powell's "powerful" and "sober, factual case." Like many other papers, the Times' coverage on its news pages -- in separate stories by Steven Weisman, Michael Gordon, and Adam Clymer -- also bent over backward to give Powell the benefit of nearly every doubt. Apparently in thrall to Powell's moderate reputation, no one even mentioned that he was essentially acting as lead prosecutor with every reason to shape, or even create, facts to fit his brief.
Weisman called Powell's evidence "a nearly encyclopedic catalog that reached further than many had expected." He and Clymer both recalled Adlai Stevenson's speech to the U.N. in 1962 exposing Soviet missiles in Cuba. Gordon closed his piece by asserting that "it will be difficult for skeptics to argue that Washington's case against Iraq is based on groundless suspicions and not intelligence information." Try reading that with a straight face today.
Why does any of this matter? It's fashionable to suggest that the White House was bent on war and nothing could have stopped them. But until the Powell speech, public opinion, editorial sentiment, and street protests were all building against the war. The Powell speech, and the media's swallowing of it, changed all that. An E&P survey of editorial pages of major newspapers just after the Powell speech found the number of papers characterized as "hawkish" rose from 5 to 15 while those considered "war skeptics" plunged from 29 to 11.
After Hanley's AP story appeared in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in August, a reader named William C. Wilbur wrote to the editor, "I am surprised that the Times has not yet commented editorially on this further evidence of how the Bush administration has misled Congress, the American public, and the world in order to justify war." It's time for many papers to admit they were hoodwinked -- and vow to be more skeptical of official presentations, by David Kay and everyone else, in the future.
Greg Mitchell (email@example.com) is the editor of E&P.
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