Opinion triumphs over news when dealing with Iraq

John Leo

7/21/2003 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
The media's handling of the uranium-from-Africa story was too much for Bob Somerby, one of the better-known Internet commentators of the left. Somerby usually spends a lot of time and energy criticizing George Bush. But last week at his "Daily Howler" Web site, a headline said: "There they go again! The press corps has made up its mind on Iraq. Result? Basic facts will be mangled."

Somerby argued that if you are going to accuse the Bushies of perpetrating a "hoax," as columnist Nicholas Kristof did in The New York Times, you can't refuse to publish the administration's explanation. And you can't bury the explanation way down in paragraph 15, as The Washington Post did in a long, front-page news article.

The "Howler" also had some harsh words for Chris Matthews, who gummed up the controversy on "Hardball." According to Matthews, President Bush's script for the State of the Union message said "that Iraq had attempted or had, in fact, bought nuclear materials from the governor of Niger ... how do we know this, why do we know this?"

Earth to Chris: "(B)ought," "Niger" and "governor" were never mentioned in the State of the Union speech, which simply said that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Matthews' outburst came after Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld spent a lot of time explaining that the "16 words" of Bush's speech were not the reason the United States went to war. The administration did a bit of unimpressive verbal dancing about valid information that fails to rise to a level of certainty. But its explanation was clear: The British said and still say that Saddam had sought uranium in Africa. And though the British report can't be confirmed, the administration believes British intelligence is generally reliable.

Last week Prime Minister Tony Blair was quoted as saying he was aware of forged documents alleging that Saddam was seeking uranium in Africa, but added that his government had other good sources indicating that the charge was accurate. Nobody seems to know for sure whether the Brits were right in the first place, or why they are still so sure now. But the press corps basically brushed aside such concerns and framed the issue as one of manipulation and lying. "When the press corps reaches an overall judgment," Somerby wrote, "they often start looking for easy-to-tell stories to illustrate that global belief."

Word for word. Another example of an easy-to-tell but misleading story is criticism of Vice President Dick Cheney for saying on "Meet the Press" back on March 16: "We believe (Saddam) has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." Several commentators savaged Cheney. But as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh argues persuasively, if you look at the entire transcript, it's clear that Cheney was saying that Saddam would try to reconstitute his nuclear program.

If Saddam remained in power and the world looked the other way, Cheney said, we would have to assume he will "once again (be) reconstituting his nuclear program." Cheney made many references like this to the reasonable assumption that Saddam will again seek nuclear weapons. He misspoke once, saying "reconstituted nuclear weapons" instead of "reconstituting his nuclear program."

A good number of Internet commentators noticed this issue and called attention to the misreading of what Cheney was rather obviously saying. But several columnists on the left, who apparently did not bother to check the transcript, got it wrong and denounced Cheney for spreading false information.

Somerby's charge that reporters, after they make overall judgments, look for stories that illustrate their "global belief" is exactly what many Americans worry about. It is on our minds now as we receive a steady flow of unsettling news reports about things deteriorating in Iraq. The daily casualty reports provided by the Pentagon are real. But readers and viewers wonder whether the overall situation is as bad as some reporters are portraying it.

Many Vietnam-era reporters think the United States shouldn't be in Iraq and are drawn to stories that illustrate their feelings. To wit: A few Iraqi citizens angrily spurn the frozen chickens distributed by U.S. officials while an American soldier is interviewed saying he has lost faith in his military leaders and thinks Rumsfeld should resign. True stories. But is this news, or is it opinion by selective anecdote?