The media joins the Big Lie game

Michael Barone

6/28/2004 12:00:00 AM - Michael Barone

 "The extensive investigation by the bipartisan commission formed to study the 9-11 attacks has just reported that there was no meaningful relation between Iraq and Al Qaeda of any kind," said Al Gore in his latest furious denunciation of George W. Bush. (Perhaps someone should ask George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole, losing nominees who never made such furious denunciations of the presidents who beat them, to do an intervention on Gore.)

 Gore was just parroting the line of The New York Times, which a week before ran the headline "Panel finds no Iraq-Al Qaeda tie" over a story on the 9-11 Commission staff report that quoted the sentence, "They do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship."

 But Gore and the Times were dead wrong. The commission's key sentence was, "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." The staff report listed a number of contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq, and there were others, as well, documented in Stephen Hayes's new book "The Connection."

 Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman who is the commission's vice chairman, said: "The vice president is saying, I think, that there were connections between Al Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein government. We don't disagree with that. What we have said is what the governor (Commission Chairman Thomas Kean) just said, we don't have any evidence of a cooperative, or a corroborative, relationship between Saddam Hussein's government and these Al Qaeda operatives with regard to the attacks on the United States."

 Not a hard story to get right, but the Times and many other media outlets got it wrong. Bush and Cheney have in fact been careful not to claim that Iraq and Al Qaeda collaborated on 9-11. Yet Democrats and many in the media claim they have. Their argument -- I heard it recently from Clinton National Security Council staffer Nancy Soderberg -- is that by mentioning Iraq-Al Qaeda ties many times, Bush and Cheney are trying to fool the public into believing that they collaborated on 9-11. So while they don't claim collaboration on 9-11, they do. Words evidently mean the opposite of what they mean. George Orwell's Winston Smith would feel at home.

 The media and the Democrats have been using one Big Lie after another to attack Bush. Another example: the Times' White House reporter wrote that Bush claimed the threat from Iraq was imminent. But Bush actually said was the threat wasn't imminent, and then he proceeded to argue that we should act anyway. It's interesting that no one at the Times caught this obvious error.

 It is common knowledge that about 90 percent of journalists vote Democratic, and it is common sense that this must affect their news coverage. A recent survey of journalists found that only 7 percent call themselves conservative versus 34 percent liberal and 59 percent moderates, and that the large majority of moderates took liberal stands on issues. Ordinarily most journalists try to be fair and accurate. But it's hard to resist the conclusion that at least some have crossed the line and are, consciously or unconsciously, actively trying to defeat the president.

 The good news is that the public is on to this. The recent Pew Research Center poll showed that the credibility of most major media has declined since 2000. (Among the exceptions are U.S. News & World Report and Fox News Channel, two organizations that I work for and that, unlike most other media outlets, have staffs with significant numbers of Republicans as well as Democrats.) And the voting public does not seem to be buying the line, repeated with almost religious intensity, that it has been absolutely and positively proven there was no connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq on 9-11. In a June 22-23 Fox News poll, voters said they believed there was a partnership between Iraq and al Qaeda by a 56 percent to 28 percent margin, and by a 68 percent to 23 percent margin they say it was very or somewhat likely that Saddam had prior knowledge of 9-11.

 Believed, likely -- people understand that these are matters of uncertainty, that decisions have to be made without perfect knowledge and that the 9-11 Commission's failure to find evidence of an Iraq-Al Qaeda tie on 9-11 is not final proof that there was not one.