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Lies that Cost Lives: Who Should Be Held Accountable for Media’s Mistakes Ahead of Iraq Invasion?

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Last week, the White House charged that “people lost their lives” because of an inaccurate Newsweek report on the desecration of the Koran at Guantánamo. Media analysts Norman Solomon and Michael Massing discuss government pressure on journalists and the media’s coverage in the lead up to the Iraq war. [includes rush transcript]

The news comes on the heels of controversy over a Newsweek article by journalist Michael Isikoff saying that government investigators had corroborated an almost identical incident. Newsweek ultimately retracted its story under intense government pressure because a confidential government source could not be confirmed.

After the story broke, the White House and Pentagon have painted Isikoff and Newsweek as being responsible for deaths during rioting in Afghanistan following the article”s publication. Pentagon spokesperson Larry Dirita said “People are dead because of what this son of a ___ said. How could he be credible now?”

Even after Newsweek retracted its story, the White House continued its offensive. This is White House spokesperson Scott McClellan last week.

  • Scott McClellan, White House press secretary speaking at a press briefing on May 17, 2005.

White House spokesperson Scott McClellan at a news conference last week. Since then, media outlets and human rights groups have revealed scores of allegations of abuse of the Koran by US interrogators and others. McClellan has now retreated on claims that Newsweek”s retracted story cost lives in Afghanistan. This is from a White House news confernce on Monday.

  • Scott McClellan, White House press secretary speaking at a press briefing on May 17, 2005.

We are joined now by Michael Massing, a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is author of “Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.” And on the line from California, Norman Soloman joins us–he is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and author of the forthcoming book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us To Death.”

  • Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is author of the forthcoming book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us To Death” which will be out in June.
  • Michael Massing, a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is the author of “Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.” He frequently writes for the New York Review of Books, the American Prospect and the Nation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about the Newsweek controversy and the allegations of Koran abuse, the pressure from the U.S. government after Michael Isikoff’s piece appeared. We’re joined by Michael Massing, contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press in Iraq. And on the line from California, Norman Solomon, who is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, author of the forthcoming book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. Well, Michael Massing, let’s begin with you. Were you surprised as the Newsweek controversy started to unfold, the allegations of Koran desecration and then what came next from the Pentagon, from the White House?

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, no. It’s part of a pattern that we have been seeing. You know, the press right now, I think, a lot of journalists would feel they’re under attack in ways that are unprecedented, and it’s not just that you have, say, a president or a presidential press spokesman criticizing the press — you go back to President Kennedy and find that — but there’s this echo chamber out there now that has really led to such a sort of forceful coming down on the media from a variety of places, so the White House is amplified by Fox News, by the Weekly Standard, by The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Now you have the blogs that instantaneously can ramp something up to a tremendous pressure. So we are seeing this as part of a pattern, much of it clearly calculated to put the press on the defensive and make it pull back in its reporting.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who was saying what, at the same time that you had Lawrence DiRita saying, talking about Michael Isikoff talking about that son of a blank, and basically saying that there very much was blood on hands of Newsweek? Talk about what else was being said by the government.

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, General Richard Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a press conference — actually, looked up the press conference, and it came at the very end. He was with Donald Rumsfeld, and it was when the base closings was announced, and someone at the end asked about _Newsweek_’s culpability, and General Myers was really, very straightforward about this. He says, “I have a general in the field, my representative in Afghanistan, and his feeling is that the Newsweek report is not at all the cause of what is happening there, that it is much more caught up in the local politics and anti-U.S. and anti-Karzai forces.” And I went back and looked at how this got reported, and it came if at all at the end of several stories, so DiRita and McClellan, their comments were getting a tremendous amount of attention, and General Myers was buried at the end of articles. I think if that had been played up more earlier that some of the statements now finally are coming around to that, as you just showed Scott McClellan saying.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s pretty astounding. I mean, you have Lawrence DiRita, a Pentagon spokesperson saying, “People are dead because of what the son of a blank said, how could he be credible now?” And at the same time, he is saying, “The nature of where these things occurred, how quickly they occurred, the nature of individuals who were involved in it suggests they may be organized events that are using this alleged allegation as a pretext for activity that was already planned.”

MICHAEL MASSING: Right. And actually today on the op-ed page of the Times, Sarah Chayes, who has been in Afghanistan for three years, former NPR correspondent, gets into more depth. I mean, I have actually been shocked at the lack of reporting on what’s happened over there. I would assume we would have more people like looking — who were these organizers, what happened, just getting more information. And yet it’s another case of how Afghanistan has been shoved aside because of Iraq. And so, we’re left in the dark.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Solomon, your response for starters, as this whole story unfolded.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes, if we’re going to raise the question of how can they be credible now, then we should be talking about the entire U.S. mass media and certainly the official sources that they relied on that got us into this war on Iraq in the first place. One of the forms of deception is promotion of lies, the other is silence about key information. And we could ask now, who is dying today because of lies told, through commission, through omission, silence about key information. And also we could demand who are today the news outlets that should be retracting both their deceptions before and during and after the invasion, as well as their silences. And if you go down that road, if you are going to go into what has been opened up by Scott McClellan and Lawrence DiRita and all of those folks and raise the question of blood on their hands, then, you know, let’s be clear. There’s an enormous amount of blood on the hands of — if these major media institutions can be said to have hands, The New York Times, the Washington Post, major outlets that took, on faith, statements made by the White House, Pentagon, State Department, leading into and during this war to the present time, and people are dying.

So, it’s a very much an indicator of the truncated and limited range of the mass media in this country that these questions can be opened up and shut down at the same time. As it happens, we are speaking exactly one year ago today from the day, May 26, 2004, when The New York Times, long after publishing these front page articles about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, printed a 14-page “from the editor’s” note finally acknowledging there was something wrong with their coverage, but even then it was a semi-apology. We haven’t had any sort of real dissection in the pages of the Times or, I would argue, through the mass media in general about how the Times and the Post and other major outlets played ball with, were part of the war propaganda system of this country, that has resulted in this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Massing, it’s what Now They Tell Us: The American Press in Iraq is all about, and you specifically critique The New York Times. What about this? What people are held accountable for?

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, you know, it’s an interesting thing, because the press coverage goes in and out, and there are periods in which the press does better, and right now, I think most journalists look back on the period from the summer of 2002 when Dick Cheney makes the initial speech about Iraq to the beginning of the war as one of the great failures in American press coverage. I mean, led by The New York Times and the Washington Post, and then everybody else falling into line. I mean, I think the press now sort of is aware of that, and I mean, you know, The New York Times, to its credit ran the Tim Golden article in the face of the recent one about the abuses in Afghanistan. So, they — you know, occasionally show their — they have some backbone, but I think that the period before the war really will go down as a textbook case of the press’s failure to really play its role. And we are paying the cost now. There’s no question.

AMY GOODMAN: And very brief —

NORMAN SOLOMON: I would argue that we’re still paying the cost, and more importantly than that, people in Iraq and Afghanistan are paying the cost. You know, there’s no accountability. The problem is, we can say that the mass media of this country are aware of their failings in the lead in to the war, but you have the same people running these institutions, using the same sort of double standards and reliance on official sources that are winking at or ignoring certain stories that they don’t want to play up because they are injurious to the U.S. government’s position in terms of waging the so-called “War on Terror.” And where is the accountability? What’s being done to Newsweek for relatively minor journalistic transgressions is not being applied at all to those who are at the top of these major media institutions. They’re getting off scot free. Their reliance on official sources and trumpeting of these lines coming out of Washington continue unabated.

AMY GOODMAN: What about _Newsweek_’s coverage? How would you assess it? We’ll start with you, Norman Solomon?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, you know, there were minor problems with the sourcing, but I have to say if you look at that sort of problem, in comparison to the kind of coverage we have gotten and we failed to get from Newsweek and other outlets, it’s quite striking. I mean, one irony is that almost four weeks before the invasion of Iraq began, Newsweek published an exclusive report — this was late February 2003 — it was headlined “The Defector’s Secrets.” It was a great piece by John Barry. It pointed out that Hussein Kamel, the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, had told C.I.A. and British intelligence officials in 1995 that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This story was out there. I talked to John Barry two days after it ran. This was well before the war. If journalists had done their job across the board and looked into and talked about, reported on the implications of this exclusive from Newsweek, we might have been able to prevent this war, instead of what did take place because the silence was maintained by the mass media. It wasn’t a story authenticated by the White House and the C.I.A., so they simply ignored it.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Massing, your assessment of Newsweek?

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I agree that Newsweek did before the war some very good pieces. They have also — I find the whole accusations of them being so anti-military now a bit ironic, because I have been looking now at the recent coverage. And if you look between the election in Iraq in late January and until the insurgent violence started again, the press basically was so pro-Bush, and Newsweek was among them. They have one article in which I have sort of clipped the one issue in March. It has a cover, the sort of the Arab spring, and Bush, how he deserves all of the credit for this. They have this piece about Condi Rice that goes back to sort of the old style of like building up a new figure just the way they used to do with Don Rumsfeld. I mean, so for Newsweek, this one little periscope item to be taken out and said, “Oh, this is inherently anti-Bush organ,” I think just doesn’t hold up.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece in Salon.com by Juan Cole, who does “Informed Comment,” the blog, “The Lies that Led to War.” He says “One Newsweek source admitted he misidentified the government document in which he had seen an account of Koran desecration at Guantanamo. Pentagon spokesperson Lawrence DiRita exploded, 'People are dead because of what this son of blank said. How could he be credible now?' DiRita could have said the same things about his bosses in the Bush administration,” Juan Cole writes. He says, “Tens of thousands of people are dead in Iraq, including more than 1,600 U.S. soldiers and marines because of false allegations made by President George W. Bush and DiRita’s more immediate boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and equally imaginary active nuclear weapons program.” And he goes on and then says, “We now know, thanks to a leaked British memo concerning the head of British intelligence, that the Bush administration, contrary to its explicit denials, had already made up its mind to attack Iraq and fix those bogus allegations to support its decision. In short, Bush and his top officials lied about Iraq.” Michael Massing?

MICHAEL MASSING: Yeah. I did want to bring up that so-called Downing Street memo. Mark Danner, in a recent New York Review of Books, wrote about — they actually published the memo which no news organization, as far as I know, has done in full. And again, the U.S. media have not given any attention beyond a few inside stories to this in some ways the most explicit document yet about how they intentionally set out to manipulate the intelligence data to take the United States into the pre-declared aim of waging war, and again, where are our journalists and our editors? What do they think constitutes news that they would not put this on the front pages, and if it had been, I think it would have offered a great counterpoint to what they’re now charging Newsweek with.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah, you know, I’m sorry to say, this is nothing new. It predates by decades and decades this administration and this war. You can go back to, for instance, how we got into bombing Yugoslavia viciously, major cities being bombed for 78 days. It was because not that secret memos were not put on the front page or reported in the U.S. press, but public documents like the Rambouillet text that the U.S. government was pushing in early 1999, a text that explicitly demanded through Appendix B that essentially the government of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, turn over its country to NATO forces, U.S.-led NATO forces. This wasn’t secret. It was on Democracy Now!, the media watch group FAIR publicized it, the organization that I am at, the Institute for Public Accuracy, put out news releases during the war about it, and yet we had the mass media refusing to publicize — you can go back in the archives — refusing to report the most basic facts about the ultimatum, the poison pill, being put out by the Clinton administration to justify going to war that they wanted to pursue.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Massing, your response?

MICHAEL MASSING: Wow. I don’t know. We can get into a whole debate about why the U.S. went to war in Kosovo. I actually think that, you know, was that based on lies or was it based on terrible abuses being committed against Kosovars, Albanian Kosovars? So let’s not go there. But I agree with the general —

NORMAN SOLOMON: [inaudible] because it’s about history, it’s not just about this particular war. This was a document, I suppose — I assume that you would agree the Rambouillet text should have been publicized. The American people had a right to know before that war what was being demanded the Serbian government.

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, we have a huge history, I agree with you, going back. I am actually reading The Powers That Be right now. I’m going over it again, David Halberstam’s great book, and the famous meeting that he described, in which President Kennedy meets with Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times in the White House, and Halberstam was then the only resident American reporter in Saigon. And he was already just antagonizing the powers that be. And Kennedy said to Sulzberger, “Don’t you think your man in Saigon is getting too close to the story?” And Sulzberger said, “No, I don’t.” And then he said, “Don’t you think he would be better off reporting from London or Paris?” And Salzberger said, “No.” And he was so shaken by this meeting but, in fact, Halberstam was supposed to take a leave. It was scheduled. And Sulzberger said, “We’re not going to have you go on leave, because we want — we don’t want to be seen as backing down.” And that type of attitude is one thing that I just find lacking now so much in our press. There’s a need to push back. This is a calculated campaign to intimidate the media, and I would just like them to come out and say — I mean, Newsweek, I’d like them to say, “Okay, we got some things wrong, but you know what, this war is — we are going to keep pushing hard on it, because there’s so many things that need to be brought to the attention of the American people.”

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what did Newsweek get wrong?

MICHAEL MASSING: I think that they went with one source on a item that in fact was not corroborated. And I think that they needed more sourcing on that before they went with it. We might actually find out more that — even this specific thing they reported will have turned out to be right, but at the time it seems to me that they did not have the — nail it down properly.

AMY GOODMAN: And a tremendous amount of pressure might well have been brought on that source right after, and didn’t they say they were talking about a government document that made — that had these allegations of Koran abuse. We have not seen this army report.


AMY GOODMAN: To know whether or not —

MICHAEL MASSING: And in fact, what they retracted, I believe, was that the —- didn’t know whether this was going to be in this investigative report. It wasn’t whether the incidents had been taking place or not, so -—

AMY GOODMAN: Final comment, Norman Solomon.

NORMAN SOLOMON: By the standard being applied today in the mass media to Newsweek, the entire hierarchy of The New York Times and the Washington Post for starters, would resign, and instead of us arguing over whether a few people died as a result or none at all or whatever from the Newsweek periscope item, we would be talking about tens of thousands, according to some biostatistics, up to a hundred thousand or more in Iraq, who have died as a result of the propaganda system that these editors willingly and, I think, knowingly, for the most part, lent themselves to.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Solomon, his forthcoming book is War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. Also with us, Michael Massing, who wrote the book, Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.

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