Monday, May 7, 2007

Reading: Moyers on Buying the Iraq War

I'm late getting this posted, but it's still a fine thing to let this piece of journalism the way it used to be done sit in the sun a little while longer.

Bill Moyers has returned to PBS with a vengeance. In this piece he begins with the observation that while the print media have, at least to some extent, taken responsibility for their culpability in helping the Bush administration lead us falsely into the Iraq War, television news--which played at least as great a part if not more--has conspicuously failed to examine its own responsibility.

Much of what's in this documentary will be familiar to you: Judith Miller. Ahmed Chalabi. Thomas Friedman. Bill Safire. Bill Kristol. Yellow cake. Aluminum tubes. Mushroom clouds. Mobile bioweapons labs. Liberators. Sixteen words.

What you won't have seen before--and the reason why it's must-see TV--are the new Moyers interviews with journalists (or, in some cases, "journalists") who spent 2002-2003 cheerleading for the impending war and eagerly providing a national platform for the most brazenly dishonest of administration talking points. If anyone ever takes Tim Russert seriously again in his life about anything other than his lunch order, it will be a miracle:

Bill Moyers: Was it just a coincidence in your mind that Cheney came on your show and others went on the other Sunday shows, the very morning that that story appeared?

Tim Russert: I don't know. The NEW YORK TIMES is a better judge of that than I am.

Bill Moyers: No one tipped you that it was going to happen?

Tim Russert: No, no. I mean-

Bill Moyers: The- the Cheney- office didn't make any- didn't leak to you that there's gonna be a big story?

Tim Russert: No. No. I mean, I don't- I don't have the- this is, you know, on MEET THE PRESS, people come on and there are no ground rules. We can ask any question we want. I did not know about the aluminum-tube story until I read it in the NEW YORK TIMES.

Bill Moyers: Critics point to September eight, 2002 and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable.

Someone in the administration plants a dramatic story in the NEW YORK TIMES And then the Vice President comes on your show and points to the NEW YORK TIMES. It's a circular, self-confirming leak.

Tim Russert: I don't know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the NEW YORK TIMES. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that.

Tim Russert: What my concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.

Bill Moyers: ["60 Minutes" reporter] Bob Simon didn't wait for the phone to ring.

At this point, Moyers cuts to an interview with Bob Simon:

Bill Moyers: When you said a moment ago when we started talking to people who knew about aluminum tubes. What people-who were you talking to?

Bob Simon: We were talking to people - to scientists - to scientists and to researchers and to people who had been investigating Iraq from the start.

Bill Moyers: Would these people have been available to any reporter who called or were they exclusive sources for 60 minutes?

Bob Simon: No, I think that many of them would have been available to any reporter who called.

Bill Moyers: And you just picked up the phone?

Bob Simon: Just picked up the phone.

Bill Moyers: Talked to them?

Bob Simon: Talked to them and then went down with the cameras.

Russert, who summers in Nantucket with such NBC swells as Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric, which owns NBC, which means he, in turn, owns Russert), has obviously forgotten that black plastic thingie on his desk with the numbered buttons is good for more than confirming dinner party invitations. He did not appear particularly embarrassed about his confession.

Neither did Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic and war proponent nonpareil , appear embarrassed when he explained to an obviously bemused Moyers that he saw his role as a "journalist" as consisting of taking what other working journalists have already found out, and then writing about that. Rather than embarrassed, he seemed more puzzled and taken aback by Moyers polite disdain.

The heartbreaker of the show, though, was Moyers interview with John Walcott and Jonathan Landay, two reporters from Knight Ridder who didn't wait for Bush administration officials to call them. They worked and worked their own sources and did most of what serious, skeptical journalism about the run-up to the war got written.

And it went largely ignored, to an important extent because Knight Ridder didn't have any newspapers in New York or Washington DC, so they had almost no chance to crack the TV talking heads circuit where the pro-war stories were being trumpeted over and over. (Keep that in mind the next time a media merger threatens to reduce yet again the number of TV, radio, or newspaper outlets in your town--or the number of owners, which amounts to the same thing.)

Transcript and video of Moyer's report are going on the new and improved reading list on the sidebar.

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