Contra Costa Times (California)
June 19, 2005 Sunday
SECTION: OPINION; Pg. F4
BYLINE: By Tammerlin Drummond
I COULDN'T help but wonder during the Deep Throat Watergate nostalgia fest where today's Woodward and Bernsteins are. And why aren't they investigating the current administration?
Watergate began as a crime story. President Nixon ordered the burglary of Democratic Party campaign headquarters, then got caught trying to cover it up.
President Bush didn't break any U.S. laws when he falsely claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to build public support for invading Iraq. Morally, however -- and this is an administration that has always claimed the moral high ground -- the deception is nothing short of criminal.
The human toll so far of a war launched under false pretenses: more than 1,700 American soldiers dead, thousands maimed for life, and no one knows how many tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and wounded. Not to mention the staggering financial cost: $200 billion and counting.
The administration has blamed its failure to find WMD on bad CIA intelligence. But the Downing Street memo -- whose authenticity no one has disputed -- suggests the administration knowingly misled the American people and the world. The memo, first published in the Sunday Times of London in early May, contains classified minutes of a July 2002 meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and his senior advisers. In it, British Intelligence Chief Richard Dearlove says that eight months before the war, Bush officials were determined to invade Iraq. Their plan, he said, was to use the WMD argument and allegations that Iraq was harboring al-Qaida terrorists to justify going to war -- even though there was no evidence to support either. "The facts were being fixed around the policy," Dearlove is quoted as saying.
How come no one is demanding, as Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., did three decades ago, "What did the president know and when did he know it?" Where is the public outrage?
I ran the question by Steve Montiel, director of the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication.
"The mass media has not followed the money well enough for Americans to understand how the war is affecting them in the United States," he said. "Americans don't have an understanding of what's true and what isn't."
"Follow the money," as you may recall, was what Deep Throat dramatically told Robert Redford in the movie, "All the President's Men."
That means doing the tedious, methodical, decidedly unglamorous work of the investigative reporter: combing through public records and working sources to determine who has reaped the benefits of war. Just where has all that money gone? Whose pockets have gotten fat? How much of Iraq has actually been rebuilt. Very little, I suspect. How about following up on all those government audits that found that KBR -- Vice President Dick Cheney's former company -- overbilled the Pentagon by hundreds of millions of dollars?
Instead of probing those questions, U.S. papers publish numbing dispatches of carnage in places with names such as Fallujah that mean nothing to readers. We don't even see photos of soldiers' coffins returning because Bush officials sneak the dead back under cover of darkness. In the administration's relentless campaign to sanitize the war, photographers have been banned from taking pictures of the servicemen's funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.
There is almost no analysis of the administration's Iraq policy in the mainstream news media -- outside of some op-ed pages. It's little wonder that many Americans still believe in the existence of WMD.
Instead, we get unfiltered platitudes. The president: "Iraq is America's golden moment." I shudder to imagine what our darkest moment would look like.
Some of my colleagues won't like to hear this. But we in the media are largely to blame for Americans' general ignorance about what is really going on in Iraq. The mainstream press has not presented the facts to the public and has allowed itself to be manipulated and intimidated by Bush officials. We've let the shrill right-wing pundits' bald-faced lies go unchallenged because we're so afraid we'll be branded unpatriotic. Where are the Katherine Grahams today?
Frank Rich of the New York Times says the mainstream media have become "lapdog" lackeys -- so afraid of offending the powers-that-be. He points out that most U.S. news organizations totally dropped the ball on the Downing Street memo, which is a huge story.
"This administration outstrips Nixon's hubris day by day, leads the attack, trying to intimidate and snuff out any Woodwards or Bernsteins that might challenge it," Rich wrote in a recent column.
Newsweek got the beat-down treatment when it published a story about guards at Guantanamo desecrating the Quran.
Granted, the magazine erred in relying on a shaky unnamed source. But the essence of the story was true, as a Pentagon report confirmed two weeks after Newsweek retracted it under intense pressure. Bush officials accused the magazine of causing riots in Afghanistan that led to the deaths of 17 people -- an unsubstantiated accusation.
Ron Hutcheson, who covers the White House for Knight Ridder, the parent company of this newspaper, says Bush hasn't tried to manipulate the press any more than his predecessors.
"They've done what every other White House has tried to do," he said. "They're just better at it."
That means we as the media have to be better at ferreting out the truth.
"If people get lied to by their government and we don't quickly show them the lie, bad things can happen," writes Sydney Schanberg in the Village Voice. Schanberg won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1970s for his coverage of the Khmer Rouge, and his exploits were detailed in the movie "The Killing Fields."
"Wars can happen and people can die."
Deep Throat WMD, where are you?
Drummond is an editorial writer for the Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org