One of the problems with the media coverage of this Administration is that it requires bad manners. I don’t mean the kind of bad manners usually associated with reporters: shouting over one another, elbowing a colleague to get closer to one’s interview subject or even quoting an anonymous source reporting that so-and-so really isn’t up to the job. Rather, to be an honest, objective and fair-minded reporter of the Bush Administration’s policies requires pointing out repeatedly and without sentimentality that just about all the men and women responsible for the conduct of this nation’s foreign (and many of its domestic) affairs are entirely without personal honor when it comes to the affairs of state. This simply isn’t done in respectable journalism, and the Bush people understand that. Arthur Miller, speaking at a Nation Institute dinner last year, termed the willingness to use this kind of knowledge “the power of audacity.”
The preceding, while a bit baldly stated for most, would be considered arguable, but not outrageous, to many mainstream journalists with regard to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their militant minions in the Pentagon and NSC. But what of Colin Powell? Widely considered to be a man of uncommon personal integrity and a voice of reason in presidential war councils–perhaps the only such voice–Powell remains the thin reed upon which men and women of good will here and abroad pin their ever-declining hopes. A war hero, a member of a minority who is known to be more moderate, thoughtful and generally sensible on pretty much everything than the President and the rest of those who serve him, it was Powell, after all, who fought the good fight for a multilateralist approach to foreign policy in Iraq and elsewhere.
When Powell went before the UN Security Council in February 2003, reporters treated his accusations against Saddam Hussein as if akin to tablets passed down by Moses from the mountaintop. A study by Gilbert Cranberg, former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, discovered a nearly perfect storm of wide-eyed credulity in coverage of the speech. We heard and read of “a massive array of evidence,” “a detailed and persuasive case,” “a powerful case,” “a sober, factual case,” “an overwhelming case,” “a compelling case,” “the strong, credible and persuasive case,” “a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information,” “a smoking fusillade…a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable,” “an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence,” so that “only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction.” “The skeptics asked for proof; they now have it.” “Powell’s evidence,” we were told, was “overwhelming,” “ironclad…incontrovertible,” “succinct and damning…the case is closed.” “Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein.” “If there was any doubt that Hussein…needs to be…stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest.”
And yet the slightest scrutiny of the text would have revealed this certainty on the part of the Fourth Estate to be completely inappropriate. Powell employed all kinds of weasel words in his address that should have set off alarm bells in any first-year journalism student. Over and over, Cranberg notes, he attributed his charges to the likes of “human sources,” “an eyewitness,” “detainees,” “an Al Qaeda source,” “a senior defector,” “intelligence sources.” At a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria just before his talk, reported by the Guardian, Powell complained to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the claims coming out of the Pentagon–particularly those made by Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz–could not be substantiated (Straw denies that the meeting took place). Powell allegedly told the Foreign Secretary that he had just about “moved in” with his intelligence staff to prepare for his speech but had left his briefings “apprehensive,” fearing that the evidence might “explode in their faces.” A U.S. News & World Report story describes the Secretary of State throwing the documents in the air and declaring, “I’m not reading this. This is bullshit!”
But the good soldier read it anyway. His worst fears would soon be realized, however, when the British Foreign Office was forced to admit that a considerable portion of its Iraq dossier–upon which Powell had decided to rely quite heavily–had been lifted, verbatim, from dated academic sources and even included a portion that was plagiarized from a journal article by an American graduate student. What’s more, it turned out that the dossier did not even purport to prove what Powell insisted it did. Recently, the Hutton Commission in England discovered an e-mail from Tony Blair’s chief of staff to his boss, explaining that the dossier “does nothing to demonstrate he [Saddam Hussein] has the motive to attack his neighbours, let alone the west. We will need to be clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat.” In recent weeks, Charles Hanley, an Associated Press reporter, subjected Powell’s claims to thorough investigation in light of what was known at the time as well as later revelations. It is a tough-minded assessment, and just about nothing in Powell’s presentation survived. (You can find it at www.commondreams.org.) Every one of those reports quoted above was, in other words–to borrow Powell’s term–“bullshit.”
In a truly nutty editorial published in June, Washington Times editors observed that “86 percent of Americans continue to be certain, or at least believe it is likely, that before the war Iraq not only had the facilities to develop weapons of mass destruction, but that it also possessed biological or chemical weapons.” The editors were arguing that Americans don’t care that their leaders deliberately misled them to convince them to enter this apparently never-ending quagmire, and so neither should the media. It’s quite a trick: Lie to the American people and then fall back on the fact that they bought the lies to demonstrate that truth really doesn’t matter anyway. It is in this and only this Alice-in-Wonderland universe that a dishonest propagandist like Colin Powell may be considered an “internationalist,” a “moderate” and, sadly, a “man of honor.”