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Weapons of Mass Distraction 

Thursday, Jun 5 2003
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Illustration by Peter Bennett

Last Friday night on the Eric Rudolph Channel, er, CNN, anchor Aaron Brown finally devoted a few minutes to covering the FCC vote that was just about to hand over still more of our publicly owned airwaves to that nice Mr. Murdoch. His guests, right-wing pundit Brent Bozell and haggard Richard Dreyfuss (why must the left always be represented by an entertainer?), both railed against this giveaway for being an undemocratic disgrace. Although Bozell was the more lucid, Dreyfuss made the most telling point: He declared it “terrible and interesting” that CNN hadn’t bothered to present this discussion until the Friday night before the decisive meeting on Monday morning.

Although the fault didn’t lie only with Brown (who accepted such criticism with his trademark stricken smile), Dreyfuss was right. For the last several weeks, when we might have hoped that serious journalists would pound away at an FCC ruling that further consolidates corporate power, our corporate media have been transfixed by a juicier, less politically charged story — the apparent implosion of The New York Times. In recent days, the Gray Lady has come to seem as slobbery and lost as Drunk Girl.

This fixation comes as no real surprise; The New York Times occupies a privileged place in our ruling elite’s psyche. It is the establishment organ, the paper that must be reckoned with by anyone interested in wielding power (or even in distributing an indie movie). For those on the right, The Times is a perpetual bugbear and indispensable target — its pre-eminence lets them feel beleaguered even when they are running things. To them, The Times’ recent tailspin is sheer jouissance, the giddy B-side of Fox News’ orgasmic ascent. They’ll be breathing hard about it for months.

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Not so the establishment liberals, who have long treated the paper as a beacon of enlightenment. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that KCRW used to read Times stories aloud on the air (God, that was embarrassing), like dispatches to a primitive local culture. If you believe Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, The Times is the liberals’ catnip, so you can imagine the head-clutching agony that greeted the sobering discovery that its reporters could be every bit as reliable as, oh, Geraldo Rivera.

By now everyone knows about Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old reporter caught plagiarizing and making up scenes in more than 30 stories, a classic piece of sociopathy that anti–affirmative action ideologues instantly tried to turn into a dire parable about promoting minorities too quickly. (In fact, the real reason for Blair’s overhasty rise was American newspapers’ desperate search for hip, young reporters who can win over “the kids,” though anyone who wants to go into print is, almost by definition, too square.) Then The Times suspended its Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, Rick (“The Sound and the Fury”) Bragg, when it came out that his empurpled prose was based not on firsthand research but on the work of an unpaid stringer who received no credit (he’s Mister Nice Guy). At first, Bragg insisted that this is standard industry practice, but once his colleagues vehemently attacked him for saying this, he resigned in a huff.

Of course, it’s easy to see why so many print journalists have become obsessed with the saga of Blair and Bragg. Most have a schizoid relationship to The Times, resenting its snooty smugness about being the world’s best newspaper, yet secretly worshiping it for precisely the same reason — in spite of themselves, they think it’s the gold standard. (Why else would the Los Angeles Times copy such a dull paper so slavishly?) When The New York Times falters, journalists don’t merely splash around in schadenfreude, they feel betrayed, unmoored, defensive; they fret that this will contribute to a cultural leveling in which the Drudge Report, Fox News and The Times will all be perceived by the public as having the same claims to the truth.

Anxious to defend their profession’s honor, media columnists have spent weeks moralizing about Blair and Bragg’s dishonesty without ever grappling with the underlying reality that Michael Wolff first pointed out in New York magazine. The print world increasingly cares less about accurate reporting and more about vivid prose. Reporters’ careers rise or fall on what Wolff calls their “tradecraft,” the ability to sweeten reality with style-conscious writing, even if that sometimes means pushing a bit beyond the literal facts to a kind of more artistic “truth.” (Think of all those stage-directed White House conversations in Bob Woodward’s books.) In their different ways, the run-amok Blair and vainglorious Bragg just pushed too far.

Then again, facts are trickier and more dangerous than one might think. Just consider the case of another New York Times star, Judith Miller, best known for the post-anthrax best-seller Germs. Her coverage of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) has been quite properly thumped by both CounterPunch Bolshie Alexander Cockburn and Slate’s Jack Shafer (a libertarian, I believe), whose “Press Box” column has become essential reading.

Before the Iraq war, Miller helped sway public opinion with big front-page exclusives about Saddam’s stockpiles of biochemical weapons. Fair enough, except it turns out that her major, unnamed source was Ahmad Chalabi, the selfsame Iraqi exile who was also the leading source for the Defense Department’s statements about WMDs — statements that a recent Times editorial suggested may have jiggered the facts to justify pre-emptive war. Indeed, just last Friday, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof attacked the Pentagon for precisely such manipulation without mentioning that in his own paper Miller had presented the same information as truth.

After the war, Miller’s behavior was even less reliable. She cut a devil’s bargain with the U.S. military weapon-inspections team, MET Alpha, which gave her exclusive access to an Iraqi scientist’s revelations about illicit WMDs. In exchange, she accepted “terms of accreditation” that included letting her copy be checked by military officials — you know, the sort of deal Hollywood publicists demand before they let you talk to Tom Cruise or Jodie Foster. In her search for exclusive access, Miller seems to be turning hard-news reporting into a branch of celebrity journalism.

Miller’s work serves as a useful reminder to the liberal left that it should get over its faith in The New York Times. For all of Paul Krugman’s columns attacking Bush’s lies, the paper is less the voice of progressivism, as many naive readers hope it to be, than the sounding board of the national elite — as its management fully intends it to be. (Don’t forget all those sections devoted to $14,000 coffee tables, vacations in the Seychelles and R.W. Apple’s global feeding frenzy.) Although it may come off vaguely leftish on issues such as dividend-tax cuts, this is the same establishment paper that hounded Bill Clinton over Whitewater (instead of his real crimes) and helped railroad Wen Ho Lee.

Reading The Times’ war coverage, you see the limitations of the ideas that its liberalism is willing to entertain. Although its editors were happy to tweak Bush’s landing on that aircraft carrier, they shied away from examining the more dangerously controversial aspects of the Iraq war. The paper ignored evidence that the war’s defining image — the toppling of that Saddam statue — was actually a small, stage-managed event overseen by the U.S. military. And while the BBC first launched its bombshell about the manufacture of the Jessica Lynch story on May 15 — a story soon taken up by media outlets all over the world —The Times didn’t so much as mention it until May 29, long after other American publications had looked into the Lynch myth and Robert “Che” Scheer had been pilloried for his May 22 L.A. Times column that broached the issue with his familiar ranting refinement. Incidentally, that column seems to have vanished into the ether: I’ve been unable to find it on the paper’s Web site or in a Nexis search. Have the editors deep-sixed it?

Part of the disaster of the new FCC ruling about media ownership is that it puts control of the news in fewer and fewer hands. To see what that might mean, you need merely note that the recent bombardment coverage of The New York Times has belabored the cases of Blair and Bragg, whose woes are safely “personal,” while paying insufficient heed to Miller, whose failings are shot through with ideological meaning. Yet the crucial point is that, so far, none of Miller’s big WMD exclusives has proved to be true — nobody’s found nuthin’ — and she increasingly looks like a Pentagon flack who helped sell the war. By comparison, Blair’s inaccurate description of a suburban driveway and Bragg’s sub-Faulknerian maundering about Gulf Coast oystermen feel positively benign. Where these guys were simply promoting themselves, Miller’s work looks suspiciously like Bush administration propaganda.

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