Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Press and the White House, Then and Now

I have followed the whole Newsweek/Guantanamo controversy with somewhat mixed feelings, because I think that Michael Isikoff's performance in 1998-9, as described in his own book, represented some of the worst trends in contemporary journalism. As he admitted, he discovered a conspiracy to bring down the President based upon a sexual indiscretion, but rather than report upon the conspiracy, he became, in effect, a part of it. Yet despite that, I am far more shocked by the failure of even those who are trying to stand up for Newsweek, such as Frank Rich this morning, to focus on the precise nature of the "mistake" the magazine made. And I am saddened, though not really surprised, that no one but me, apparently, has recognized the parallel between their error and another similar one that two reporters named Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward made about 33 years ago--and the vastly different response by their parent publication.
Let us review exactly what Newsweek did. It reported not simply that the Koran had been flushed down the toilet--a report that has already appeared in many respected newspapers, largely as a result of testimony by detainees--but that a secret Pentagon report confirmed this. Before printing the item they showed it to Pentagon officials who did not dispute that part of the story--and so they printed it.
The parallel? In the fall of 1972, during the Presidential campaign, Bernstein and Woodward were driving another White House--one whose standing in the polls was far higher--crazy with stories about the Watergate scandal, including campaign financing abuses and payments from a secret fund of cash. This was earning their paper, and particularly their editor Ben Bradlee, almost daily abuse from press secretary Ron Ziegler and various Republican operatives of the kind that today is reserved for people like Michael Moore or Howard Dean. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an attack from Senator Robert Dole:

"The greatest political scandal of this campaign is the brazen manner in which, without benefit of clergy, the Washington Post has set up housekeeping with the McGovern campaign. With his campaign collapsing around his ears, Mr. McGovern some weeks back became the beneficiary of the most extensive journalistic rescue-and-salvage operation in American politics. . . .
"There is a cultural and social affinity between the McGovernites and the Post executives and editors. They belong to the same elite; they can be found living cheek by jowl in the same exclusive chic neighborhoods, and hob-nobbing in the same Georgetown parties."

The similarity between the rhetoric of Administration supporters today and Nixon supporters in 1972 is quite remarkable. It is also noteworthy that Vice President Cheney has been reported many times to be determined to restore the power of the Presidency as it was diminished by Watergate--which, one might argue, means allowing the President and his subordinates to get away with abuses of the Constitution. That, however, is a broader subject.

On October 25, Woodward and Bernstein wrote their biggest story to date--that H. R. Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff--and the equivalent, in those days, of Karl Rove today--was one of five men controlling a secret slush fund--and that Hugh Sloan, the former finance chairman of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, had so testified before a Grand Jury. Although they had made numerous attempts to confirm this on the day before, and thought they had, the story was, in one respect, false--and they immediately learned from Sloan's attorney in a public statement. Haldeman did control the fund, as it turned out, but Sloan had not so testified before the Grand Jury, because the subject had never come up. Gleefully Press Secretary Ron Ziegler spent a half an hour denouncing the Post and claiming that Ben Bradlee's obvious anti-Nixon bias (Bradlee had been a good friend of John Kennedy) was obviously responsible for the story.

What happened next was even more interesting. Bradlee, who had served on a Navy combat ship in the Second World War and had journalist friends killed during the Suez crisis, quickly found out what the mistake in the story was. He didn't care. Not only did he have loyalty to his young subordinates, but he realized, apparently, that the essential truth of their accusation--that Haldeman had controlled this fund--was more important than the mistake about the Grand Jury. "We stand by our story," the Post announced. Within six months they had been vindicated, spectacularly, because of the essential truth of their reporting all fall.

Now as Frank Rich does point out today, the flushing down of the Koran would, if true, merely represent one of many, many well-established incidents of abusive treatment of detainees, much of it designed to offend their religious sensibilities, which has been well-documented in official reports. But even he, vehement critic of the Administration that he is, does not mention that even Scott McClellan is not really claiming that the flushing of the Koran didn't occur--only that Newsweek made a mistake by attributing it to an official report. (Good evidence was published in yesterday's New York Daily News that the accusation did figure in FBI reports.) There is, of course, also a similarity between this controversy and the one last fall over the documents CBS released regarding President Bush's Air Force Reserve service. No one has actually proved those documents were false, much less that the essential story they told was false--indeed, the bulk of the evidence suggests that the story they told was very close to the facts. All that has been shown is that CBS should have been more careful about authenticating them. In both cases, the White House, with considerable success, has campaigned to prevent Americans from taking anything those two publications seriously, even though it is anything but clear that they have given a false impression of the facts. The Koran story has been repeated and reported so many times that I think any reasonable person would have to conclude that it is probably true. Even if it isn't, a pattern of abuse of detainees' beliefs has certainly been established.

Yet the CBS 60 Minutes weekday show that broadcast the story is being cancelled, its editors have been fired, and the press--including, ironically, the columnist Richard Cohen of the Washington Post--accepts the idea that Newsweek made a terrible mistake, and concentrates on the question of whether bias motivated it! I wrote the Post a brief letter yesterday raising the Watergate parallel which I discussed above. So far I have had no indication that the editors plan to publish it. Today the Post ombudsman has printed a violent attack on the story. Can one draw any conclusion other than that the Bush Administration is succeeding where the Nixon Administration failed?

Amazingly enough, despite the evidence of Alberto Gonzales's and other internal memos repudiating the Geneva Convention, cables by high-ranking generals, and a widespread pattern of abuse, the Administration continues to state that any abuses of detainees are the work of a few bad apples among our military. I was reminded of this again and again yesterday at the movies, as I watched the new documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Enron depended completely on controlling reality--on propagating the idea that it was making money when it wasn't, basing profit and loss statements on estimates of future earnings, concealing the manipulation of the market that deprived California of electricity (and drove the Governor of our largest state out of office), and so on. It did so partly because so many other major institutions, including our biggest banks, investment bankers, and financial journals, had such an enormous stake in believing that what Enron said was true. The tapes made of Enron traders showed their utter contempt for their customers, the public, and really, everyone else--because they were getting away with it. Was Enron a unique institution? Or is the same pattern ruling our political life today--in which case, I believe, it is bound eventually to have even worse results? Time, alas, will tell.

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