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The Grilling of the President

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  • Eric Alterman
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Last Friday, Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post was one of the few journalists to perform any sort of follow-up on a little backyard barbeque President Bush threw last week for about 50 members of the White House press corps out at Crawford. According to reports, Bush served fried catfish, potato salad, coleslaw, homemade cheese and chocolate-chip cookies to the invited scribes – all washed down with some local beer. The catch? None of the reporters were allowed to tell anyone what the president and his aides said afterward.

While it is certainly not a crime for reporters to accept an invitation from the president, the event does raise questions. Froomkin wrote, “I'm told that several reporters expressed squeamishness about last night's event, particularly as the press-pool vans drove by antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan's ‘Camp Casey’ site. And later, a small handful watched askance as the rest fawned over Bush, following him around in packs every time he moved.”

To be sure, it’s not every day that a reporter gets to hang with the president and some of his top aides at a social function, but given the administration’s disdain for the press and its history of spinning lies and disinformation as a matter of policy, one wonders what these reporters thought they could possibly get out of a 90-minute fawning session.

In a way, this event recalled an article in the August/September 2004 issue of the American Journalism Review entitled “Missed Signals,” which explored why it took so long for the news media to break the story of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The most striking thing about the piece is the stream of excuses, apologies, and “whoops! Wrong again” mea culpas from editors and reporters for some of our largest dailies in explaining how they managed to ignore the story until CBS’ "60 Minutes II" finally broadcast the harrowing images of prisoner abuse this past April.

While there was some scattershot reporting on Abu Ghraib dating back to November 2003, no one took the story seriously. Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. lays part of the blame on a one-paragraph press release from January 16, 2005, issued by the U.S. Command in Baghdad, which admitted that it was investigating reports of “incidents of detainee abuse,” asking, "Have you ever read that paragraph? They made it as innocent-sounding as possible, and it just wasn't noticed the way it should have been."

Similarly, Philip Taubman, the New York Times’ Washington bureau chief, told AJR that "[w]e didn't do our job with this until the photographs appeared on CBS." Taubman also called it "a failure of newsgathering." The Times’ Executive Editor Bill Keller chimed in with his own sad lament on getting scooped on a major story, saying, "it shouldn't require visual drama to make us pay attention to something like this."

As AJR notes, however, despite these excuses, there were plenty of signs that something was going on at Abu Ghraib – it’s just that they were largely ignored by the press. If all this sounds familiar, it should be. The media’s utter failure to expose the falsification of WMD evidence in the prelude to invading Iraq serves as a primer to the Abu Ghraib story, and many of the lame excuses offered by editors for their failure in the prison abuse scandal echo those put forth not too long ago when it finally dawned on the media that they had been taken for a ride by the Bush administration. Chief among the culprits in selling the falsified evidence offered by the White House’s favorite ex-pat, Ahmed Chalabi, to the American people was, of course, the New York Times’ Judith Miller. Miller’s reporting during the winter of 2001 and throughout 2002 was made up of a series of fascinating stories about Saddam Hussein’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction – stories fed her by Chalabi and his allies. The only downside, of course, was that almost all of her tall tales have turned out to be almost completely false.

Despite this, the Times, while having since published stories calling Chalabi’s credibility into question, has failed to acknowledge the central role Chalabi played in getting the paper some of its biggest scoops – scoops which bolstered the public’s support for war. Similarly, other than Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books (and Jack Shafer at Slate), few journalists have done any kind of substantive analysis of how Miller got the story so wrong – and how everyone else went along for the ride.

In the end, the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the false WMD claims stand as two of the most important stories of our time, while the long-term effects of both are unknowable. One can only expect so much from reporters operating under the information blackout imposed by the Bush administration. Ideally, however, this is when the media would be at its best, as for instance The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh has consistently demonstrated. CBS and Hersh proved that reporters can still be effective, even under the oppressive strictures imposed by the Bush administration. But it will take a lot more than beer and barbeque at the Bush summer cottage. What it will take, first and foremost, is a willingness to accept the unhappy fact that to get to the truth of what is going on in this administration, it is necessary to ignore what it says, and delve more deeply into what it does.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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Eric Alterman

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