Can You Believe What You Read (Particularly Regarding the Administration?)

I don’t know how to characterize the state of the media in the US. A controlled press? Self-censorship? Whatever the cause, the result is that important stories are so often watered down that the kid-gloves treatment comes perilously close to misreporting.

This isn’t news to any close reader of the US press. But it is far easier to see if you check foreign sources. And if you are like me, and only read English (my once high-level French has gone hopelessly to seed), your choices are primarily from countries that are allies in our Middle Eastern misadventure (meaning one would expect them to be sympathetic).

I have found that the distortions are more extensive and pervasive than even most cynics realize. I was overseas during the run-up to the Iraq war. I would regularly see stories on the TV and in the local papers which were quite different than what I was reading online from the US. Often, I would e-mail friends in America with a news item that I suspected hadn’t gotten coverage back home. Over 80% of the time, I was right.

And a recent Zogby poll found that 2/3 of Americans think the media has a liberal bias. The slanting of the reporting is so as not to offend the powers that be, yet it is branded as liberal, when liberal has managed to become a bad word. Another way to further self censorship, or whatever regime we have in operation (although the “liberal” tag could just as easily reflect the assumption in America that educated + urban = liberal, plus the fact that the press just might have the temerity to question authority. What ever happened to the idea of a fourth estate?).

Today’s example follows. The first story is from ABC News (Australian Broadcast Corporation, its answer to the BBC), the second was in the New York Times (page 8 in the print edition) from Bloomberg (ie, the Times didn’t deem it worthy of original reporting).

From the Australian Broadcast Corporation:

No link between Saddam and Al Qaeda: Pentagon

Interrogations of Saddam Hussein and seized documents have confirmed the former Iraqi regime had no links with Al Qaeda, according to a Pentagon report, contradicting the US case for the 2003 invasion.

A two-page resume of the report was published in February, but on Friday (local time) the Pentagon declassified the whole 120-page document.

According to the inspector general of the US Defense Department, information obtained after Saddam’s fall confirmed the pre-war position of the Central Intelligence Agency and Pentagon intelligence that the Iraqi Government had had no substantial contacts with Al Qaeda.

This position was shored up by interrogations of Saddam, the former Iraqi president and other top officials captured by the US-led coalition forces in Iraq, the report said.

It contradicts a strong argument for the invasion made by the administration of President George W Bush that Baghdad had a working relationship with Al Qaeda….

The report noted that the office of then-undersecretary of defence Douglas Feith, one of the foremost advocates for invading Iraq after the 2001 attacks, had ignored the CIA’s position.

He characterised the supposed Al Qaeda-Iraq relationship as “mature” and “symbiotic” in a September 2002 briefing to the chief of staff of Vice-President Dick Cheney.

The Feith briefing alleged that the two cooperated in 10 areas, including training, financing and logistics.

But the new report says the US intelligence community had concluded at the time there were “no conclusive signs” of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and that “direct cooperation … has not been established” between the two.

Prior to the war there was little public dispute inside the United States over the Bush Administration’s assertions linking Iraq and bin Laden’s group.

But since the invasion, a number of intelligence officials have alleged the White House and its backers ignored their intelligence and “cherry picked” information to support their arguments for a war….

Contrast this with the New York Times/Bloomberg version:

Hussein-Qaeda Link ‘Inappropriate,’ Report Says

The Pentagon provided “inappropriate” analysis for its reports of a strong link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, a finding that was cited by the White House as a rationale for invading Iraq, a report by the Pentagon inspector general says.

The declassified report said Defense Department officials “undercut” the intelligence community.

It specifically said that analysts reporting to Douglas Feith, who was the under secretary for policy, told Stephen J. Hadley, the deputy national security adviser at the time, and I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, that there were “fundamental problems with how the intelligence community is assessing information.”

The 121-page report, which had been summarized at a Congressional hearing in February by the acting inspector general, Thomas Gimble, was released Thursday by Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

By coincidence, it appeared on the day Vice President Cheney again drew a link between the war and Al Qaeda, telling the radio host Rush Limbaugh that “to advocate withdrawal from Iraq at this point seems to me simply would play right into the hands of Al Qaeda.”

Mr. Gimble’s report drew a direct connection between a briefing at the White House on Sept. 16, 2002, and public comments Mr. Cheney made in the days leading to the war four years ago. The criticism of the intelligence community is one of several on a slide used in that briefing.

Inclusion of the slide, which was omitted from an earlier briefing with George Tenet, who was director of central intelligence, “clearly did not bolster support for the intelligence community,” Mr. Gimble wrote.

Mr. Levin, in a statement Thursday, said the analysis from Mr. Feith’s office “was not supported by available intelligence and was contrary to the consensus view of the intelligence community,” yet was “used by the administration to support its public arguments in its case for war.”

The slide used by the Pentagon analysts to brief the White House officials states the intelligence agencies assumed “that secularists and Islamists will not cooperate, even when they have common interests,” and there was “consistent underestimation of importance that would be attached by Iraq and Al Qaeda to hiding a relationship.”

The Pentagon, in written comments included in the report, strongly disputed that the White House briefing and the slide citing “Fundamental Problems” undercut the intelligence community.

“The intelligence community was fully aware of the work under review and commented on it several times,” the Pentagon said, adding that Mr. Tenet, at the suggestion of the defense secretary then, Donald H. Rumsfeld, “was personally briefed.”

Four days after that briefing at the White House, Mr. Cheney referred at fund-raiser to a “well-established pattern of cooperation between Iraq and terrorists.”

And on Dec. 2, he warned in a speech that Mr. Hussein’s government “had high-level contact with Al Qaeda going back a decade and has provided training to Al Qaeda terrorists.” His language mirrored that on a briefing chart titled “Summary of Known Iraq-Al-Qaeda Contacts — 1990-2002.”

Mr. Gimble noted that Mr. Cheney, in an interview in January 2004, praised a memo compiled by the Pentagon analysts that was cited in the conservative magazine Weekly Standard as “your best source of information” on the purported link.

The analysts’ appraisal of the intelligence community was in contrast to that of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in its 2004 report on prewar intelligence. That committee praised the C.I.A.’s approach to assessing a possible link between Mr. Hussein and Al Qaeda as a “methodical approach for assessing a possible Iraq/Al Qaeda relationship” that was “reasonable and objective,” Mr. Gimble wrote.

Mr. Levin also pointed out, “The report specifically states that ‘the C.I.A. and D.I.A. disavowed any “mature, symbiotic” relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.’ ”

The Pentagon policy offices set up by Mr. Feith have been abolished, and he has left the Pentagon and is writing a book on the war. Mr. Gimble said the establishment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence should prevent similar inappropriate conduct.

You tell me: do these even sound like the same story? The ABC piece has a simple, declarative headline that, as good headlines do, accurately summarized the piece. The NYT headline, by contrast, almost seems designed not to say what the article is about. What is “Hussein-Qaeda link?” In what context was it “‘inappropriate’?” And what is the “report” about?

And what about the novel use of that word, “inappropriate”? I have heard of inappropriate behavior, but never an inappropriate analysis. How about “erroneous” or “biased”? It’s almost as if Bloomberg went hunting through the report to find the least damning word it contained, and highlighted it.

The Bloomberg recitation also makes it sound as if the Pentagon’s criticism of the CIA reports was a bottom’s up affair, when it was clear that Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted a critical report generated. It’s also noteworthy that this story is muddled and hard to follow, another sign of evasive reporting.

I could go on, but you get the idea….

For those who want another type of example, visit this post on Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality With Both Hands, where he features a comment by Ezra Klein on an op-ed piece in the LA Times that, citing a study, argued that extending health care to the uninsured would not improve health outcomes. Klein goes to the study itself, and it says the reverse. Now of course, op-ed articles are supposed to be partisan, and distortions in op-ed commentary are less disturbing than those in news reporting. Nevertheless, one expects them to be subject to some level of fact-checking (unless, of course, they ren in the Wall Street Journal)

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