I watched entirely too much television as a child. I was a big fan of Saturday Night Live and loved the Emily Litella character. For those unfamiliar with Litella, she was played by Gilda Radner and was a little old lady who did commentary on the SNL Weekend Update segment. She was hard of hearing and was constantly confusing words. She would rant on and on, slapping the desk all the while, about one outrage or another until Chevy Chase explained to her that, for example, the report she heard was about bussing schoolchildren, not busting them. She would pause a moment, smile a sweet little smile, look into the camera and say, “Never mind.”
There have been quite a few “never mind” media opportunites during the Bush years. They range in significance from such incorrect stories as that of the plastic Thanksgiving turkey in Baghdad, to stories such as those of widespread rape and murder in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina. Michelle Malkin once used a reference to Emily Litella when writing about the “Gitmo Koran flushing” story. Few of the “never minds” have gotten the prominent play that the original inaccurate reports received though. More distressing is that many of them have passed unrealized at all. Instead of even a “never mind,” too often we have gotten dumb silence.
So how does the media set a story straight, after it has peddled an alternate reality version for months or even years? Does it even attempt to do it? The blogger known as the Anchoress described the process, “.Once a narrative has been constructed, it’s damn near impossible to get the press to deconstruct it… On the rare occasions in which they are forced to deconstruct something on…page 13 of section A, rather than page 42 of section C…you see this sort of weird and toothless pudding, which in no way resembles the fevered and morally-outraged musings, rants and outright accusations of the last three years.”
There are plenty of examples that would fit the Anchoress’ description of fever pitched accusations and assertions followed by mealy-mouthed, and incredibly quiet corrections and retractions, but perhaps none so much as the Valerie Plame story. How does the news media reverse course on a story that it has reported for years as fact, when it learns, through new revelations, such as the recent one regarding Richard Armitage, that the storyline reported for so long was incorrect? Never mind?
Actually we have not gotten a “never mind” out of the mainstream media yet in the case of Valerie Plame. The mainstream media will probably never tell the true story behind Joe’s grand frog marching fantasy. It is an incredible story really -- amazing that so many in the media regurgitated Wilson’s conspiracy theories as if they were fact. It is amazing that the story took off at all in spite of contradictory statements from Bob Novak from the beginning, who claimed that Plame’s identity did not come from a partisan gunslinger and was only offered in response to his question about why Wilson might have been chosen for the Niger trip. Amazing that it continued in spite of revelations that those 16 words were not incorrect after all. Amazing that even after Joe Wilson’s statements were found to be inconsistent with documentation uncovered by a Senate committee, that the story remained the same.
The Wilson fantasy was reported for years, as fact, in countless set up pieces to fawning interviews with Wilson. That reporting had very real consequences. It was Joe Wilson's claim that Bush lied about the “16 words” that started the "Bush lied" mantra. We now know that many of the claims that "Bush lied" were actually lies themselves, but that has gotten scant little attention.
Democrats have a page in their playbook that they use often and it works almost every time. Make an assertion, even when it is contradicted by facts (in this case by Novak's statement from day one) and then repeat it over and over again until it becomes conventional wisdom. When the facts emerge and it is clear that most, if not the entire thing, was a liberal fantasy, the damage will have been done and since the media was so instrumental in spreading the misinformation, they will call very little attention to the correction.
In the same piece referenced above, the Anchoress wrote of the “incurious press.” For all of the attention given Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, the supposed victim of a vindictive, out-of –control administration willing to surrender national security to satisfy a political vendetta, there is very little curiosity, except for in the blogs, when it comes to determining how the media could have gotten so much of the Plame story so wrong.
A famous politician speaking to Matt Lauer on the Today Show once said of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, “the great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy…” She was wrong about that one. DNA proved that the “great story” there really was about a President who was reckless enough to have an affair with an intern in the Oval Office and then use his power to orchestrate a coverup. She did have a point, though. Sometimes the “great story” isn’t the one the media is telling, Sometimes it is just as interesting to find out how a story, especially one revealed to be incorrect in so many ways, came to be believed by so many journalists and so widely reported in the first place.