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The Quiet Americans 

Why can't the media call Bush a liar?

Thursday, Mar 25 2004
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Roughly midway through her conversation with Dr. Hans Blix onstage at the University of California at Berkeley last week, Christiane Amanpour raised her hand to emphasize a point and flung her clip-on microphone to the floor. It landed with a clatter. Without the slightest hesitation, the man who failed to find Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction jumped to his feet, retrieved the transmitter box and stood by while the English-speaking world’s most beloved foreign correspondent reaffixed the mic to the lapel of her beige suit.

“Can you hear me?” Amanpour asked.

“No, no, no, no,” Blix said, handing her a small object, “you need a battery.

Blix futzed a little more, wiggled a connecting wire and secured a connection. “Can you hear me?” Amanpour repeated.

Yes! The audience cheered.

“And she,” Blix concluded, “is an explosive lady!”

It seemed merely a moment of delightful chaos in an otherwise orderly conversation. But looking back at the three-day “Media at War” conference sponsored by UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism and George Soros’ Open Society Institute, among others, it began to stand for everything. Contained in Blix’s gesture of spontaneous chivalry was the very essence of a diplomat, all the reasons he was “pulled into diplomacy” when he really just wanted to be a university professor in his native Sweden. From the unthinking way Blix rushed to Amanpour’s side, you got the feeling that he would have done the same for any dignitary in his presence, friend or foe. Even George W. Bush.

He would have had plenty of reason not to. In the final three years of Blix’s tenure as the director of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission for Iraq, he was ignored, lied to, lied about and, in the end, openly defied. His requests for patience were met with administration doublespeak (Donald Rumsfeld’s “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence” is only the most famous). And his well-considered arguments were dismissed as the rantings of a pacifist (which he is not).

One would expect Blix to be openly angry, even vindictive, or that he would at least hold a grudge. But even now, as a self-described “free man” who can speak from his “gut instincts,” the nastiest remark Blix could muster came when Amanpour asked whether he thought it was “reasonable” for Rumsfeld to hold out for the possibility that WMD would be unearthed. “Until after the election,” Blix answered generously, “yes.”

Was he not at least resentful that the administration had unapologetically bugged his U.N. office and the offices of his colleagues? “No,” Blix said. “I only wish they’d listened to what we said.”

 

Following Michael Massing’s February 26 essay in The New York Review of Books excoriating the U.S. media, in particular The New York Times Judith Miller, for failing to sufficiently criticize the Bush administration’s casus belli, “Media at War” brought together international war correspondents, editors and human-rights workers to discuss whether and why the media got the pre-war story wrong, and whether the ongoing coverage is any better. It was a remarkably respectful discussion. Except for Robert Scheer’s trademark combativeness on the final evening’s panel — in which the L.A. Times columnist declared that the U.S. media should be “ashamed” of itself — and a sharp rebuke from Elizabeth Farnsworth of The News Hour With Jim Lehrer to the international journalists who suggested all U.S. media had failed, hardly anyone raised his or her voice.

Even Maher Abdallah Ahmad, the dashing Al-Jazeera correspondent who reminded U.S. reporters that they can’t possibly get the story right if they don’t speak the language, delivered his ominous warnings about the future (“the war has not yet begun — this is just a warm-up”) with a charismatic smile. At almost every turn, one could observe in the world’s best journalists the same unrelenting equanimity that made Blix an effective weapons inspector. But the essential faith in human nature that behooves a diplomat fails a journalist miserably. Toward the end of their talk, Amanpour handpicked an index card from a pile submitted by the audience that asked, “Was the war on Iraq about oil?” Blix unceremoniously dismissed it. “No,” he said. “It was 9/11 that was behind it. And WMD.” To read the reports that led up to the war in most of the nation’s major newspapers (as Massing points out, there were exceptions), one would be forced to conclude that the media agreed.

Is it any wonder, then, that as recently as last August, 68 percent of the people polled by the Washington Post thought it likely that Saddam Hussein was “personally involved” in the attacks of September 11, 2001, and 82 percent believed he had “provided assistance to Osama bin Laden”? The question of how that public opinion formed hung in the air at the conference like the refrain of a nattering harpy that everyone who took the floor had to swat down before he or she could speak. Rone Tempest of the Los Angeles Times blamed the public’s unsophisticated reading habits; others fingered television news for promoting the notion. No one in Europe believed it, and certainly everyone in the Arab world knew it was absurd. According to Hani Shukrallah, the managing editor of Cairo’s Al-Ahram Weekly, “Given half a chance, Saddam would have been right there with the Americans, torturing the terrorists.” Where did Americans get the idea that he liked them? Everyone was stumped by the question.

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