WASHINGTON -- Certainly the loss of more than 2,000 American lives is as important as the lessons to be learned from Florida, 2000.
The thought occurs to me as the tardy media mea culpas for helping to foment the Bush administration's prewar hysteria trickle out. There was, most famously, the ethically appalling account that Judith Miller of The New York Times gave of how she allowed all the president's men — including the now-indicted I. "Scooter" Libby — to use her and her newspaper as an arm of their propaganda apparatus.
More brave, and more truthful, was a signed editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last Sunday. Editorial Page Editor Ricardo Pimentel apologized to the paper's readers for having been "duped" about the alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that the White House insisted was a dire threat to the United States. "We should have been more skeptical," Pimentel wrote. "For that lack of skepticism and the failure to include the proper caveats to the WMD claim, we apologize, though I would note that, ultimately, we didn't believe that the president's central WMD argument warranted war."
Pimentel believes, as I do, that an independent inquiry along the lines of the 9/11 commission is the best way for the country to determine how we became entangled in Iraq. Was it merely incompetence — fundamentally flawed intelligence that was innocently accepted as truth? Or duplicity — deliberate distortion and outright deception by President Bush?
This panel will not be assembled. The White House and its protectors in the Republican-controlled Congress won't allow it. There is, as yet, no group of grieving families that has emerged, as did the families of 9/11 victims, to shame lawmakers into doing their jobs. Senate Democrats on Tuesday forced the chamber into closed session to push a long-obstructed intelligence committee inquiry into the administration's use — or misuse — of prewar intelligence. But the evenly divided, bipartisan panel that resulted from this imbroglio is likely to offer accounts with two evenly divided, partisan tilts. This is not the same as the truth.
It is, in fact, the same ugly atmosphere that reduced the genuine threat to democracy that was represented by the Florida election fiasco of 2000 to a snarling tit-for-tat. But after the Supreme Court blocked the vote count and effectively awarded the presidency to Bush, the media did not declare the story dead.
A consortium of eight major media companies did a statistical analysis of Florida's contested ballots. The consortium report was released in November 2001, while the ashes of Ground Zero smoldered. The group found that Bush would have won the state under the limited recounts sought by Democrat Al Gore. But Gore would have taken Florida, and become president, in a statewide recount of all disputed ballots. "There's no news here. It's over," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said at the time.
That is the difference between an election and a war. A war is never really over. Not for the soldiers who are forever scarred by it, nor for the families of the fallen, nor for the civilians whose lives are a daily contest against death. October was among the deadliest months for U.S. troops in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says more American forces may be sent soon in anticipation of violence surrounding next month's elections.
"We can't rewind the tape of history," Sen. John Kerry said in a recent, and regretful, speech on Iraq at Georgetown University.
But there is a saying among journalists that we write the first draft of history. We've got an obligation to get it as accurate as possible, as Tim Rutten, media writer for the Los Angeles Times, has pointed out. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the profession as a whole, with some notable exceptions, failed.
Public apologies serve some purpose. But there is no greater journalistic purpose than getting out the truth. If big media companies thought they owed the public an answer to the conundrum of hanging chads, then they owe readers and viewers an answer to the question of how we blundered into Iraq. A factual second draft of history must replace the falsehoods of the first.
In the absence of responsible political leadership, a media consortium of the sort that reviewed the Florida vote is as vital now as it was then. Not only could its findings rescue the country from the tragedy of repeated mistakes. Journalism might begin to rescue itself.
© 2005 Daily Camera