In this week’s column he gives a very useful summary of some of the new information that has come to light in Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack. One of the key points is the influence of VP Cheney. As Alterman puts it:
For foreign policy purposes, Dick Cheney is President: Cheney wanted this war from way back when; it was Bush who needed convincing…When the President is not around, Administration officials refer to Cheney as “the Man,” as in, “The Man wants this” or “The Man thinks that.”… That’s too bad, because unfortunately Cheney is nuts. As Powell puts it, Cheney was in the grip of a “fever,” no longer the “steady, unemotional rock that he had witnessed a dozen years earlier during the run-up to the Gulf War. The vice president was beyond hell-bent for action against Saddam. It was as if nothing else existed.”
The new information revealed by Woodward is fascinating and important but what is also interesting is the book itself. As Alterman points out the new book is a big improvement on Woodward’s last effort: Bush at War, which was little more than a hagiographic tribute. What makes the difference is, as can be seen from the above quote, the candor that Colin Powell and his camp bring to their contributions. Oh what a difference a good source makes!
But the problem in reporting the war is not a lack of sources it is a shocking new attitude in key news organisations. There has certainly been much critique and consequent gnashing of teeth lately about the media’s failure to hold government to account on Iraq, the war and WMDs. While it is only now that people at Powell’s level are starting to break ranks, there has been a level of dissent throughout the long build-up to war that went unreported.
It is an irony that one of the few journalists who attempted to do real investigative work and show the British government’s (and by implication the US and Australian governments) exaggeration in their case for war – BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan – ended up being vilified by an appalling government white wash, loosing his job and taking the head of the BBC with him.
The American media has been particularly deficient in it’s collusion with government. The very lines of what a journalist is, or should be, seem to have been redrawn.
Alterman reports this quote from NYT’s White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller:
Bumiller has admitted that asking tough questions of the President is just too scary, and we should get off her case about allowing him to mislead America and the world: “I think we were very deferential,” she recently explained in an interview, “because it’s frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you’re standing up on prime-time live TV asking the President of the United States a question when the country’s about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the President at this very serious time.”
Michael Massing in his devastating analysis for the New York Review of Books reports a very similar attitude from Judith Miller, another NYT reporter:
Miller said that as an investigative reporter in the intelligence area, “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.” Many journalists would disagree with this; instead, they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims one of their chief responsibilities.
If the most respected, and perhaps most powerful, newspaper in the world has abandoned basic tenets of journalism: asking hard questions of those in authority, digging until you get the real answers and providing a critical, balanced, independent analysis of government announcements, then the media’s role in contributing to a dynamic civil society is at an all time low