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Monday, June 16, 2003

mediawatch

Weapons of Mass Distraction


Jayson Blair might be gone, but his spirit lives on at The New York Times. In a series of articles under the general heading, AfterEffects, which spanned a period of approximately two months, Pulitzer Prize-winning (!) correspondent Judith Miller reported on the less-than-brilliant search by the US military and intelligence to find some actual evidence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. Using incendiary headlines, not only to catch the reader’s attention but also to predispose him/her toward certain predetermined conclusions (in this case, that such weapons of mass destruction actually exist or have actually been discovered), Ms. Miller seemed to have taken a page from the William Randolph Hearst school of journalism: “You provide the pictures and I’ll provide the war,” the owner of the New York Journal famously retorted to Frederick Remington when the latter, sent to cover the “Spanish-American War” in Cuba, protested that he couldn’t find it. Ms. Miller, deeply embedded with the US army’s 75th Exploitation Task Force, decided that the ETF could provide the local color and she’d provide the WMD.

Following is a chronological reprise of Ms. Miller’s headlines in search of the elusive weapons:

  • Prohibited Weapons: Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist is Said to Assert, April 21
  • The Search: U.S.-Led Forces Occupy Baghdad Complex Filled With Chemical Agents, April 24
  • Germ Weapons: Leading Iraqi Scientist Says He Lied to U.N. Inspectors, April 27
  • Search for Weapons: U.S. Experts Find Radioactive Material in Iraq, May 4
  • Illicit Arms: U.S. Aides Say Iraqi Truck Could be a Germ-War Lab, May 8
  • The Hunt for Evidence: Trailer is a Mobile Lab Capable of Turning out Bioweapons, a Team Says, May 11
  • Weapons Sleuths: Radioactive Material Found at a Test Site near Baghdad, May 12
  • Germ Weapons: U.S. Analysts Link Iraq Labs to Germ Arms, May 21

“Is Said to Assert.” “Says He Lied.” “U.S. Aides Say…Truck Could Be.” “Mobile Lab Capable of Turning Out.” “Analysts Link…Labs to…Arms.” Ms. Miller’s use of the conditional mode is so all-encompassing that her “reportage” reminds one more of an existentialist novel than a frontline dispatch from a war zone. But maybe that’s another disadvantage to being “embedded”: You begin to dream the news.

Needless to say, what is really worthy of headlines on the front pages of the newspaper that prides itself on accommodating all the news that’s fit to print is precisely the lack of any credible evidence to date regarding the existence of biological or chemical weapons in Iraq. Judith Miller’s headlines of “retraction” — which were actually more like mystifications, disguising the sheer chutzpah of the originals — were masterpieces in their own right: Weapons: Suspicious Discovery Apparently Wasn’t Chemical Weapons, April 28; Some Analysts of Iraq Trailers Reject Germ Use, June 7. “Apparently Wasn’t Chemical Weapons”? Was it or wasn’t it? What in the name of Journalism 101 does that “apparently” mean? (Obviously, that the discovery originally reported by Ms. Miller was “suspicious” nonetheless.) And what about that sly “some analysts…reject germ use”? We can be sure, of course, that Ms. Miller’s analysts know what’s what, even though nobody else can figure it out.

We are living — and others are dying — in an era of headlines and 30-second “news bites.” The majority of us get all our information exclusively through attenuated, and increasingly shameless, networks of journalistic manipulation. Even a quick scan of the dispatches that followed Ms. Miller’s headlines reveals an even more ambivalent and problematic reality than the ambivalent and problematic “news” reported in the headlines themselves. It makes sense, of course, for the Bush administration to try desperately to justify a war that was, is, and always will be utterly unjustifiable by any standard and unbiased reading of international law and conduct. What is impossible to understand is why America’s newspaper of record feels the need to validate this perjury. Why did Judith Miller dedicate so much time to writing about news that was, in fact, no news at all? The truth is that almost all of her AfterEffects reportage on biological and chemical weapons was pure speculation. Indeed, in that sense, one cannot even call it reportage. It would have been understandable if Ms. Miller had been involved in an investigation of the claims of the existence of such weapons. Then she — and her newspaper — would actually have provided a public service, not only to their readers, but to the country at large.

Ms. Miller is now disembedded and back home in New York. Recently, her alma mater, Barnard College, awarded her its Medal of Distinction (in case anybody has the illusion that the academy is not deeply complicitous in the current moral crisis facing our country). Since coming back home, Ms. Miller has apparently had a Damascene conversion. Delivering the commencement address to Barnard’s graduates (whose decision was it to choose her for this honor, by the way), she said — apparently stone-deaf to the inherent irony in her remarks, or even, to a more cynical ear, to their “apparent” disingenuousness — that “Journalists need to draw conclusions about whether objectivity was compromised during the war…[and we] all need to decide whether the country’s interests were best served by this [embedding] arrangement”! She went on to ask (rhetorically? sincerely?), in regard to his weapons of mass destruction: “Were those who wanted to go to war deceiving themselves about Saddam’s capabilities?” It is difficult, naturally, to make sense of this breathtaking, daily, and truly Soviet-style distortion of reality. Suffice it to say that although journalism used to be considered history’s first draft, American journalists have obviously become, in these last few years, history’s first rewrite men — and women.

In addition to being a co-founder of greekworks.com, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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