When the commission investigating the events leading up to the World Trade Center attack released their interim staff report, headlines across the country declared that it “contradicted” what the President had said about Iraqi involvement in the attacks — and, when the President and his staff disputed that contention, the story became the “dispute” between he and the commission rather than what the commission had actually found.
After looking at what the report actually said, I concluded that there was not, in fact, a dispute: what the report said and what President Bush had said were consistent; the only contradiction was between what the report said and the words that the news media, against the evidence, insisted on putting into the President’s mouth. I believe that represents a kind of bias that ill-serves us. When we are debating such important matters as war and peace, we need and deserve the unblemished truth.
One example of the general tenor of reporting was the story on the commission’s findings by Charlie Savage in The Boston Globe. I wrote these letters to the Globe ombudsman in the vain hope that drawing attention to the bias might spur someone to correct it in the future. I admit I found this an unpleasant task: defending the Bush administration feels like one of those exceptionally nasty jobs that, for the good of us all, “someone” has to do.
17 June 2004
This morning, the Globe lead story by staff reporter Charlie Savage was about a preliminary report of the 9/11 panel. After a large headline describing an original plot to use 10 planes instead of 4 in the attacks, and announcing “no Iraq tie seen“, the story began with a large bold type sub-headline:
“Findings rebut US assertions of pre-war link”
The message of the headline was repeated within the story in paragraph 6:
“…they contradict the Bush administration’s continued assertions of prewar links between Iraq and Al Quaeda.”
Coming, as this does, one day after widely reported remarks by both Vice President Cheney and President Bush affirming their contention that there were “ties” between Iraq and Al Quaeda, this makes it appear (although it is likely not actually the case) that the 9/11 commission went out of its way to contradict what the President and Vice President said yesterday — that it made an explicit effort to discredit them. That is certainly the impression given.
But, aside from that potential mis-impression due to the timing of the two separate stories, there is a more fundamental problem with this reporting: it would appear not to be the truth. According to paragraph 1 of your story, the actual findings of the 9/11 commission so far regarding Iraq are:
“Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein spurned overtures from Al Quaeda chief Osama bin Laden in 1994, and there is “no credible evidence” that the secular Iraqi regime collaborated with the Islamic terror network to attack the United States….”
In other words, seven years before the 9/11 attack — while the U.N. inspections were still at their peak of activity following the first Gulf War — Saddam Hussein did not agree to commit Iraq to joint activities with Al Quaeda; and there is no evidence that Iraq actually participated in the 9/11 attack.
But then, no one in the administration has ever claimed otherwise. Their claim is, and has been, that, in the years just prior to the attack, Iraq and Al Quaeda had been in regular communication and that Iraq had provided material and moral support to Al Quaeda in the form of hosting Al Quaeda operatives within Iraq — that is, the two were, in a general sense, in cahoots where they perceived their interests to overlap. There were certainly implications of more meaningful activities, but no one has claimed to have proof of them. Despite the assertion both of your reporter and of your headline writer, this is not contradicted by what the commission had to say. That assertion is either a blatant lie or extremely shoddy reporting.
If you doubt that, think about what the debate over war in Iraq would have been like if the administration had claimed Iraqi involvement in the attack: under both traditional international law and the specific provisions of the U.N charter that would amount to a causus belli; the United States would have had moral and legal standing to attack Iraq as it saw fit; there would have been no need to seek the blessing of the Security Council, nor to invoke Iraq’s intransigence in the face of Security Council resolutions, nor to speak strategically about WMD or democratization of the middle-east, nor to invoke the humanitarian evils of the Iraqi regime. In fact, under the mutual-defense provisions of the NATO charter, all NATO members would have been obligated to join us in any attack we chose to mount, so even the months of diplomacy trying to commit allies to the cause would have been unnecessary.
That the path we took to Iraq involved all those things reinforces what the public record would show: that no one was claiming Iraqi responsibility for 9/11 and that the latest finding of the 9/11 commission, far from contradicting what the Bush administration has been claiming, actually barely merits mention as news.
What you have presented this morning as news is really better described as a logical straw-man designed to discredit the Bush administration. When people complain about liberal (or conservative) bias in the media, the defenders of media neutrality usually focus on Op-Ed, and cite people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly to counter that the media provides “balance”. But news articles like the one this morning are the true source of the perception of bias. If you simply read the headline and skim the story without pondering the implications, you would come away with an impression that was both critical of the current administration and factually incorrect; if you do bother to ponder the implications and see through the fallacy, you find yourself, instead, angry at the attempt to mislead in what is supposed to be “objective” news reporting.
The irony is that the Bush administration (and, to be fair, the Kerry candidacy) is perfectly capable of appearing foolish and venal without your help; by attacking unfairly, you’ve once again put me in the uncomfortable position of defending them despite a natural antipathy toward them. So, at least for this reader, the bias has backfired.
As a regular reader, I beg you to take this to heart and redouble efforts among the editorial staff to catch these kinds of biases prior to publication.
© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell