By: Greg Mitchell
The e-mailed memo arrived in my inbox late one night in mid-February. At least one news editor had seen enough. It had been a wild five days in “unnamed sources” land, beginning on Friday, Feb. 9, with the belated release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, reminding us how the White House had artfully spun the media on the WMD issue, putting us on the path to a disastrous war. On top of that, the Libby trial was still going on, refreshing our memories of the same subject.
Just hours after the NIE arrived, Michael R. Gordon, the New
York Times reporter who, with Judith Miller, wrote perhaps the single most influential WMD article back in September 2002 (on the non-existent “aluminum tubes”), produced for Saturday’s edition of the Times a front-page story charging that Iran was supplying the “deadliest weapon” that has killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. It was, naturally, based solely on unnamed administration and military officials.
The next day, many American reporters were invited to a Sunday briefing in Baghdad to consider evidence of those same weapons from Iran being used in Iraq, allegedly with the direct knowledge of Iran’s leaders. In advance, all of the reporters agreed to not identify the three officials who made this presentation, though they were encouraged to report every word they said and reprint photos of some of the weapons.
Although the evidence was far from “slam-dunk” quality, the reporters dutifully spread the word via lengthy accounts for their papers’ Web sites ? with The Washington Post and The New York Times putting the stories on the very top of their sites all day, and then on their front pages on Monday. As in the days of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, it wasn’t just a matter of reporting the evidence uncritically, but also the emphasis the papers gave it ? by featuring the claims so prominently.
E&P Online raised questions about the Gordon report, and then the Baghdad briefing stories, all weekend. Finally, on Monday, some other media outlets joined in. As in the Iraq run-up, the Times and Post featured their “skeptical” stories much less prominently than the originals, even after Gen. Peter Pace raised doubts about Iran’s leaders knowing about the weapons.
The New York Times opinion editors, at least, appeared distressed, shouting doubts about the whole matter (which its news section had trumpeted) in an editorial. It expressed fears that this was part of an administration plan to march us into another war.
That night, the first part of the PBS Frontline series on the media was aired, with distressing reminders of newspapers’ complicity in the Iraq invasion. It showed Bob Woodward on Larry King’s CNN show saying there was “almost zero” chance WMD would not be found in Iraq. In a new interview, Judith Miller said she did nothing wrong in her reporting back then, even if the reporting itself was wrong.
A few minutes after that, an e-mail landed in my “new messages” box.
It came from KSFR, a public radio station in Santa Fe, N.M. I don’t know anything about the station, although I have been to Santa Fe a couple of times. It seems that the surge in “unnamed officials” had finally pushed News Director Bill Dupuy to take action. He wrote that “until further notice, it is the policy of KSFR’s news department to ignore and not repeat any wire service or nationally published story” about Iran, North Korea, and other sensitive foreign areas if it quotes an “unnamed” U.S. official.
“What we have suspected and talked about at length before is now becoming clear. ‘High administration officials speaking on the condition of anonymity,’ ‘Usually reliable Washington sources,’ and others of the like were behind the publicity that added credibility to the need to go to war against Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This is a small news department with a small reach. We cannot research these stories ourselves. But we can take steps not to compromise our integrity. We should not dutifully parrot whatever comes out of Washington, on the wire or by whatever means, no matter how intriguing and urgent it sounds, when the source is unnamed. I am also calling on our colleagues in other local news departments ? broadcast and print ? to take the same professional approach.”
The following day, President Bush at a press conference contradicted the still- unnamed officials at the Baghdad briefing, admitting, “I do not know” one way or the other if the Iranian government knew anything about the weapons in Iraq. But, to update Mark Twain, I’ll add: An unnamed source’s lie can dominate the Web while the truth is still putting on its boots.