Michael Moore, Cause for War?

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

The media, apparently, have finally decided to take a stand for truth in reporting. Their target? Alleged America-hater Michael Moore and his apparently epoch-making "Fahrenheit 9/11." His film turns out to be of such critical importance to the Fate of the Republic that journalists have spared no trite observation in parsing every shot of the film for accuracy. Some do not even bother doing that much, dismissing the film regardless of the level of truth it contains. As Gwen Ifill, managing editor of "Washington Week" told NBC's Tim Russert the June 27 edition of "Meet the Press," "You know, I look at this movie as a journalist, and as a journalist I have this affection for facts and accuracy. And even though there are facts in this movie, on whole it's not accurate." Ifill goes on to equate Moore with President Bush, claiming, "The president, according to Democrats, did that with 9/11. He said, 'Well, there was terrorism on 9/11. There's terrorism in Afghanistan. And we know that Saddam Hussein consorted with terrorists, and you make the conclusion.' Michael Moore is doing the same thing. He's saying, 'Well, look at the president and the Saudis. They were all friendly.'" It would be a more effective critique, to put it mildly, if Ifill could come up with a single factual claim that Moore did not support. But even so, it's quite a leap. After all, how many people are likely to die for Moore's misportrayals?

And really, what's up with Christopher Hitchens? Duped into supporting an unnecessary war by a dishonest leadership, upon whom does he focus his fury? You guessed it… "To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious." Um, Christopher, repeat after me: "It’s a movie, not a war."

Comparing the sly tricks with the truth that Moore uses in his film with the damage the Bush administration has caused in conning the nation to go to war ought obviously to be an absurd proposition. Indeed, if the president's speeches to the nation about his decision to go to war had received a significant fraction of the journalistic attention that Moore's film has, it's a good bet 5,600 American soldiers would sill be enjoying their release from the military—rather than being called back to duty to carry out an increasingly chaotic and counterproductive occupation. Not only did the administration get away with inflating the level of military threat Iraq presented both to the world and to the United States, it also concocted evidence tying it to global terrorism, while simultaneously minimizing both the cost and the difficulty of the ensuing military occupation. In the end, almost every piece of evidence the administration put forth in support of its war could be called into question, both before the war, and after.

So what happened? Why did the media seem to stick its head in the sand over the shaky claims of WMD, Iraq's nuclear programs and the ties between Saddam and al Qaeda? Why was there no real prewar discussion of the conflict's likely aftermath? Journalists "are finding they goofed in much the same way that everybody else did, carrying the administration's water, not wittingly, but carrying it nonetheless," Marvin Kalb, the former network newsman and a co-editor of the book "The Media and the War on Terrorism,” told the The Boston Globe. To Jim Lehrer, the media was stifled by a simple matter of semantics. In a May 12 appearance on "Hardball," he told Chris Matthews, "The word 'occupation'…was never mentioned in the run-up to the war. It was "liberation." This was a war of liberation, not a war of occupation. So as a consequence, those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation:

MATTHEWS: Because?

LEHRER: Because it just didn't occur to us. We weren't smart enough to do it. I agree. I think it was a dereliction of our—in retrospective.

Oh really? In fact there was a campaign of deliberate deception; one that employed the media as its willing interlocutors. In March of this year, a report prepared by the Committee on Government Reform Minority Office for Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) called "Iraq on the Record: The Bush Administration's Public Statements on Iraq," shed some light on just how straight forward the administration has been with the American people about the reasons for invading Iraq. The report tracks public comments made by Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumseld and Powell from March 2002 to January 2004, and finds 237 specific instances where they made willfully misleading statements. Never one to rest on his laurels, Cheney has been hard at work since January. Two weeks ago he told CNBC's "Capitol Report" that "There clearly was a relationship [between Iraq and al Qaeda]. It's been testified to. The evidence is overwhelming." He went on to add that "We don't know, [if Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks]," a statement that's an intentionally muddier way of echoing the president's own assertion that "We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the 11 September attacks," in September 2003.

Waxman's report is scrupulous in its unwillingness to include "statements that appear in hindsight to be erroneous but were accurate reflections of the views of intelligence officials at the time they were made." The Iraq on the Record report breaks down the misleading statements into four categories: statements suggesting that Iraq posed an urgent threat, (there are over 10); references to Iraq's nuclear activities, (there are more than 80); statements regarding Iraq's biological and chemical weapons capabilities, (again, more than 80) and statements regarding Iraq's support of al Qaeda (there are more than 60).

Remember Colin Powell's now infamous address to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003. Almost nothing that Powell claimed to be true back then has survived the light of day, as even the embarrassed secretary of state would now admit. But how did the men and women who find themselves so offended by exaggerations in Moore's film react to Powell's pro-war parade of fiction? Despite, as Gilbert Cranberg, former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, pointed outrepeated signals of phony, stretched and insufficient evidence, including almost no verifiable sources, and more than 40 vague references such as "human sources," "an eyewitness," "detainees," "an al-Qaeda source," "a senior defector," "intelligence sources," and the like." Nevertheless, a survey of the coverage from some 40 papers nationwide found such contentions as:

"a massive array of evidence," "a detailed and persuasive case," "a powerful case," "a sober, factual case," "an overwhelming case," "a compelling case," "the strong, credible and persuasive case," "a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information," "the core of his argument was unassailable," "a smoking fusillade . . . a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable," "an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence," "only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction," "the skeptics asked for proof; they now have it," "a much more detailed and convincing argument than any that has previously been told," "Powell's evidence . . . was overwhelming," "an ironclad case . . . incontrovertible evidence," "succinct and damning evidence . . . the case is closed," "Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein," "masterful," "If there was any doubt that Hussein . . . needs to be . . . stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest."

Let's return to Moore's alleged plot to destroy civilization. The documentarian is being roundly attacked for claiming that a group of Saudis were allowed to fly out of the United States on Sept. 13, 2001, when, for you and me, American airspace was still locked down. But we've now confirmed that that a total of 142 Saudis, including 24 members of the bin Laden family, actually left after the 13th. A report in the St. Petersburg Times reveals that on the13th, "a small jet landed at Tampa International Airport, picked up three young Saudi men and left" for Lexington, Kentucky. The group then hopped another jet out of the country.

Perhaps not all of Moore's contentions are equally valid; perhaps some are even wrong. But his record so far looks awfully good compared to those of Mssrs. Bush and Cheney. If only the media that enabled those two had taken their contentions remotely as seriously…

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress. Research Assistance Paul McLeary contributed to this column.

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Eric Alterman

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