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Caveat lector

THERE THEY GO AGAIN! The press corps has made up its mind on Iraq. Result? Basic facts will be mangled:

TUESDAY, JULY 15, 2003

THERE THEY GO AGAIN: It isn’t hard to state the Bush Admin’s case about that uranium-from-Africa statement. According to the Admin, Bush’s “sixteen words” were based on British intelligence—and British intelligence still believes that Bush’s statement is accurate. According to the Bush Admin, it may turn out that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from an African country. We don’t know if this is true. But this is what the Bush Admin has said.

No, the case isn’t complex, or hard to state. But the Washington press corps has turned hard against Bush in the matter of uranium-from-Africa. And there they go again, dear readers! At present, many journalists are bungling the facts, in a way which harms Bush, when they discuss this hot topic.

Consider this morning’s page-one lead article in the Washington Post. If you read all the way to paragraph 15 (out of 24), you learn that Bushies say that those “sixteen words” may turn out to be accurate:

PRIEST AND MILBANK (pgh 15): Bush aides have argued in recent days that the statement may, in fact, prove to be correct. Officials said Sunday the British had sources other than the forged documents, but they have declined to reveal them.
And if you read all the way to paragraph 21, you learn that Bush’s controversial statement did not refer just to Niger:
PRIEST AND MILBANK (pgh 21): Fleischer said yesterday…that while the line cut from the October speech was based on the Niger allegations, he said the State of the Union claim was based on “additional reporting from the CIA, separate and apart from Niger, naming other countries where they believed it was possible that Saddam was seeking uranium.”
But these key facts are obscured all through the Post piece, right from the opening paragraph. Here’s how the piece begins:
PRIEST AND MILBANK (pgh 1): President Bush yesterday defended the “darn good” intelligence he receives, continuing to stand behind a disputed allegation about Iraq’s nuclear ambitions as new evidence surfaced indicating the administration had early warning that the charge could be false.
But what “new evidence” do the writers mean? What new evidence suggests that the Admin had early warning that the uranium-from-Africa claim could be false? Uh-oh! Priest and Milbank cite yet another 2002 mission to Niger, in which General Carlton Pulford concluded “that Iraq probably could not acquire nuclear material from Niger” (our emphasis). Of course, since the Bushies have said that the SOTU statement refers to other countries as well as Niger, Pulford’s report—even if believed—doesn’t contradict Bush’s speech. But in this article, that point is obscured right from the start. A reader has to work very hard to dig that info out of this article.

Indeed, all over the press corps, reporters are now mysteriously failing to get the point the Admin made this weekend. In particular, many scribes are conflating the earlier uranium-from-Niger report with the later uranium-from-one-of-several-countries claim—the claim which the Brits still affirm. Last night, Chris Matthews conflated these claims on Hardball; Jim Angle even conflated the claims on last night’s Special Report. But the most striking conflation is found in the lead of Nicholas Kristof’s column this morning:

KRISTOF (pgh 1): After I wrote a month ago about the Niger uranium hoax in the State of the Union address, a senior White House official chided me gently and explained that there was more to the story that I didn’t know.
Apparently, there’s a great deal to this story that Kristof doesn’t know, like what the Bush Admin said all weekend. Did Bush’s statement constitute a “Niger uranium hoax?” All weekend long, major spokesmen explained that Bush’s statement concerned nations other than Niger. But legions of scribes don’t seem to have heard. Kristof is just one of many.

For the record, Kristof pushes this point very hard. He persistently implies that Bush’s statement was a reference to Niger only. “[T]he White House, eager to spice up the State of the Union address, recklessly resurrected the discredited Niger tidbit,” he says. And he never reports what the Admin has actually said—that the statement referred to other countries. Kristof complains about the Administration’s “dishonesty and delusion,” and he calls the Bush statement a “falsehood.” But given his column’s shaping of facts, he may have a slight problem himself.

What is happening here? In the case of individual scribes, we can’t tell you, but in the aggregate, this pattern is familiar. To all appearances, the press corps has reached an overall judgment—the Bush Admin spun the intelligence on Iraq. That overall judgment may well be true. But as you know, when the press corps reaches an overall judgment, they often start looking for easy-to-tell stories to illustrate their global belief. If they have to change or make up facts, all too often they’re willing to do it. In this case, the Washington press corps has clearly decided that the Bush Admin mistreated intelligence. And, as they have done many times in the past, they seem to be massaging some basic facts to convince you of that global conclusion.

Given all the Bush presentations this weeknd, Kristof’s column is very strange. But then, all across the Washington press corps, reporters suddenly seem unable to grasp simple facts about this still-murky story. Did Saddam seek uranium in African countries? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know. But we do know what the Bush Admin has said, and we know that the press corps is fudging their statement. But there they go again, dear readers! The Washington press corps is fudging the facts. Let’s face it: It’s the thing they do best.

HOWLER HISTORY—HOW THESE THINGS WORK: How does this press corps phenomenon work? Consider the origins of the idiotic but history-changing claim that Al Gore said he inspired Love Story.

By the spring of 1997, the Washington press corps had come to believe that Al Gore got dirty in service to Clinton. This belief was based on two high-profile stories—the Buddhist Temple luncheon (which hit the press in October 1996), and the story of Gore’s fund-raising phone calls (reported in March 1997). The press corps bungled basic facts of those stories for years, but by the spring of 1997, the stories had convinced the press that Gore had a troubling character problem. Result? On March 9, 1997, Roger Simon wrote a punishing piece in the Post “Outlook” section. Headline: “Gore’s Aura of Integrity Looks a Little Grimy.” Here’s an example of the consummate bullshit Simon now started to spread:

SIMON: Gore is, in fact, one of the great examples of political reconstructive surgery. He started out in 1987 being lampooned in Doonesbury as “Prince Albert,” someone who grew up in what is now Washington’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel but affected the folksy Southern mannerisms of Tennessee. An image mild compared to his next one: Mr. Mean. Gore was the meanest Democrat in the 1988 presidential primaries. It was Al Gore, not Lee Atwater, who first used Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis.
As of March 9, we were off to the races. Gore grew up in a fancy hotel (note that Simon worked in the name “Ritz-Carlton,” although the place wasn’t the Ritz, and wasn’t fancy, when the Gores actually lived there). And Simon said that Gore had “used Willie Horton against Dukakis,” a tortured but punishing account of the facts. These spin-points were RNC wet dreams, of course, but they now were put into service to convince you of Gore’s troubling character. Two months later, a Tucker Carlson attack piece, “The Real Al Gore,” appeared in the Weekly Standard. According to Carlson’s fevered fulminations, Gore was “shiftier and more disingenuous…than just about anybody currently in national office.” Of course, Carlson was shifty and disingenuous himself, even including a nasty, utterly bogus story designed to make it seem that Gore had lied when he said he was at his sister’s deathbed. Was there anything Carlson wouldn’t do and say, now that Gore had become a prime target? Apparently not. Even when this nasty tale was contradicted, he penned a shifty, disingenuous “reply,” refusing to retract his screaming misstatements. But the press corps’ attack on Gore had begun, and it didn’t end until the corps had placed George W. Bush in the White House.

Love Story followed in short order. The ludicrous story was brought to life by in a trio of New York Times op-ed columns penned by Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich. Yes, they had the basic facts wrong, a matter the press would obscure for three years. But in his punishing (and inaccurate) 12/16/97 column, Rich made it clear that this mindless story was a proxy for larger concerns:

RICH: What gives Mr. Gore’s trivial fib about “Love Story” resonance was his handling of it after it was published in Time magazine. Disingenuousness, not stiffness, is his real character problem, and it cannot be solved by another Letterman appearance or all the macarena shtick in creation…

This, alas, is the same prevaricating Al Gore who hid behind the phrase “no controlling legal authority” in a press conference to deny funny-money improprieties…

There was more, but you get the picture. Love Story gave us a look at “the same prevaricating Al Gore” Rich thought he saw in that fund-raising story. A stupid tale had now been invented to help us see that “prevaricating Gore.”

Unfortunately, Gore wasn’t prevaricating or uttering fibs about Love Story. And author Erich Segal had not “privately corrected Mr. Gore on the facts,” as Rich mistakenly claimed in his column. But the press corps began retelling this tale as soon as Gore began his run for the White House—and they didn’t stop telling the tale for two years. Given the role it played in Campaign 2000, it would take a fool to fail to see that it may have put Bush in the White House.

Yes, Virginia: When your press corps reaches an overall judgment, they will invent facts to convince you they’re right. It’s hard to believe that they do things this way, but that is the way this gang functions. Almost surely, that’s why many scribes are getting this “Niger uranium hoax” confused in the way we’ve described. Make no mistake: The use of intelligence on Iraq is a serious story, worthy of extended study. But the press corps seems to have made up its mind—and from now on, it will spin many facts.

FOR THE RECORD: Back in November 1997, Time’s Karen Tumulty actually heard Gore’s fleeting Love Story comment. Here’s what she had to say—three years later—about press corps spinners like Rich:

TUMULTY (9/7/00): I was sort of appalled to see the way it played in the media. I mean, it was an offhand comment made during a two-and-a-half hour conversation that was mostly about other things and it was a comment that was, you know, true in most respects. I mean, he was a model, Erich Segal said, for the preppy character in Love Story, and it had been reported in Tennessee newspapers that it was modeled on both of them [Gore and his wife]…The degree to which it became a symbol of the man’s integrity I thought was very unfair. And I say that as the person to whom he made the comment.
In fact, Tumulty never identified anything Gore said about Love Story that was actually inaccurate. But by the time Tumulty made this statement, Gore had been pummeled for this nonsense for three solid years. Make no mistake—the Washington press corps does invent stories to convince you of their group beliefs. Whatever you think about Bush-and-Iraq, prepare to read many mangled facts if the press corps stays hot on this story.