links for 2007-04-08
Could We Have Even a Slightly Smarter President, Please?

Journamalism Watch: Michael Gordon, Max Frankel, Fred Hiatt

A while ago, Reihan at flamed me in the process of sucking up to New York Times reporter Michael Gordon:

The American Scene: Michael Gordon is a terrific, universally respected reporter (outside of Harper's and Democracy NOW!) who deserves at least some small fraction of a benefit of the doubt when it comes to military matters.... A reporter like Gordon is a very skilled professional.... [DeLong's] "why oh why can't we have a better press corps" often translates into, "why oh why can't we have a press corps that reports facts that are broadly in consonance with my policy preferences"?... I take it DeLong believes we should take reports from the Bush Administration and the Pentagon with a grain of salt.... [T]he American public agrees. This idea that the establishment media is obligated to take on a tutelary function... strikes me as faintly... undemocratic.

Prior to the invasion, serious arguments were made against the invasion, and these arguments were widely reported. In point of fact, public opinion generally opposed an invasion that would lead to significant American casualties or a sustained American military occupation or both. President Bush's judgment was the problem, not the press...

It is hard to know how to reply to Reihan. Yes, Michael Gordon is a skilled professional, but a skilled professional at what?

  • Michael Gordon's "aluminum tubes" article of September 8, 2002 was, as Grenn Greenwald says, "one of the most discredited, journalistically irresponsible, and damaging articles of the last decade" that did a remarkably good job at poisoning the stream of information in the rumnup to the Iraq War. Either Gordon (and his sources) were playing his readers, or his sources were playing Gordon--and Gordon let them by taking no steps to hold them accountable for their misinformation.
  • Michael Gordon's claim that Iran was the only source of EFPs in his article of February 10, 2007 was a similar piece of journamalism: here I think it is very clear that Gordon and his sources are playing us.
  • Consider Michael Gordon's February 6, 2003 article about Colin Powell's U.N speech, the article that begins: "To convince allied nations that Saddam Hussein is trying to deceive United Nations weapon inspectors, the Bush administration today applied a tried- and-true strategy: it invoked the Powell doctrine. When he was the United States' top military man, Gen. Colin L. Powell was best known for his doctrine of using overwhelming force. As the United States top diplomat, Secretary of State Powell today sought to overwhelm the critics with evidence, some new, some less so..." and ends "'I think what he did today was to buttress in great detail the basic argument been making form the beginning, that this is the last chance for Saddam to comply, that he has not taken it and that this is something we need to confront,' a senior administration official said. Even the skeptics had to concede that Mr. Powell's presentation had been an important milestone in the debate. Critics may try to challenge the strength of the administration's case and they will no doubt argue that inspectors be given more time. But it will difficult for the skeptics to argue that Washington's case against Iraq is based on groundless suspicions and not intelligence information." In retrospect very embarrassing for Gordon, no?

To put it bluntly: when a story by Michael Gordon appears, I can't tell whether it is accurate, whether Michael Gordon's sources are lying to him (and he is letting them do so by not blowing them when they do so), or whether Michael Gordon is lying to us. Gordon would deserve the benefit of the doubt if I were confident that he was trying his best to inform rather than misinform us. I am not. And Reihan shouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt either.

This is, I think, a small part of a very big issue. Let me briefly note two additional examples--besides the work of Michael Gordon--of what is going very wrong with American journalism.

The first is an editorial written by the Washington Post's editorial director, Fred Hiatt, on March 17, 2007. In the editorial Hiatt makes a very small and limited apology for the Washington Post's coverage and evaluation of the George W. Bush administration. "We raised such issues" as to whether the Bush administration had properly thought its proposed adventure in Iraq through, Hiatt writes, "but with insufficient force." It is there--saying the right thing but not loudly enough--that Hiatt finds fault with himself and his organization.

The second is a comment by the former editor of the New York Times, Max Frankel, about how the Washington ecology of leaks is healthy, because "most reporters do not just lazily regurgitate... leaks." Instead, "they use them as wedges to pry out other secrets" and so oversee the government. They system may be "sloppy and breed confusion," but "tolerating abusive leaks by government [that misinform] is the price that society has to pay for the benefit of receiving essential leaks about government."

Hiatt sees a press corps that was a little too cowardly about overseeing the George W. Bush administration. Frankel sees a press corps where a sloppy and confusing process is nevertheless doing a reasonable job of overseeing the George W. Bush administration. I see a very different picture.

It was the summer of 2000 when I began asking Republicans I know--by and large people who might be natural candidates for short lists for various subcabinet policy positions in a Republican administration--how worried they were that the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, was clearly not up to the job: underbriefed and incurious. They were not worried, they told me. One of President Clinton's problems, they said, was that the ceremonial portions of the job bored him--and thus he got himself into big trouble. Look at how George W. Bush had operate at the Texas Rangers, they said. Bush let the managers manage the team and the financial guys run the business, and spent his time making sure the political coalition to support the Texas Rangers in the style to which it wanted to be accustomed remained stable. Bush knows his strengths and weaknesses, they told me. He will focus on being America's Queen Elizabeth II, and will let people like Colin Powell and Paul O'Neill be America's Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

By the summer of 2001 it had become clear to me that something had gone very wrong. Rather than following Paul O'Neill and Christine Todd Whitman's advice on environmental policy, George W. Bush had rejected it. Rather than following Alan Greenspan and Paul O'Neill'S advice on fiscal policy, George W. Bush had rejected it. Rather than following Colin Powell and Condi Rice's advice on the importance of pushing forward on negotiations between Israel and Palestine, George W. Bush had rejected it. And--we were all to learn later--rather than following George Tenet and Richard Clarke's advice about the importance of counterterrorism, George W. Bush had rejected it. A strange picture of George W. Bush emerged from conversations with subcabinet Bush Administration appointees and their friends and their friends of friends. He was not just underbriefed but lazy: he insisted on remaining underbriefed. He was not just incurious but arrogant: he insisted on making decisions about things he did not know, and hence made decisions that were essentially random. And he was stubborn: once he had made a decision--even or rather especially if it was a howlingly wrong and stupid one--he would never revisit it.

By the summer of 2001 the pattern was set that would lead British observer Daniel Davies to ask if there was anything that was (a) a Bush administration policy (b) that was moderately important (c) which had not been completely bollixed up.

This was the reality of the George W. Bush administration from the summer of 2001 onward. Yet if you relied on either Fred Hiatt's Washington Post or Max Frankel's New York Times, you would have had a very hard time learning about this reality until the last year or so. Today it is an accepted fact that the kindest thing you can say about the George W. Bush administration is that it is completely incompetent--that is even the party line in the hardest of right-wing Bush-supporting publications, National Review, and by the hardest of right-wing commentators, Robert Novak.

Why wouldn't the American press corps in Washington cover the Bush administration properly for its first five years? I really do not know. I do know that the world cannot afford to rely on America's Washington press corps again: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. American journalism has fallen down, and is unlikely to be able to get up until it can look honestly enough at itself to figure out what has gone wrong.