I am participating with a local group of citizens from Athens and other areas of Ohio in a group called Athens Free Press. We have been having a dialogue with the managers of the local public radio/television station, WOUB, asking them to include the award-winning program Democracy Now in their programming. We have met with them twice and they have rejected our proposal. What stands out in their rejection is the contention that Democracy Now does not measure up to the journalistic standards that guides their programming decisions. These standards, they maintain, come from the policies of NPR, PBS, and OU. In their rejection of Democracy Now, WOUB managers focused on the standards of objectivity, fairness and balance.
In the following document, I try to tease out the meaning of these standards from the three sources WOUB provided us and from other relevant sources as well. My first purpose is to consider the meaning and implications of these and other related standards. I also have a second related purpose. My analysis of journalistic standards will provide a framework for considering a series of comparisons of how NPR and PBS, as opposed to Democracy Now, cover and analyze certain important issues.
My principal argument is that by adding Democracy Now to their programming, WOUB would reflect a greater and more diversified range of coverage and analysis of important issues and events than they now do. My argument can be summarized in three contentions.
One, Democracy Now covers some important issues not covered by NPR/PBS/WOUB.
Two, Democracy Now covers some of the same stories that are covered by public radio and television. In some cases, they overlap in coverage, though their respective coverage has a different thrust. This is to be welcomed, as it would illuminate more aspects of a story than otherwise, a reflection of different sources of information, differing perspectives of guests, and differences in the amount of coverage.
Three, in other cases, the coverage of Democracy Now and public radio/television is quite different and sometimes antithetical, reflecting differences in basic political philosophy and attitudes towards events and policies as well as different sources, guests, and coverage.
The focus in the second part of this article is on the third contention and examines the disparate coverage of NPR/PBS as opposed to Democracy Now on Colin Powell’s address to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. Powell’s address was touted by the Bush administration, and then by the majority of media, as one that brought together the best evidence to document that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. While all major aspects of Powell’s presentation were later found to be false, Powell’s address, at the time, added legitimacy to the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq on March 20, 2003. While the major commercial and public media rallied around the administration’s policy, uncritically going along with Powell’s misleading and mistaken “evidence,” there were many in the “alternative” or “independent” media that were not swayed by the government’s propaganda. These media had opposed such a war long before Powell’s UN address, remained skeptical of the evidence he presented to the UN Security council, and continued to voice their criticisms afterwards. They were right, and the major public and commercial media were wrong. One of the independent media that got it right was Democracy Now.
As indicated, I will address two issues in this article. The first deals with an analysis of the journalistic standards invoked by WOUB managers in their rejection of our proposal to include Democracy Now in their programming. The second is about the coverage of Powell’s UN address. These two issues are related in our current dialogue with WOUB. First, I try to support an argument that the journalistic standards that they used to reject Democracy Now are open to interpretation and are not always consistently applied. I suggest, therefore, that the interpretation and application of journalistic standards must recognize this reality, take into account standards beyond objectivity, balance, and fairness while including them as part of the mix, while additionally taking into account records of a program’s performance.
The example of Powell’s UN speech demonstrates the need for nuanced and practically applied standards and also for the inclusion of a greater range of perspectives in public broadcasting. It is through diversity in programming that NPR, PBS, and WOUB can increase the chances that their audiences will have a chance to assess and weigh more than one viewpoint, or variations on it, when it comes to an important policy-influencing event like Powell’s UN speech. Diversity of views also is more consistent with the heterogeneity of the citizenry and the touted pluralistic political system of the United States.
Part I. Journalistic Standards
Journalistic Standards: The Limits of “Objectivity”
WOUB managers provided our group with documents on journalistic standards from OU, NPR, and PBS. Objectivity from these sources means that news and related information and analysis should be acquired and presented in a “neutral way” (PBS).
(1) Over-simplifies the journalistic process and pretends to expunge subjectivity from this process.
I think that this definition of objectivity oversimplifies the dynamic, multidimensional, and disputed aspects of virtually all important human and social events and issues. It is unreasonable to believe that a producer or journalist of news and analysis can sift through the relevant information and achieve a computer-like neutrality that is true to the issues at hand. A “neutral” conception of objectivity ignores or underplays how there are always subjective judgments on which events and issues are selected for coverage, how stories are written and edited, how they are contextualized, and how much space or time is devoted to them.
(2) The simplistic conception of objectivity pays little attention to how evidence is collected or verified.
Objectivity-as-neutral fails to address the question of how facts are identified in the first place, and then by what method they are verified. As the Committee of Concerned Journalists maintain, the conceptualization of objectivity as “bias” confuses the method of journalistic work with the journalist. The committee’s statement on “the lost meaning of objectivity” goes on to elaborate “some important implications” of this distinction, as follows. (Committee of Concerned Journalists, “The Lost Meaning of Objectivity,” www.concernedjournalists.org/lost-meaning-objectivity -- August 27, 2007)
“One is that the impartial voice employed by many news organizations, that familiar, supposedly neutral style of newswriting, is not a fundamental principle of journalism. Rather, it is an often helpful device news organizations use to highlight that they are trying to produce something obtained by objective methods. The second implication is that this neutral voice, without a discipline of verification, creates a veneer covering something hollow. Journalists who select sources to express what is really their own point of view, and then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective, are engaged in a form of deception. This damages the credibility of the whole profession by making it seem unprincipled, dishonest, and biased. This is an important caution in an age when the standards of the press are so in doubt.”
The committee also points out that “There is nothing approaching standard rules of evidence, as in the law, or an agreed-upon method of observation, as in the conduct of scientific experiments.” Journalists have developed “various techniques and conventions for determining facts.” But this is typically based on the judgment of journalists themselves, through “word of mouth from reporter to reporter, through “trial and error,” and on the basis of such rules as information gathered by journalists should be verified by at least one other source. The committee notes that the group Investigative Reporters and Editors “has tried to develop a methodology for how to use public records, read documents, and produce Freedom of Information Act requests,” but “these [still] informal strategies have not been pulled together into the widely understood discipline that [Walter] Lippmann and others imagined,” that is [as Lippmann once wrote] a “common intellectual method and a common area of valid fact.”
(3) PBS acknowledges the subjective – and creative – element in journalism in some of its statements on journalistic standards:
“PBS recognizes that the producer of informational content deals neither in absolute truth nor in absolute objectivity. Information is by nature fragmentary; the honesty of a program, Web site, or other content can never be measured by a precise, scientifically verifiable formula. Therefore, content quality must depend, at bottom, on the producer’s professionalism, independence, honesty, integrity, sound judgment, common sense, open mindedness, and intention to inform, not to propagandize.”
On this point, Brent Cunnigham has an article in Columbian Journalism Review (issue 4, July-August 2003) titled “Re-thinking Objectivity,” in which the principle of objectivity can make journalists “passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.” Cunningham also notes there is little agreement among journalists on the meaning of objectivity and that the narrow and ambiguous conception of objectivity “makes reporters hesitant to inject issues into the news that aren’t already out there. He also argues that “objectivity excuses lazy reporting,” and tends to lead journalists to rely on a limited number of sources. He refers to a study by media analyst Andrew Tyndall of “414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC and CBS from last September  to February ” that found “all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department.” One of the implicit problems is that the media are hesitant to force elected officials to address important issues that are not among the stories of concern to “official” government. After discussing these and other problems that stifle the journalists quest for a truthful documentation and reporting on important issue, Cunningham refers to a report on a symposium on objectivity in which “a good reporter who is well-steeped in his subject matter and who isn’t out to prove his cleverness, but rather is sweating out a detailed understanding of a topic worth exploring, will probably develop intelligent opinions that will inform and perhaps be expressed in his journalism.” Cunningham later adds: “Letting them write what they know and encouraging them to dig toward some deeper understanding of things is not bias, it is essential.”
(4) Journalists should seek sources on controversial issues and also pay attention to sources among dissident voices of the society that are outside of the media mainstream.
The PBS statement on journalistic standards maintains that “content that provides courageous and responsible treatment of issues, and that reports and comments, with honesty and candor, on social, political, and economic tensions, disagreements, and divisions. The surest road to intellectual stagnation and social isolation is to stifle the expression of uncommon ideas; today’s dissent may be tomorrow’s orthodoxy. The ultimate task of weighing and judging information and viewpoints is, in a free and open society, the task of the audience. Therefore, PBS seeks to assure that its overall content offerings contains a broad range of opinions and points of view, including those from outside society’s existing consensus, presented in a responsible manner and consistent with the standards set forth in these Standards and Policies.”
(5) Professional Integrity
Similarly, the Society of Professional Journalists views the role of the journalist as active and creative, not passive and neutral, and as based on professional integrity. The Society puts it this way:
“Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”
(6) Other considerations in the quest for accurate and valid renditions of important issues and events: The example of Democracy Now
There are many ways to judge a program’s quality and its relatively “objective” coverage and analysis of important issues and events. Consider the following examples of a record of “excellence” with respect to Democracy Now.
A record of excellent performance - One may take into account the record of performance of a program, its hosts, and staff, as well as, other indicators of its achievements (e.g., how it has been assessed by other media organizations, professional awards, reputation). Consider some of indicators of Democracy Now’s excellence that are implicitly a testament to the program’s growing popularity.
· Awards: Amy Goodman and 'Democracy Now!' have won numerous awards for their journalistic and broadcasting excellence, including the George Polk Award, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Prize, Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award, Edwin H. "Major" Armstrong Award, National Federation of Community Broadcasters, Golden Reels, Project Censored Award, Social Society of Professional Journalists, and awards from AP, UPI and CPB.
· Amy Goodman, host and executive producer, is the author, with her brother David Goodman, of two best-selling books (The Exception to the Rulers, chosen as one of the top 50 nonfiction books of 2004 by the editors of Publishers Weekly, and Static, presently on the NYT and LA Times best-seller lists). Networks including CNN, CSPAN, MSNBC, as well as NPR programs, regard Amy as a credible journalist and regularly invite her to speak.
· An outstanding host/interviewer – Amy is an outstanding interviewer, invariably well prepared for interviews, adept at drawing out the views of her guests, and able when appropriate to contextualize the issue being discussed. She does not typically or explicitly interject her own views. She does not harangue her guests but asks tough, well informed questions.
· Juan Gonzales – a columnist at the New York Daily News since 1988 – “has won numerous awards for his investigative reporting including the George Polk Aware in 1988 and was recently elected President of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He is also the author of two books: Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America and Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse.
· A diversity of notable guests: Tariq Ali, Christopher Hitchens, Hugo Chavez, Noam Chomsky, Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, Robert Fisk, Bill Moyers Greg Palast, Scott Ritter, Aroundahti Roy, Edward Said, Howard Zinn….
· Fund raising – Democracy Now! outperforms all other programs during radio station fundraising drives, including NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
· Independence – As a news show that is funded entirely through contributions from listeners, viewers, broadcasting stations and non-corporate foundations, Democracy Now! maintains its editorial independence, providing a counterweight to media consolidation. DN! “does not accept advertisers, donations from corporations, or donations from governments.” This is not true of “public” media outlets, which “accept funding from major corporations, as well as from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Every Corporation for Public Broadcasting board member is appointed by the White House and confirmed by the Senate” (source: Democracy Now!)
(7) One danger of being guided by narrow conceptions of “objectivity” is to become, in effect, a channel for powerful interests in the society.
There is the danger that journalists in the public, as well as the private, media are not able, perhaps sometimes unwilling, to bring an active and creative practice to their coverage and discussions of important events and issues. Critics of the mainstream media have asserted as much and offered explanations for why this is too often the case, including for example: concentrated corporate ownership, conservative influences in the federal government, inadequate funding, bureaucratic constraints, and so forth [cite McChesney]. John Pilger, a well-known film documentarian, journalist and author suggests what some of the unfortunate outcomes are (www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Pilger_John/Pilger_interview.html (Nov. 2002),
“Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers of what Orwell called the official truth. They simply cipher and transmit lies. It really grieves me that so many of my fellow journalists can be so manipulated that they become really what the French describe as functionaries, functionaries, not journalists.”
“Many journalists become very defensive when you suggest to them that they are anything but impartial and objective. The problem with those words ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ is that they have lost their dictionary meaning. They’ve been taken over. ‘Impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ now mean the establishment point of view. Whenever a journalist says to me, ‘Oh, you don’t understand, I’m impartial, I’m objective,’ I know what he’s saying. I can decode it immediately. It means he channels the official truth. Almost always. That protestation means he speaks for a consensual view of the establishment. This is internalized. Journalists don’t sit down think, ‘I’m now going to speak for the establishment.’ Of course not.
“But they internalize a whole set of assumptions, and one of the most potent assumptions is that the world should be seen in terms of its usefulness to the West, not humanity. This leads journalists to make a distinction between people who matter and people who don’t matter. The people who died in the Twin Towers in that terrible crime mattered. The people who were bombed to death in dusty villages in Afghanistan don’t matter, even though it now seems that their numbers were greater. The people who will die in Iraq don’t matter. Iraq has been successfully demonized as if everybody who lives there is Saddam Hussein. In the build-up to this attack on Iraq, journalists have almost universally excluded the prospect of civilian deaths, the numbers of people who would die, because those people don’t matter.
“It’s only when journalists understand the role they play in this propaganda. It’s only when they realize they can’t be both independent, honest journalists and agents of power, that things begin to change.”
In summary, the equation of objectivity as “neutral” reporting and analysis of important issues and events leads to the following:
· over-simplification and thus missing the dynamic complexity of what’s going on;
· the false assumption that there is no selectivity, let alone bias, in how evidence is collected
· a limited method of verification, often based on seeking a confirmation of a source’s information, while ignoring the problem of redundancy;
· the implicit, if not explicit, assumption that producers and journalists are blank-slate recorders of important issues and events, or alternatively, stenographers who simply aggregate or filter true facts from untrue facts;
· the assumption that valid and reputable sources of evidence are routinely identified amidst controversy and distinguished from invalid and disreputable sources;
· the conception of professional integrity, if it is considered at all, is about collecting facts accurately but within the dominant frames and based on sources already identified as providing accurate information;
· the assumption that excellence is not identified by recognition of even highly reputable organizations;
· the belief that journalists, in the passive mode, are immune from being influenced by their powerful sources.
What does “balance” mean to the public media?
Some argue that “balance” is achieved when there are guests on a program with two different, if not opposing, views, or when guests with different views are given comparable amounts of time on subsequent programs, or when guests representing different constituencies, interests, or demographic groups are included in programs. However, the statements on “fairness” in the journalistic standards by PBS, NPR, and OU are not so clear cut.
According to OU standards for broadcasters and journalists (Section 396 (g) (1)), there is no simple formula for achieving balance in the sense of giving different viewpoints “equal time.” The goal should be to incorporate a range of viewpoints in a program over time.
“Balance cannot be guaranteed by a simple, precise formula such as ‘equal time,’ since the result may be a distorting of complex relationships and the undermining of the role of intelligent journalism, which is to make sense out of confused and complicated issues. Most serious issues pose many “sides,’ not just two starkly opposed views that can be accommodated by a neat, even treatment. Balance requires the honest, unceasing effort to recognize that represent this full range of views.”
In the “Editorial Standard s” of PBS, the goal is “to present, over time, content that addresses a broad range of subjects from a variety of viewpoints. PBS may, however, choose to consider not only the extent to which the content contributes to balance overall, but also the extent to which specific content is fairly presented in light of available evidence.” Thus, balance for PBS is about diversity of viewpoints and, additionally, about taking into account the credibility of potential sources. In some cases, PBS may provide links to help expand or correct limited or misleading information. In other words, editorial judgment may be employed. On this point, the PBS statement is as follows:
“Where appropriate, PBS may condition acceptance of content on the producer’s willingness to further the goal of balance by deleting designated footage or by including other points of view on the issues presented or material from which the public might draw a conclusion different from that suggested by the content. Material to be added may range from a few words, to a complete content segment, to an added episode in a series of programs, to the production of an entirely separate, new program. Where PBS deems it appropriate, PBS may arrange for the production of additional content by a producer other the producer of the original content material. For Online Content, links to credible, high-quality, related resources may be used to provide access to additional information or viewpoints.”
NPR’s News Code of Ethics and Practices also emphasizes that it is important to have a range of diverse views. It states: “This range of views may be encompassed in a single story on a controversial topic, or it may play out over a body of coverage or series of commentaries.” The statement elaborates this point as follows: “at all times the commitment to presenting all important views must be conscious and affirmative, and it must be timely if it is being accomplished over the course of more than one story.”
On implication of the discussion of “balance” is that a radio and/or television station’s programming can be enriched when there is a diversity of credible source. No one program need encompass all relevant perspectives. Thus, the addition of the program Democracy Now to WOUB’s schedule of programs, would make WOUB more “balanced” than it now is, because Democracy Now’s guests and sources are typically different from those of PBS and NPR. The outcome would help to expand and enrich the information that is offered audiences and enable WOUB to better fulfill its responsibility to the public interest.
The conceptualization of “fairness” seems to overlap in PBS’s editorial standards with that of “balance.” The issue of valid or accurate information comes up in statements on both of them. At the same time, the thrust of their meaning differs to some extent. Balance refers to both the need for diversity of guests and diversity of viewpoints. Fairness focuses more on the content of what is being reported or analyzed. In regards to the standard of fairness, PBS wants to capture for audiences the full meaning of what is being reported. They put it this way:
“Producers must neither oversimplify complex situations nor camouflage straightforward facts. PBS may reject a program or other content if PBS believes that it contains any unfair or misleading presentation of facts, including inaccurate statements of material fact, undocumented statements of fact that appear questionable on their face, misleading juxtapositions, misrepresentations, or distortions.”
In addition. PBS wants the information and evidence being broadcast to be transparent. Transparency is achieved when supplemental information is thought to be required to clarify information and when sources are identified.
“…producers should also adhere to the principles of transparency and honesty by providing appropriate labels, disclaimers, updates, or other information so that the public plainly understands what it is seeing. For example, content that includes commentary, points of view, or opinion should be appropriately identified, as should all sources of funding. Transparency also suggests producers maximize attribution of information and limit the use of anonymous sourcing to those cases when there is no alternative and the information is essential. Content that contains adult themes or other sensitive material should contain an appropriate disclosure.”
Furthermore, PBS links fairness to how guests on programs are treated, and how the subjects and their views on which reports are based are presented.
“Producers should treat the people who are the subjects of, who appear in, or who are referenced in the content they produce with fairness and respect. PBS will reject content if, in PBS’s judgment, it unfairly treats the people or misrepresents their views. Fair treatment of individuals generally requires that a producer represent the words and action of the people portrayed or identified in a way that present their strongest case, and gives individuals or organizations that are the subject of attack or criticism an opportunity to respond. Fairness also requires that a producer be willing to consider all relevant information and points of view.”
NPR’s statements on “respect” complement PBS’s statements on as aspect of balance, namely, that “Treating the people we cover and our listeners with respect means we recognize the diversity of the country and world on which we report and the diversity of interests, attitudes and experiences of our audience. We approach subjects in an open-minded, sensitive, and civil way.”
With respect to fairness, Democracy Now has guests from all walks of life, from different countries, from different genders and ethnic categories, experts, activists, and people just caught up in important events.
Part II: Coverage of Colin Powell’s address to the UN Security Council on September 5, 2003
The major media generally, and NPR and PBS specifically, failed the American citizenry in their reporting on the pre-war Iraq news and commentary generally and on the specific coverage of Secretary of State Colin Powells address to the United Nations Security Council on September 5, 2003. The reporting may have satisfied media managers, producers, and many journalists, but it rigidly and uncritically applied their paramount standards. The reporting may have been objective in a narrow sense, in that public radio and television reporters sought valid information, but they typically did so uncritically and without adequate verification of the information they received from their sources. It may have been balanced, in consulting or interviewing two or more sources who were thought to have somewhat different views on an issue, but often the views were not very different. It may have been fair, in accurately reporting what their sources said, but their sources were unreliable and deceptive. And, with respect to the looming Iraq war in 2002 and early 2003, the sources all sang variations of the same tune. Ultimately, it was a tune that sang, more or less loudly and patriotically, a lets-go-to-war song.
One very significant story that both NPR and PBS got terribly wrong, and Democracy Now got right, had to do with the coverage of then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation on February 5, 2003, to the U.N Security Council. This is not the only example that could easily be culled from the archival and contemporary records of these broadcasters and programs. The public was told that Secretary Powell has assembled the “best” information from the CIA and government intelligence sources with respect to Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Powell made assertions about other issues in his U.N. presentation (e.g., connections between al Qaeda and the Iraq regime), but those concerning WMDs were the most important when it came to the Bush administration’s determination to launch an invasion of Iraq. Powell’s presentation was a pattern-reinforcing event of great significant, in that it helped to continue the momentum behind the Bush administration’s push to war with Iraq. The reactions to Powell’s presentation by guests and interviewers on NPR and PBS were by and large uncritical, in some cases fawning, in their praise. On the basic issue of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the view was unanimous that Powell had presented a powerful and compelling case that Iraq did possess such weapons. This was the key contention and justification of the Bush administration for launching an attack on Iraq.
At the same time, Democracy Now hosted guests who were critical of Powell’s evidence and forthrightly opposed to an invasion of Iraq. There is a very important implication here. If Democracy Now had been included in WOUB’s programming in February 2003, many members of their audiences might not have been as likely to succumb to the Bush’s administration’s propaganda in favor of the invasion. Communities in the WOUB broadcast area would have at least had the opportunity to consider alternative perspectives on the merits of Secretary of State Powell’s assertions. As it turned out, the major media, including the public media, echoed the Bush administration’s deceptions and lies. This was not just another routine daily news item, as the terrible consequences of this war attest. We are reminded daily of these consequences, the lost lives and maimed US soldiers and Iraqi civilians, the 4.2-plus million Iraqi refugees, the devastated infrastructure, education and health care systems, the heart-rending traumatized children, the ongoing violence that permeates the society and affects surrounding countries, and the fruitless and ongoing expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money.
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
If you go to the transcripts or audio versions of the coverage of Secretary of State Powell’s presentation, here’s what you’ll find. On PBS on the evening of February 5, 2003, there were two segments on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer devoted to Powell’s speech.
In one segment, Margaret Warner interviewed three guests, including Rolf Ekeus, former executive chairman of UNSCOM, “which ran the chemical and biological inspections in Iraq from 1991 to 1997, David Albright, “a former analyst and inspector who monitored Iraq’s nuclear program from 1992 to 1997,” and Daniel Benjamin, formerly a director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.”
Warner asked them “How compelling was Sec. Powell’s case?” Ekeus and Albright agreed that there were materials related to weapons of mass destruction unaccounted for, and the Iraqis were not cooperating with the U.N. inspectors. Still, Ekeus found Powell’s presentation on these matters “quite convincing.” Ekeus also found the satellite photos of a Iraqi chemical plant “compelling and very clear” as evidence of chemical weapons production. Albright thought Powell’s reference to “radio intercepts were quite compelling” and that it was likely that the Iraqi’s were hiding chemical warheads.” Benjamin responded that “much of the really important information we have gotten about Iraq’s arms programs has come from defectors. So that’s an important source. We need to analyze it closely.” He did not reject this information, later proven to be false, but wanted it more thoroughly scrutinized. On other issues, Albright wanted more information on whether the aluminum tubes were really for nuclear enrichment activities, and Ekeus and Benjamin were curious about Powell’s evidence on the connections between high officials in the Iraq government and al Qaeda. Overall, they gave Powell high marks.
Later on the NewsHour program on February 5, 2003, Jim Lehrer interviewed Zbigniew Brzezinski, “professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University,” and former national security advisor in the Carter administration, and two U.S. Senators, including Richard Lugar, republican of Indiana and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Carl Levin, democrat from Michigan and ranking Democrat on this committee.
Lehrer asked his informants whether Powell had made a “strong case.” Brzezinski responded: “I thought he made a very impressive presentation. I felt it was quite compelling.” Lugar said: “I thought Sec. Powell was compelling and persuasive.” He thought that, if anything, Powell had understated the case against Iraq. Levin said, “There was a strong case that Sec. Powell made. And it’s clear that there is a threat there just the way there is a significant threat of North Korea, which has weapons of mass destruction by its own proclamation and has thrown out the inspectors.” They agreed that Iraq was not cooperating with the U.N. inspectors. Brzezinski wanted to use the Powell presentation as a basis for uniting “international pressure on Iraq to comply or for coercion [war] if it does not.” Levin agreed with this point, saying “it is vital that we deal with this threat as a world community and that we not go at it unilaterally.” However, both Brzezinski and Levin did not take the use of military force off the table. Levin later said: “If we catch them and get them with the goods, then it seems to me we’ll clearly united the world in military action, if necessary, to disarm Iraq.” Lugar was skeptical that inspections would ever work and was inclined to use force sooner rather than later.
Later that week, on Friday, February 7, 2003, Terence Smith took over for Jim Lehrer in interviewing syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of then of the Weekly Standard about reactions to Powell’s speech at the U.N. Mark Shields was ecstatic, saying: “…Colin Powell is a gift to the country, and a treasure to this administration. I mean if there has ever been anybody who had cabinet tenure like a professor at an Ivy League school, I mean it is Colin Powell. He is absolutely fire proof.” And Brooks said: “I think we’ve crossed another phase in this whole Iraq debate. The cards are on the table. This is all the administration is going to release. Some people are not persuaded, but a lot of people are. Enough Americans are persuaded for the U.S. to go ahead, enough countries are persuaded for the U.S. to go ahead. The U.S. will go ahead with a number of countries. That is inevitable unless Saddam converts to Methodism or something next week.”
The thrust of the NewsHour interviews was to laud Sec. Powell’s presentation. None of the guests questioned the underlying premise of the presentation, namely, that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. There was some division about whether force should be used before more solid information on WMDs was found, but all agreed (when they commented directly on the question) that force would be appropriate and necessary if evidence of WMDs were found.
There are three other points worth noting with respect to the dubious PBS coverage of Sec. Powell’s presentation and related issues.
First, the framework for these interviews was stacked in favor of experts and former government officials. Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), www.fair.org/index.php?page+3158, “examined the 393 on-camera sources who appeared in nightly news stories about Iraq on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The study began one week before and ended one week after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 presentation at the U.N, a time that saw particularly intense debate about the idea of a war against Iraq on the national and international level.” The findings of FAIR’s study finds:
“…two-thirds (267 out of 393) of the guests featured were from the United States. Of the U.S. guests, a striking 75 percent (199) were either current or former government or military officials. Only one of the official U.S. sources – Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass) – expressed skepticism or opposition to the war.” The FAIR report continued: “…when both U.S. and non-U.S. guests were included 76 percent (297 out of 393) were either current or retired officials. Such a predominance of official sources virtually assures that independent and grassroots perspectives will be underrepresented. Of all official sources, 75 percent (222 of 297) were associated with either the U.S. or with governments that support the Bush administration’s position on Iraq; only four out of those 222, or 2 percent, of those sources were skeptics or opponents of the war.”
Of the 96 guests without a current or former government connection, the views were “slightly more balanced”, with “26 percent” taking a “skeptical or critical position on the war.” However, of all 393 sources, “only three (less than 1 percent) were identified with organized protests or anti-war groups.”
Second, the media tended to overstate the administration’s case alleging that Iraq had WMDs. On February 4, 2003, “Fair released a media advisory, “Iraq’s Hidden Weapons: From Allegation to Fact,” www.fair.org/index.php?page-3062, “which points out that the media’s intensive coverage of the U.N. inspections has repeatedly glided from reporting the allegation that Iraq is hiding banned weapons materials to repeating it as a statement of fact.”
Third, over the ensuing years, a great deal of research and congressional testimonies have examined the claims made by Colin Powell. The essence of what has been learned is reflected in the quotes that follow from two best-selling books. Thomas E. Ricks reports on Powell’s U.N. presentation on page 90 of his best-selling book Fiasco, as follows:
“Powell didn’t know it, but his bravura performance [at the U.N.] was a huge house of cards. It is now known that almost all of what he said wasn’t solid, the much of it was deemed doubtful even at the time inside the intelligence community, and that some of it was flatly false. The official, bipartisan conclusion of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s review of the prewar handling of intelligence was, ‘Much of the information provided or cleared by the Central Intelligence Agency for Inclusion in Secretary Powell’s speech was overstated, misleading, or incorrect.
Michael Isikoff and David Corn, the authors of the best-selling book Hubris, note on p. 189 of the book, “Virtually all of the allegations Powell presented would turn out to be wrong. But, at the time, few in the media bothered poking at the details of Powell’s address.”
Fourth, reporting on www.salon.com on May 4, 2006, Eric Boehlert notes that many big-name journalists apologized for their poor coverage of the pre-war stories leading up to the invasion of Iraq, some admitted the poor and misleading coverage but, like Jim Lehrer, offered excuses. Here are some relevant excerpts from Boehlert’s article.
“Looking back, bigfoot journalists conceded they failed to do their jobs during the run-up to war. ABC's Ted Koppel admitted, "If anything, what we've been criticized for, and probably more justifiably, is that we were too timid before the war." Dan Rather agreed: "We did not do our job of pressing and asking enough questions often enough." They weren't the only ones disappointed. A majority of Americans thought the news media could have done a better job informing the public about Iraq and the stakes involved in going to war, according to an August 2005 survey conducted by the McCormick Tribune Foundation in Chicago.
“While some journalists admitted their mistakes, most refused to admit it was political pressure from the right and a fear of being labeled unpatriotic that fueled the timidity. Instead, journalists offered up head-scratching explanations for their timorous prewar performance. PBS's Jim Lehrer suggested journalists just weren't smart enough to have foreseen all the troubles that would plague Iraq following the invasion. Appearing on MSNBC's "Hardball," Lehrer was asked by host Matthews about the press's wartime performance. Matthews noted, "During [the] course of the war, there was a lot of snap-to-it coverage. We're at war. We have to root for the country to some extent. You' re not supposed to be too aggressively critical of a country at combat, especially when it's your own." Matthews asked Lehrer if he thought the press had failed to provide "critical analysis" in the months before the war.
Lehrer: I do. The word "occupation," keep in mind, Chris, was never mentioned in the run-up to the war. It was "liberation." So as a consequence, those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.
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.
It never occurred to journalists that the United States might have to effectively occupy Iraq in the wake of the invasion? That's just not believable. It's far more likely journalists were too anxious to express their doubts during the drum-beating of early 2003. Lehrer later returned to the topic, suggesting even if journalists had been smart enough to figure out the occupation angle, it still would have been hard to report it out:
Lehrer: It would have been difficult to have had debates about that going in, when the president and the government of the -- it's not talking about "occupation." They're talking about -- it would have been -- it would have taken some -- you'd have had to have gone against the grain.
"Could 'courage' be the word Lehrer sought?" asked the Daily Howler. "Did he want to say: 'It would have taken some courage' " for the nation's press to have gone against the grain.
Reports on Powell’s speech from NPR
NPR’s Michelle Keleman reported on Sec. Powell’s comments before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the substance of his UN on the day after the speech, February 6, 2003. The transcript of Keleman’s report is available at www.npr/programs/atc/transcripts/2003/feb/030206.kelemen.html According to Keleman, Powell told the Committee that he had “made some headway in bilateral talks with [UN Security] [C]ouncil members after his presentation yesterday. Keleman reported that “Both Democrats and Republicans lavished praise on Powell, describing his performance yesterday as splendid and compelling.” She also noted that “several senators did question whether the U.S. is really leaving any options open for a peaceful solution.” Russell Feingold (Democratic, Wisconsin) worried that a U.S. invasion “could help destabilize some of our key allies in the Muslim world,” and “that a new Persian Golf war could provoke more terrorism.” But there is nothing reported that the senators has any reservations about Powell’s basic claims regarding WMDs. Keleman also reports that Powell was optimistic about the consequences of a “successful’ invasion of Iraq, and is quoted, “when we win this and when the Iraqi people are liberated, and when it is no longer necessary to have that many US forces stationed in the region and we don’t have to worry about weapons of mass destruction floating out of Iraq, the oil of Iraq is being used for constructive purposes and not the destructive purposes.” In all of this, NPR’s Keleman reports uncritically on Powell’s statements. What were audiences to believe?
In another transcript of “news special” on NPR’s website, www.npr.org/news/specials/cpowell/, there is another report of some of Powell’s activities on the day after his U.N. speech. The transcript of the program records that Powell is “the Bush administration’s lead advocate for military intervention against Iraq,” and that “Saddam Hussein and his regime will stop at nothing until something stops him.” The report also refers to the types of evidence included in Powell’s address with no analysis. Powell is also reported as saying that “Iraq has not give sufficient proof that it destroyed any of the biological or chemical weapons that it has been known to possess since the 1990s,” and that Iraq “has two of the three necessary components to build a nuclear bomb: nuclear scientists and a working design.” He added that Hussein is “desperately” trying to acquire the third component, namely, enriched uranium. There is more in this report, but the gist of it is an uncritical description of what Powell is asserting, falsely as it turns out.
Democracy Now had guests with very different views on Powell’s presentation
One of the two featured stories on Democracy Now, February 6, 2003, dealt with Sec. Powell’s address to the U.N Security Council “to argue for a first-strike attack on Iraq.” The host, Amy Goodman, spoke to three guests, including: Phyllis Bennis, “fellow at the [progressive] Institute for Policy Studies in Washington Dc, specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues.” The second guest was James Paul, “Executive Director of the Global Policy Forum,” who has “also worked as a writer and consultant with projects for Human Rights, and many others.” Paul “was awarded the World Hunger Media Award in 1987 and he received a ‘Peacemaker’ award from the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in 1996. He is the editor of the World and his most recent book is Humanity Comes of Age. The third guest was As’ad AbuKhalil, “author of Bin Laden, Islam, and America’s New ‘War” on Terrorism,’ and the forthcoming The House of Bush and the House of Saud. He is professor of political science at California State University at Stanislaus.”
I have not yet received the full transcript of this segment from Democracy Now, but the partial summary of it that I have captures the very different and very skeptical story line that one gets from PBS or NPR. The summary states:
“Powell’s 70-plus minute presentation can be boiled down to a few main points. Powell says Iraq possesses extremely dangerous weapons of mass destruction; Iraq is systematically trying to deceive UN inspectors and hide prohibited weapons; and Iraq is harboring terrorists, including Al Qaeda.” The reaction to these claims by the three guests is described, at best, as skeptical, as the summary states: “But much of Powell’s presentation is impossible to verify. Powell’s speech was peppered with assertions like: ‘Our sources tell us,’ or ‘we know that….’” It continues: “Powell also resorted to drama at times. At one point, he held up a vial filled with white powder and said less than a teaspoon of dry anthrax shut down the US Senate in the fall of 2001.”
One can get an idea of the views of Phyllis Bennis’, one of Democracy Now’s guests, on Powell’s presentation from an article she wrote in reaction to Powell’s UN speech that appeared the same day as the speech on www.alternet.org/story/15108. She writes that “CIA and FBI officials still believe the Bush administration is ‘exaggerating’ information to make their political case for war.” She also stresses that “’Even if’ everything Powell said was true, there is simply not enough evidence for war. There is no evidence of Iraq posing an imminent threat, no evidence of containment not working.” Bennis appears regularly on Democracy Now.
Democracy Now had been devoting programs to the views of war skeptics for months. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) produced on March 19, 2007, “Iraq and the Media: A Critical Timeline,” which can be found on” www.fair.org/index.php?page=3062. According to this timeline, on October 27, 2002, “Democracy Now! features an interview with former Iraqi nuclear scientist Imad Khadduri, who tells listeners the program has long been dormant.” And on February 9, 2003, “Democracy Now interviews Cambridge University lecturer Glen Rangwala, who first discovered that a key British intelligence report was in fact plagiarized from an American student’s doctoral thesis. The report had been cited by Colin Powell in his speech to the UN as proof that the Iraqis had weapons.”
Glen Rangwala, professor at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and a guest on Democracy Now on February 9, wrote a detailed critique of Secretary of State Powell’s “Remarks to the United Nations Security Council.” It was originally posted on the Traprock Peace Center website on March 18, 2003, and then included on a long list of articles dealing with “intelligence failure” from any different sources on the Iraq Archives of the War Report webside (www.comw.org/pda/fulltext/Rangwala.pdf. In the article, Rangwala offers a comprehensive outline of the flaws in Powell’s speech. For example, Rangwala writes that Powell’s “strong claims about Iraq’s retention and development of conventional weapons” are not supported by credible evidence. Rangwala writes: “instead of providing proof of any of those claims, Powell instead produced photos of al Taji ammunition storage facilities that shows a small shed and a truck adjacent to the bunker. Powell claimed that these are ‘a signature item’ for chemical bunkers. This seems on the fact of it to be a wholly implausible claim: a picture of a truck and a shed by themselves reveal nothing about the contents of the adjacent bunker.”
I have two concluding points. One, Secretary of State Powell’s presentation and the WMD story is only one of many examples of how Democracy Now differs in its coverage of important issues and events from public radio and television. Two, NPR and PBS generally do a reasonable job in covering the news and in its commentary on and analysis of important issues and events. I am not arguing that public radio and television should be overhauled. Rather, my point is simply that the programming on WOUB, which draws moch of its national and international news and related information from NPR and PBS, would be enhanced by the addition of Democracy Now, and, with Democracy Now added to its schedule, WOUB would better fulfill its obligation to the citizens of its coverage area.