Speaker: Barton Gellman, The Washington Post
Speaker: Harold Meyerson, The American Prospect
Speaker: Robert Pollock, The Wall Street Journal
Moderator: Bernard Kalb
Thursday, October 23, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations
Bernard Kalb [BK]: I've just been told that we are ready to go. The subject tonight is the news media and Iraq. As Mary Motta said, clearly there's not much to talk about. (Faint laughter.)
Let me just go through the house ground rules, as it were, here. Everybody in this room, I know, is familiar with them, but at the risk of repetition, I would like to ask the audience to please turn off the cell phones. The meeting is, in contrast to the usual, on the record. Format is the usual. I'll chat about 25 minutes with our colleagues here, and then we'll open it to the floor. When we do, please wait for a microphone, please stand; state name, affiliation; keep questions, comments concise, to allow as many members as possible to speak. We'll speak, as I say, for about 20 or 25 minutes, and then we go to the floor.
So there being not much to talk about, Iraq and the news media, let's start with Bart for a moment, if I may.
Oh, I forgot to introduce the panel! Bart Gellman, national correspondent for The Washington Post; Robert Pollock, senior editorial page writer, The Wall Street Journal; and Harold Meyerson, editor at large, The American Prospect.
A question that was on delay for just a moment or two is the following:
The media and Iraq. The president says that the American people cannot get the news straight, they cannot get an honest report. I read in today's Times -- and in fact a poll shows -- that the sentiment about America in Iraq is more favorable at the moment than it is negative.
So the question that the president is thrusting at this panel, as it were, is, is the media suffering from what I will call liberal astigmatism, that it cannot get the story straight, or does the president have a point? Bart, you want to take a crack at this for us?
Barton Gellman [BG]: It sort of depends on how you're conceiving what is news and also on the distinction, I think, between spot news, day stories, and bigger-picture pieces. Spot news is usually not about the ordinary or the everyday or things going just according to plan.
To take it out of Iraq for a second, picture this headline: "FAA announces that 34,999 of yesterday's 35,000 flights landed safely." You know, that's not the way we do it. That's not the way you do it when you tell stories every day. And so we're not going to see stories that say, you know, sort of "large majority of Iraqis have never shot an American."
It's a fact that there are now two to three dozen attacks on American troops every day in Iraq, that 203 have been killed since President Bush declared victory aboard the Abraham Lincoln, that close to 2,000 have been wounded in that time, and security's a huge issue in the country. So to take one example, the facts on the ground don't support the idea that things are going swimmingly.
[BK]: Before we go to Harold and Bob, let me ask a question of the audience. In this audience here, what's your sense of the media reporting on Iraq? Fairly good? Show of hands, if I could get them, please. Fairly good? Tilted? Negative? What -- negative? Negative? How about fair?
How about unfair and unbalanced?
Well, we got a very, very wide variety of responses here, so far as the media coverage of Iraq is concerned.
But let me pick up what Bart is talking about with Bob here, to my immediate right. Bart's giving us a definition of journalism, so to speak, about what little slice of journalism is being offered that day. But if you think about the totality that is flung each day into the face of America, what is the flavor of that? Is it fair? Is it positive? Is it tilted? Is it the media's fixation on the negative?
Robert Pollock [RP]: I'm glad to get that question. I mean, I think it's certainly true that, you know, spot news is news, and, you know, when something bad happens, you have to cover it. And there certainly are problems going on in Iraq, although it might be said that most of the problems are confined to an area we call the Sunni triangle, and things in the rest of the country have generally been going quite well, and we don't hear a lot about Basra and Mosul and Kirkuk, but things are very good there.
I guess when I look at the totality, what I wonder is this; I was in Iraq for three weeks in May, and the really interesting thing to me -- and I say this as someone who expected Iraqis to greet Americans as the vice president predicted, as liberators. But it was still shocking to me to see the extent to which when you went out on, say, a patrol, it was like you were on parade. Everyone was waving at you. I mean, this was weeks after the fall of Baghdad. And people were waving at you, you were being offered more tea than you could possibly drink. Now, I haven't been there in a while, but I've talked to other people who have been over, and they say that that stuff is pretty much going on.
And I guess what I'm wondering is this, I don't think many Americans know that that's what life is like for most of our soldiers in Iraq. They think that they're all nervous and under constant attack. And that's just not the case. And I'm kind of wondering why the totality comes out that way, because I think a lot of the reporting coming out of Iraq is very good. I think a lot of people towards my end of the political spectrum like to poke fun at the New York Times, for example. I think the New York Times -- actually, the news pages of the New York Times have done a pretty excellent job covering Iraq. I'm not as fond of their editorial stance. But I think also The Washington Post and other major papers have done a pretty excellent job.
It seems to me that --
BK: Excellent means what?
RP: They have smart reporters who are going out and getting good stories. Particularly I have to compliment the Times, which pretty much owns the political story in Iraq right now. I mean, that strikes me as the really big story, what's going on with the Governing Council, the constitution. And there's really nobody else doing that story in any detail.
BK: Harold, is what Bob is saying, the positive flavor that he ran into in Iraq, is that being reflected in the media?
Harold Meyerson [HM]: Well, up to a point. What's mainly reflected in the media is what Bart was talking about, which is the -- you know, the daily killings, the daily attacks, et cetera.
But in terms the president's initial complaint, this is the complaint of any -- most -- just about any American president in wartime or a postwar occupation for time immemorial. And certainly, when you were covering Vietnam, this pales beside some of the stuff the Johnson White House was saying about media coverage then. I mean, you know, the standard in Iraq, I guess, is, compared to what? Compared to the president announcing "mission accomplished"? Clearly, just by virtue of reporting all the stuff that goes on there, that threatens the administration's claim of mission accomplished. Mission is not accomplished. Mission is constructing a civil society, which is going to take a very long time.
Are things going well by some standards? Absolutely. By the standard of did the American public expect that we would have 130,000 troops on the ground for still, you know, the foreseeable future? I think the American public has questions and that that permeates the media coverage, as well. No one was expecting National Guard units, God knows, to be over there, you know, for prolonged periods of time. So, you know, again, it's sort of a glass half-full, half-empty.
BK: Here's the president saying regularly that the media filters the story through the media, obviously, and what we're getting is not an accurate picture of reality, and that in fact the panorama in Iraq is much more positive than it is negative. That is what Bob is saying, as well. And I alluded a moment ago to the New York Times story today by Ian Fisher, in which he says that at least two recent surveys, one extensive, one far more modest, support the idea that, for the moment, the positive view of America outweighs the negative.
So, how sturdy, how accurate, how real is the president's assessment of the media? Or I suppose we have to ask the question, to what degree, as it was in the case in Vietnam, is the president's assessment driven by policy, by wishful thinking, by politics?
BG: Can I take a crack at that? First of all, the Times story upon which you're relying here --
BK: On which I'm not relying, I'm calling attention to.
BG: -- (inaudible) -- that it rebuts the president's case.
BG: It reports that the majority of Iraqis are happier than unhappy with the American presence.
And I wanted to sort of add one thing to what I said before. I was speaking only of spot news. That's not all we do. It's not all we should do. But it does tend to drive -- I mean, that's what gets the daily attention because that's the thing that happened yesterday. But my managing editor, Steve Coll, is very fond of the word "altitude." He's always asking us to sort of step back, look for a bigger picture, and do accountability stories. Accountability stories are comparing the official description of events to what we're able to sort of observe on the ground and in interviews.
And I'm not sure that if we did a lot more of those -- and we'd like to do as many as we can -- that he'd be any happier with the coverage, because you have to ask yourself by what standards are you going to assess how's Iraq doing, how's the mission going? You know, one way is you could start with the declared aims and assumptions that began the war. Another is to investigate the progress of civil society, creating political institutions in a constitution, basics like water, power, security, the impact on allies, regionally and elsewhere, and the extent to which the people who like our presence are a silent and unorganized majority, and the people who don't are a very well-organized and powerful minority, even if they are a minority. And so, I mean, there are a lot of problems that you would -- (word inaudible) -- in that kind of a story.
BK: The word "Vietnam" was mentioned a moment ago, not surprisingly, obviously. And I remember covering all the briefings in Vietnam. We referred to the press briefings, as you know, as the 5:00 follies, where we would get documents handed to us, which I used to describe as mimeographed optimism, and to pick up the point you're making, checking reality in the field versus what is being officially handed out. Are we in danger of the 5:00 follies here on Iraq, or have we reached it?
Alex? Harold -- I'm sorry.
HM: I don't think right now we are falling for the mimeographed sheets. But you know, a lot of the stuff the administration doesn't like is reporters going out and reporting on issues they raised when we were going in. I mean, they should not be surprised at how long -- there was a succession of stories about, look, there are no weapons of mass destruction. They made that so central to the raison d'etre for going in that it only follows logically that there's going to be a string of stories, which initially did not have the assumption, by any means, that we were not going to find weapons of mass destruction. In that case, the 5:00 folly was the raison d'etre for going into the -- the stated raison d'etre for going into the war in the first place, which slowly became apparent; bore virtually no relation to anything that was on the ground. And if there's something under the ground, we have yet to find it.
BK: The question of altitude, what they talk about at The Washington Post, the question of leaning back, zooming back and getting the overall picture instead of doing a story on the plane crashing into the Hudson River, et cetera -- why, indeed, do not editors insist on the big picture, so to speak, the accountability picture, in which that crashed plane is an element in an overall panorama of the reality that's taking place on the ground; that you saw yourself during your three weeks?
RP: Well, you know -- (chuckles) --
BK: Is it a space on television? Is it a space, even, on print?
RP: Well, you know, I think a lot of newspaper editors do insist on that to some degree or another. And I wish I could say that what The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and what the New York Times does is, you know -- is determinative of what the big picture Americans are getting out of Iraq is, but unfortunately, you know, the vast majority of Americans don't read, or if they do, don't read those newspapers. And what they're getting is, you know, they turn on the radio in the morning and someone is leading with, well, another American soldier died in Iraq today, and that's what, you know -- they catch a little bit on the evening news. Again, usually TV, for various reasons, tends to focus on negative things; I think because they often make better visuals -- you know, the bombed-out Humvee or whatever. And so, unfortunately, I think that's where the picture most people have is coming from, not from intelligently-written newspapers.
BK: What about taking a wallop at the media on this particular story? You remember the early "quagmire" word that kept coming up? It came up in Afghanistan, as well. And then, the "quagmire" was overwritten by a quick race to Baghdad. Is it quagmire time again? Was that early use of the word rather prophetic, or is it journalistic excess?
BG: That strikes me as being a subject and a word that was used almost entirely in commentary. And I'd leave that for the commentators. It's not my subject.
RP: I saw that word on the front page of the New York Times a couple of times -- I guess in their news analysis pieces. Is it -- is it --
BG: (Inaudible) -- empowered to speak for the Times --
RP: But -- the question is, is it too early to be using that word now?
BK: No, it was used very early, and then it was overridden by reality by the dash to Baghdad.
BK: Now, so I raise the question about the media's misuse; the media doesn't get an absolute 100 percent okay on this story.
RP: Yeah, I'm not sure it's being used widely by straight news reporters. I mean, certainly the commentators are using it. I would think certainly it is far too early to be doing that.
It -- you know, it's interesting to go back and look at some of the reporting in the immediate aftermath of World War II and to see what people were saying at that time. Some of you may have seen, there was an interesting item circulating on the Internet over the past week that someone had dug out a Life Magazine story by John Dos Passos, dated January, 1946, where -- and the headline was, "Americans Are Losing the Victory In Europe" and it sounded -- (chuckles) -- and it sounded just like many of the more doomsaying reports that we're getting out of Iraq. It was remarkable, they even -- one of the sub-heads in the piece even said, "the skeptical French press." It was incredible, I mean --
BG: Actually, can I just come back to this for half a second because --
BG: -- there's a distinction between judgments and observable empirical data, okay? If the president wants the story to be: The mission is being accomplished, things are going according to plan, Iraq is rejuvenating -- that sort of thing, these are big-picture judgments that anyone can form from the data one way or the other.
If it comes down to something that's a fact, then that's observable. And I would take issue with my friend Robert's view of what life is like for the average service person in Iraq now, even in May -- and I was there in May also. No military personnel could go anywhere in Baghdad, even between proximate U.S. military bases, in a convoy of less than three or four vehicles; the weapons were locked and loaded with only safeties on, but there were rounds of chamber; they had to have full protective gear; there had to be no fewer than two people in each vehicle, and so on. The idea that most of our soldiers then, or especially now, are drinking tea with friendly Iraqis is not characteristic.
RP: I would just like to briefly point out that that doesn't square with my experience in Baghdad. I was riding around in single humvees with soldiers. We were going to kabob restaurants and interacting with locals. And that struck me as being the typical experience at the time.
HM: But there are other standards by which this can be judged as a quagmire or not. And not having been in Baghdad, I don't have a personal story --
BK: Are you judging it now as a quagmire? Is that your phrasing for it now, the present situation?
HM: I would say it's getting quagmire-like in some ways. One measure -- one measure is the whole financial aspect of funding this occupation. This was not advertised in advance as something that was going to cost this amount of American treasure. To the contrary, Paul Wolfowitz and a range of officials took great pains to say this was going to be "Occupation Lite," you know, this was not going to be a burden to the American taxpayer or -- well, in a certain sense, it's not, because it just puts the deficit further up, and it's a burden to the taxpayers' children.
But you know, is this a financial quagmire? You bet it is.
Is this a political quagmire? That's yet to be seen, but I would think the White House is fairly nervous about it at the moment.
Is this a military quagmire? And there, I would say, we don't know yet.
BK: Let me go to the floor for questions, but before we do, I want to ask a general question to the floor and take a sense of polling, as it were.
We're all familiar with the leak with Secretary Rumsfeld. Do you find -- and I listened to Rumsfeld, the briefing today, when he talked about the way he saw that memo he had written that wound up in USA Today. Among this audience, do you find a difference in tone, the way you remember Rumsfeld briefing, and the quality of the memo? Do you find a sharp difference in tone between the two?
BK: Can I get a show (of hands) on that, please? Show them. Okay.
So let's talk about -- let's take one minute and talk about the memo. Do you see, for example -- Rumsfeld said, "I didn't mislead you" -- not his phrase -- "but I told you it would be a long, hard slog" -- not -- perhaps not using those very words that turned up in the memo. But he's very comfortable with the memo -- this may be public posturing -- with the presentation of the difficulties that are ahead.
How do you see the memo yourself, Bob, in contrast to the public Rumsfeld and the private but leaked Rumsfeld?
RP: Well, the -- yeah, there's certainly a difference in tone, but I think the interesting story with the memo is, Rumsfeld is always being accused by his critics of complacency, and here we have a guy who clearly is thinking hard about what the challenges are ahead. And you know, personally, I'm glad to know that we have a secretary of Defense who's asking his subordinates tough questions like that.
I'm curious. As I recall -- I didn't read it closely -- but the "long, hard slog" I don't believe referred to Iraq per se. I thought that --
BK: That was terrorism across the board.
RP: You're right.
BK: Yeah, right.
RP: So -- okay.
BK: Yeah. Okay. The floor. Please. Affiliate, name and so forth, please. Wait for the mike, I'm told.
Audience: Henry Precht, defunct Foreign Service officer.
BK: Henry, Henry.
Henry Precht: You all seem to think that the American public needs to be instructed by editorial writers and analysis and so forth, but what about just providing them with some facts?
For example, how many wounded Americans have there been since this war began? How many killed Iraqis have there been since this war began? How many wounded Iraqis? How many Iraqis taken prisoner? How many Iraqi structures destroyed?
You know, if The Wall Street Journal or other papers could publish a little box score on the front page, Americans might come to some different opinions than they do from the editorial pages.
BK: And let me just --
RP: Can I (field) ? --
BK: Yes, you can, but let me just add one little sentence to that. And to what degree is the Pentagon helping you get any such figures?
RP: Well, it strikes me that we're getting that box score every day. I mean, in every wire report about another American soldier, it's -- you know, this is the 82nd, this is so many since --
Henry Precht: Dead --
RP: -- this is so many since May 1st and so forth.
HM: I agree. Right.
RP: I mean --
Henry Precht: Dead, not wounded.
RP: Those figures are coming out as well.
BK: I think the wounded is 900 to 1,000 since May 1.
RP: They're out.
BK: But the government --
HM: But the Pentagon announced during the war they were not going to be keeping a tally on the other side, and the other side included Iraqi civilians, as well.
BK: And those figures were not made available after the First Gulf War by the Pentagon.
HM: That's right. So, we have a total void of knowledge there. And if that's a significant basis on which to judge your assessment of the war, you're up the creek.
BK: But to follow up, can the media get those figures that Henry's asking for; how many buildings bombed, et cetera?
HM Oh, you mean in terms of --
BK: Are those figures available that help form personal judgments?
BG: No. Well, I mean, not the ones he's asking for. The dead and wounded are now -- they were -- the numbers of wounded were not until very recently being tallied and disclosed by the Pentagon, but they are now. Lots of other questions you'd wish to ask, they'll say, you know, we don't have that sort of thing, or we're not giving that sort of thing out.
Look, all I do right now is cover the weapons of mass destruction. And at the moment, the -- (aside) -- I don't know why I'm beeping, but I'll pretend I'm not -- (laughter) -- they will answer any questions about the numbers of people, the types of expertise, the division of units and so on of the Iraq Survey Group under David Kay, and they won't go anywhere outside the four corners of the document of the interim report that he gave. And again, the things that they have said in the past have not squared very well with what was happening on the ground.
I'll give just one example. On May 7th, the undersecretary of Defense, Stephen Cambone, for Intelligence, gave a briefing on WMD with the DIA chief, and he said that there are -- the weapons teams have just begun their work, that they have 600-some valuable leads that they have barely begun to tap, and sort of he went on and on statistically. And that very week, and I wrote this in a story, the task force in charge of the weapons hunt was in pretty much despair -- they had exhausted nearly all their good leads, they were stunned by the poverty of intelligence that they had, they were dismayed by the results of their search, and they were preparing to go home. And that's just -- those were on-the-record quotes and lots of sort of numbers and places and results in those stories. And they just didn't square with what was being briefed.
BK: Dr. Bass?
Audience [Warren Bass]: On Henry Precht's question, the British press is reporting that American officials are trying to prevent reporters from going to hospitals to count casualties; that British reporters have made an effort to go to hospitals to try to find out the number who have -- of Iraqi civilians who have been injured or killed, and the American officials are now instructing these hospitals not to let them in.
HM: You know, the counting capacity of the American government has not atrophied as such. We do get revised estimates on the number of political prisoners and others who were killed in the Saddam Hussein regime. And I think the government is entirely, you know, appropriate and justified in doing that. So some things they can count, and some things they don't want to count.
BK: In the back, please. Ken Dam. Ken Dam.
Audience [Kenneth Dam]: -- Brookings and the University of Chicago. The topic this evening is the news media and Iraq. And I've heard two -- at least for those who are defending the news media performance in Iraq, I've heard two theories of the role of the news media in the United States. One is that they are there to sell newspapers and obviously you've got to tell the stories that people will read, about people being killed, not people not being killed. The second is that there is a loyal opposition to the government. I don't hear anything about all the things that I read about in the university, in college, or I read about in constitutional law cases or in the cases -- I happen to be a lawyer -- where the news media is claiming special privileges that other citizens would not have. And I wonder if there is any other role than the two I've mentioned that anyone would like to mention. Thank you.
RP: That was a topic I wanted to address tonight. I mean, a lot of people ask me do I think, you know, most of the reporters out there are politically biased. I think some of them are, but I think a lot of them -- I think this is probably a post-Watergate syndrome, where journalists have started to conceive their role as speaking truth to power and, you know, ferreting out, doing investigations and getting people, and they don't think it's dignified to just go out there and sort of report what's going on. I think that's a very common defect in the profession.
BK: But you're not holding a burial service for digging, for journalistic investigations, are you, by saying that?
RP: I'm sorry?
BK: You're not holding a burial service for digging, for journalistic investigation?
RP: Oh, no. No, no.
BK: If you're just dealing, you've got to go beyond the obvious fact. Isn't a journalist's responsibility to get beyond the fact, to get facts that are being suppressed?
RP: I think that, sure, that is a responsibility of journalists. I don't think that that's what needs to be done, necessarily, in every dispatch. A lot of times what you're doing as a journalist is telling people what's happening. What I'm saying is it's too bad that journalists think that that is somehow undignified.
BG: That's twice you've said the "undignified" thing, and I don't think I want to leave that unanswered.
It is exactly what we're supposed to do, to go out and say what's going on, what we can see here and surmise; that is to say, what we can get from witnesses that we can't see ourselves. But that is in service of exactly what you seem to be criticizing. I wouldn't put it, Ken, as loyal opposition at all. We don't conceive our role as opposing either the policies of the government or the party or the government in power. I think our principal role as we conceive it at The Washington Post -- I'm not going to speak for THE media, which is an odd construct to me -- is to hold accountable people who have power for their use of that power, to tell things about what they're doing that they don't want to say, to square what they say with what we can observe on the ground, and to shine a light on aspects of the story that no one's talking about. It's not to instruct the American people, it's not to oppose the actions of the government, and it's -- as far as the reporter is concerned, only incidentally to sell newspapers. You'd be amazed, I think, most people would be, because they assume otherwise, at the indifference of a newsroom to sales and circulation and that sort of thing.
HM: Digging is potentially adversarial, but it is not inherently adversarial. And I think that's -- you know. And I think what it is, however, is the very essence of journalism. And certainly there is a breakpoint in American journalism in pre-Vietnam and post-Vietnam, which -- you know, in which digging became, you know, much more of a thing in the post period. But it is not -- you know, I mean, for someone like me, who is an opinion columnist, that's one thing. But for someone like Bart, digging -- you know, and I do digging as well. But for Bart, digging is wherever it's going to lead him.
BK: Murrey Marder.
Audience: Murrey Marder of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. I'd like to take the opposite side of the conventional argument here; namely, I would criticize the press not for being negative or positive, but not for being skeptical enough of what is coming from the authorities who control power in this country.
We have a project under the Nieman Foundation, which I sponsor, called the Watchdog Project. We are about to go into a web page operation which will center on the questions which the press should ask, but does not ask.
I'd like to challenge most of the conventional arguments that have been made here; namely, on the question of parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. Obviously, there are immense non-parallels, but there are many compelling parallels. The main parallel is the press and the Congress of the United States both failed their responsibility to the electorate in both cases by questioning the administration closely enough in 1964 about its premises, its objectives, its strategy and the costs and consequences. The press committed the same failure this time around at the outset.
BK: Murrey, I'm going to have to ask you to -- just if you can just tighten it up, please.
Murrey Marder: Let me just give you one example of a fundamental issue which the press has only glancingly touched on since the war began. That is the fundamental issue which divides the United States from its allies around the world, the question of the Bush doctrine, of preemptive war. The American public has had no opportunity to explore this subject whatsoever. The press has never examined it.
BK: Murrey, that was two indictments. I'd let you go on, and I'm very interested, but I want to move it around the floor, if I may. Thank you very much.
Art Rosen. Yes?
Audience: Art Rosen. You've been talking as representatives of the print media, and you're really a very small minority of those people who are in the United States who are reading or learning or hearing about the war, and learning about the war. You have everything from "Reliable Sources" to "Jim Lehrer" on one side; you have Fox News on another, CNN on a third; you have the Sunday morning talk shows; you have all of these people who have far greater influence on the American public than do the -- your organizations or the L.A. Times. I'd like to get your opinion on what accomplishments or what affect they're having, and what comments otherwise you would have on the quality of the media in these other areas.
BK: What affect who's having, Art?
Art Posen: I'm sorry?
BK: What affect who is having?
Art Posen: The non-print media; the television, radio, and so on, including the radio talk show people.
BG: I will just note -- it is possible to draw that distinction too sharply. Fox News is the leading cable news channel in viewership, but its reach is exceeded on an average day by The Wall Street Journal's circulation, and the New York Times circulation and the Sunday Washington Post circulation, because it seldom breaks a million. Nevertheless, it is a fact that most Americans get most of their news from broadcast media.
And again, I just think that the construct of the media, even the broadcast media, as you suggest, is just way too broad to be an analytic tool here. It's so varied. I mean, people can get the kind of news that they want. And if they're mainly interested in sort of talk show chatter or commentary of a kind that seems -- that they like -- I mean, talk radio is huge in forming people's views -- then they're going to listen to the kind of talk radio they want to listen to. All you can do is put the information out there. And every citizen has to decide how he or she wants to absorb it.
BK: Well, you could put the -- excuse me just a moment. You can put the information out there, but you run the risk of getting these results, if risk is the right word, and I'm not sure it is. An in-depth analysis of a series of polls conducted June through September found 48 percent incorrectly believe that evidence of links between Iraq and al Qaeda have been found; 22 percent that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq; and 25 percent that world public opinion favor the U.S. going to war. Overall, 60 percent of those polled had at least one of these three misperceptions.
HM: I actually read a column on that last week in The Washington Post. The people who did the survey, whose offices actually may be in this building -- they're somewhere in the 1700 something-or-other north side of Mass Ave. -- (laughter) -- certainly on this block, also correlated these responses to news sources: Where do you get most of your news? Now, correlating and causality are different. What it showed is that while viewers of any number of these alternate -- these networks entertained one mistaken notion, only really viewers of Fox News, and in relatively high percentages, entertained all three of the things that Bernie Kalb -- (laughter) -- actually, 45 percent.
BK: But you want to come back, because Fox had a rebuttal in The Washington Post the other day.
HM: Yes, they did.
BK: They made a very good point; that because you believe it, doesn't necessarily mean you got it from Fox News.
HM: That's true. Now, they did also -- (laughter) -- this is -- this is a funny survey, though. This -
BK: But, Harold, I want to come --
BK: -- and excuse me for interrupting. I want to talk about these three points, if I may, for just a second.
BK: These are what? Subjective conclusions? Something is in mid-air that has produced these three misconceptions.
You're restless, I see.
BG: No, that strikes me as a case where the American people are perhaps wiser than a lot of the savants who like to laugh at them, frankly. I mean, you know, it's very clear that evidence of links to al Qaeda have been found. I mean, no one is saying that --
Unknown: (Off mike.)
BG: Yeah, absolutely. No one's saying that Iraq was behind 9/11, but there are many links --
BK: Did the president recently say there were no links?
BG: No, he said there was no link to 9/11. He did not say there was no link to al Qaeda. So, I mean, that strikes me as a perfectly reasonable belief.
BK: But how -- let's take one more round on this thing. How do these percentages emerge? Based on what?
HM: I think one of the great mysteries that has not been explained -- and this was present in the runup to the war as well -- is the number of people who thought that there were links between Saddam Hussein's regime and 9/11 as such. All the polling --
BK: But we're not in the thought -- we're not talking thought now, we're talking fact.
HM: Yeah. Yeah. And that was and remains, you know, a widely shared belief. And the -- this was -- you know, I think there were all kinds of --
RP: It may be true, we don't know.
HM: Well, there are all kinds of misinformation the administration was putting out. But the administration actually was not claiming this during the runup -- you know, I mean in the early days, at least, of their drum beating for the war, they weren't making this as an argument. Yet it has proved to be, you know, really widely believed throughout, you know, the American -- by many American people, and almost at a level that's kind of a visceral belief that you're on one side or the other, and if you're on the other side, you got to be --
BG: We may be overlooking one important element here. It's not just the media that gives information to the public. Let's not forget the bully pulpit of the presidency and the power of the president and his top people to move public opinion. They're going to get their words heard.
And I'd give you one example. I did a long project on the prewar evidence on Iraq's nuclear capability, and 13 months ago the vice president and then every member of the national security Cabinet and then finally the president began deploying the rhetoric of the mushroom cloud and talking about Iraq's nuclear danger. And at the end of three weeks of that, there was a poll in which 69 percent of Americans said that Iraq already had a nuclear weapon. They did not say that, but they conveyed a message of near-term nuclear menace that was heard that way by a large majority of Americans.
BK: Mm-hmm. Let's go to more questions, please. Sir?
RP: Can I ask -- does that mean that presidents have no right to be subtle, that whenever -- (chuckles) -- that whenever they say something that's misconstrued in some way, that it's their fault or --
BG: I don't know whether it would be right to hear me as having assigned fault. I'm simply saying that when you want to know why people believe what they believe, let's not start from the idea that the point of origin is in a newsroom or the editorial page --
BK: Or as a fact.
BG: -- but that the president drives a great deal of opinion on the subject of the day.
BK: Please. Next shot, Fred. No, no, I've already -- you're next. Please.
Audience: Burton Gerber, lecturer on ethics. In regard to something that you said, Mr. Kalb, and the others, about the job of the journalist is to dig for the facts and to report them, I wondered what you think about John Burns's column in The Times about what happened in Iraq before the war, in terms of journalists hiding material that they found, journalists not reporting it, and in Burns's own view, some people -- some journalists coming to the Iraqi Ministry of Press trying to point out how they're good guys and other journalists are bad guys.
This raises the question -- a good citizen, I think, is skeptical of his government. I think a good citizen also should be skeptical of what he reads in the press.
BG: I would certainly endorse the idea of being skeptical of what you read in the press or anywhere else you -- you ought to read by individual author and by individual publication and form judgments over time about reliability. And you know, when you read a book, after a while, there's enough internal evidence in the book that -- to convince you whether or not you trust the voice of the author. You ought to do that as -- I mean, the more you think critically about what you're reading, the better off you are.
For those of you who missed it, the Burns thing was a chapter -- an interview in a chapter in a book about journalists in Iraq. And he said some very provocative things, and I'd sure like to know what he meant by them. But in particular, as you said, he said that some of his competitors would bring stacks of his clips and stacks of their clips to the Iraqi Information Ministry before the war, to show what good boys they were and how this Burns was writing nasty stuff, but that they were behaving. If that's true, I'd sure like to know who it was.
BK: I think particularly in times of crises, at critical moments, skepticism is exceedingly patriotic, without question.
Audience: Thank you, Bernie. I apologize for intruding, but we're supposed to be your closest ally, so perhaps I -- if I may. (Laughter.)
The question that is sort of burning all of us at home is that we were duped. And it goes back to the previous question of what the president and the prime minister do. And some of you may have followed the Hutton inquiry investigation over the famous government dossier saying there was a 45-minute lapse between the order of Saddam Hussein to launch weapons of mass destruction. And the evidence -- not the press, the evidence -- given by the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the secretary of State for Defense to the Hutton inquiry was that they put out a statement saying that there was a 45-minute warning giving us -- sorry, that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.
The press took this to mean chemical or biological weapons as far as Cyprus, and certainly Israel, and maybe even nuclear. Just look at the headlines that followed this. The Evening Standard went with "Threat to British Troops in Cyprus" and so on.
And the eminent judge intervened to say, "Well, Mr. Secretary of State, if you knew, as you've testified here and as the Joint Intelligence Committee have testified, that these were only battlefield weapons -- very nasty, of course, they are very nasty, but they are not very far, you know, they don't go to Cyprus or Israel -- why didn't you correct the image that the press was putting out?"
And he said -- and I think it was bloody disingenuous, if you'll pardon my language -- he said, "Well, you can never catch up with the press, can you?"
BK: Never catch up?
Audience: Is that true for the United States too?
BK: What was it he said? You could never --
Audience [Unknown]: Catch up with the press. And I'm saying, was that true for the American press, that when the president and the prime minister of Great Britain misled you, duped you, you didn't try to catch up?
RP: Can I just address the issue of -- I'm always -- I'm kind of curious why people use words like "misled" and "duped" or "lied." It strikes me that this was an awfully far-reaching conspiracy if -- I mean, clearly, there was some bad intelligence information that went into this whole decision, there's no doubt about that. But I cannot believe that hundreds of thousands of troops were sent fighting in a hot desert in hot chemical and biological suits as part of a grand deception scheme. And, I don't know, I just don't find terms like that helpful. I think we need to figure out where this bad intelligence came from, because it would be nice not to have the problem again in the future.
HM: Well, we do know that Secretary Rumsfeld, under Deputy Secretary Feith, set up his own intelligence assessment shop that would produce -- that had the effect of producing intelligence which was more conducive to making the case for going to war. So, you know --
RP: But that wasn't -- intelligence was not very much different from what Clinton cited when he bombed Iraq in '98; it was not very much different from what the U.N. inspectors had cited.
HM: But it was enough at variance with what they were getting out of the CIA that they did this in the first place.
RP: I think that's the CIA covering their behind because they supported most of this.
BK: Here we get involved in a great semantic battle about the definition of the word "lie." And so let's put "lie" on hold for a minute. There'll be many, many months ahead.
BG: Well, can I just -- I mean, just one quick thing about this. I mean, Robert's right, there are many possible or logical explanations for the discrepancy between what the White House said before the war and what's been found now. It could be that the stuff really was there and still hasn't been found. It could be that the experts were wrong. It could be that the stuff was there, destroyed or shipped out somewhere. It could be that the experts were much more ambiguous and that political authorities greatly exceeded what they knew in the way they spoke. And I think on the biological/chemical missile fronts, it was the consensus of most of the experts on this that they would find things in Iraq. On the nuclear front, that's quite different. And I think you can make a strong case that the administration knowingly and considerably exceeded the bounds of its knowledge.
BK: Way in the back, please. Please.
Audience: David Apgar, Corporate Executive Board. A lot of -- Bob Pollock, a lot of your comments suggest that much of the criticism reflects some kind of slant. Isn't it a false distinction to oppose out and out editorial comment to completely neutral, "reported as I see it" facts in an almost glassy-eyed fashion: Here's what I saw today? Isn't that a false distinction? In particular, isn't it, instead, the height of rationality to adopt a third reporting position, which is: We'll report only the facts, but we will make judgments about those facts most likely to have the biggest impact on established -- on received wisdom or on established views. Isn't that a third viable position different from both pure editorial and, you know, neutral fact reporting?
RP: Yes, I think so. I mean, I don't think there's any clear-cut, easy distinction between pure fact reporting and editorializing, for that matter. You know, I think that, you know, judgments go into whatever you do. You know, when you do a news story, you have to figure out which facts are relevant, what order to put them in, and so forth. So --
BG: I'll try to offer a distinction, since I'm on the other side of that newsroom fence. There's lots of room for -- I mean, in fact, it's inevitable that news reporting is subjective. The Washington Post does not claim objectivity even as its goal in reporting. We don't -- I think the editors came to the conclusion that it's not humanly possible, using our sort of human apparatus of judgment, to be objective. The goals are fairness and accuracy; that what we say that's verifiable be strictly true and that it be sort of fully fair to all sides of the argument or all sides of the issue at hand -- or this is an additional level, we hope, of sophistication; analysis of -- make analytic judgments about what's really going on here, what is the significance of this, that sort of thing -- where we draw the line. And what's a sharp distinction, I think, can be maintained between the newsroom and the editorial page is on normative judgments: what should be.
HM: Bob, if ever there were a paper where there's a distinction between the news coverage and the editorial, it's your paper. (Laughter.) It's The Wall Street Journal. But speaking as an opinion journalist, obviously, you make the best case, marshaled with the most facts, in your opinion column, as well. Sometimes I look at The Wall Street Journal editorials and say, "My God, where do they get these facts on which they are basing these conclusions?" But yeah, there really is a distinction there.
BK: In the back again -- someone else back there.
Please. Oh, I thought there were two hands back there. Yes? In the back, please.
Audience: Now, maybe I've just missed the columns -- I'm Marcia Dam from the East West Institute -- but friends at AID say that hundreds of schools were opened, not on October 1st as promised, but four days later, or three, on October 4th; that hospitals have been opened as promised. And I never read about anything that we've promised that we have carried out. Is this because I've missed the columns, or is it not being written about?
RP: There were lots of schools open when I was there in May. Baghdad University was functioning, most of the elementary schools in Baghdad were running. I mean, you know -- in fact, they say it's no big news that they opened in October, because they were open, you know, at the end of last year, too.
BG: I've read those stories in my paper and in the New York Times; Anthony Shadid, Rajiv Chandrasekaran in our paper have done these things. But they've also done really fascinating work that shows the subjective differences on the ground, or the perceptions of Iraqis on the ground.
Tom Ricks, our senior military correspondent, and Anthony Shadid took -- had an amazing story where they walked side by side with a patrol, sort of a goodwill, show-presence, build-good-stuff patrol of U.S. troops in Baghdad. And Ricks recorded what the soldiers thought they were doing and what they thought the Iraqis were perceiving. And Shadid, who's a fluent Arabic speaker, did the other side. And the sort of -- the chasm between those two worlds was enormous, even when it was Americans going in and sort of fixing a school. It was, I think, a nursery area at a medical facility -- their actions and their motivations and the significance of what they were doing was perceived grossly differently by the local Iraqis. And that's also part of the story.
Audience: Peter Zimmerman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee and King's College, London. Bart, you alluded to the fact that there are lots of reasons why we might not have found weapons of mass destruction. Most of those probably don't compute as well as the statement that there just weren't any from the mid-90s or the late '90s onwards.
But I have really two questions. The first is, isn't it about time that anybody who does good, careful statistical analysis of what we have found and what we have looked for and how many times we've inspected would come to the conclusion that, in point of fact, whether there were any WMD in Iraq before the war, there aren't any now?
And the second one goes to the heart of some -- of a major story that I think we've ignored tonight, that is parallel with Iraq, and that is, what is going on in Afghanistan? We have a significant number of troops tied down there. We don't seem to have really brought democracy to the country. The few pictures I see show the women still in burqa and afraid to get out of it.
What would -- would you comment as a group on your responsibility to inform us about the war that's past and what's going on over there?
BG: I was alluding before to what are the logical or speculative reasons that are possible to account for the gap between statement and observation on WMD. They're not all true. They can't all be true. And my job is to try to go from the speculative or the logical to the empirical and find out what actually did happen.
And you're right. I mean, some of the outcomes are much more likely now than others. It can't be true, for example, that Saddam gave release authority for chemical weapons to his corps and division commanders, as U.S. intelligence reported immediately before the war, because if that were true, they would have had to have something to release, and they would have had to have it in forward areas and in weaponized form, near to delivery systems and so on. And we overran all these areas and have, you know, poked around them for six months, and they weren't there. So that, we know, is simply -- didn't happen.
There are, you know, other potential explanations, like -- remember there was a scientist in a baseball cap who apparently told American investigators that the -- Iraq had destroyed most of its weapons and shipped the others off over allied borders in the immediate days before the war. Now if large quantities in the -- measured in tons, and thousands of liters of these sort of weapons were destroyed immediately before the war, after six months, it seems more and more likely that we would have known -- we would have had testimonial or physical evidence of that. So that story seems less and less likely to have been true.
So I mean -- but that's what we're trying to nail down.
BK: The bottom line: WMD, in your view, is still open?
BG: There's -- I think there's reason to continue employing me. (Laughter.)
BK: Going to let Afghanistan go, if I may, just to get to a few more questions before -- let me just take three questions in a row, but before the answers. One. There are two and three? Otherwise, that will be a wrap for tonight. Two, and three. Quickly, one, two, three.
Audience: Margaret Hayes at National Defense University. My organization had a --
BK: And if you could, please.
Margaret Hayes: -- similar roundtable last week, and UPI and a radio reporter commented that one of the difficulties with media correspondents has been the business decision, after the war and with the embedded reporters, that many papers, wire services, et cetera have pulled back their reporters, so now we have a few people covering a few stories. And maybe this is why Afghanistan has disappeared. I'd like your reaction to that.
BK: Okay. Go back, two. Let's hold off, get all three of them.
Audience: Steve Bittner. My question is whether the panelists can comment on what the Arab press is reporting, the content side of what the Arab press is reporting that we don't hear much about.
BK: Okay. And you're three.
Audience: Lynette Clemetson with The New York Times. It seems that part of what we're talking about here is not so much what's been reported, but people's capacity to consume what's been reported. Because it seems like we're in agreement that most of the things that people say they haven't seen are out there. But I have a question: Is the very fact that -- if we have this notion that the administration drives public opinion too, is the very fact that we've raised this question about the media being too negative in its coverage, the fact that this has come up now, is that in some way manipulation of people's ability to consume, and a manipulation of the press process in some way by the administration?
BK: One, two three, however you choose to do it.
BG: Cuts in staff and funding, there have been some. The war level of coverage represented an extraordinary surge that cannot be sustained by news organizations. The Washington Post spent -- I mean, I would guess, more than it's normal entire year's foreign news budget just to cover the, say, two- or three-month most intense period of the war and aftermath. But we still have half a dozen correspondents over there. And UPI could give you a somewhat skewed version of -- perception of the truth because UPI has, unfortunately, been on life support for 15 or 20 years. The AP has a very considerable staff still in Baghdad.
BG: Yeah. Go ahead.
HM: Are we discussing the credibility and the overt negativity of the media because the administration has raised this as an issue? Partly, yes. Partly also because people who agree with the administration in this society seize upon this sort of thing too. But, you know, I mean, the objective fact of an occupation, in which all obviously is not rosy, has turned public opinion. And attacking the messenger for any group in power is the oldest trick in the book.
BK: Two questions left. Do you want to pick them up? The Arab press and the manipulation of the media.
RP: Yeah, I'd like to address that for a minute. I mean, I think part of the reason, you know, we're addressing this question of whether it's too negative has nothing to do with what the president has said, I mean, partly has said, of course. But also, I think we've had something close to 100 congressmen go over now to see for themselves. And virtually all of them have come back and said, well, gee, you know, there are a few problems, but it's a lot better than I've been hearing, and a lot of Democrats are saying that, as well. And people are curious -- (chuckles) -- why the picture seems different. I think --
BK: And some of them brought yesterday before the White House press corps at the White House.
And the Arab press, anybody? Quick observation on the reporting of the Arab press: accuracy, fairness, objectivity, et cetera?
BG: I don't feel qualified on that.
BK: Okay. We've cleared up everything. Thank you. (Applause.)
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