In the world’s newsrooms, truth is particularly vulnerable in times of war. Indeed, it is often said to be the first casualty. Historically, the media have deceived their audience on behalf of their own side, of which offense the New York Times’ reporter Judith Miller stands accused, even if unintentionally.
The Times forced Miller’s resignation for depending too heavily on flawed intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War. “Judy’s stories about WMD fit too perfectly with the White House’s case for war,” griped back-stabbing colleague Maureen Dowd in a column that hastened Miller’s departure.
In a pattern that started in Vietnam, however, American media have all too often used deceit to undermine America’s own efforts. At the New York Times, there seems to be no penalty for so doing, and nowhere is this more evident than in the disparate treatment of reporters involved in the Joseph Wilson-Valerie Plame case: Judith Miller, who protected the identity of her White House source on Plame’s identity through an 85-day jail stay; and Nicholas Kristof, who surely knew Plame’s identity weeks before Miller did.
Less than a month after the toppling of Saddam, former ambassador Wilson was doing his best to undercut any sense of triumph the American military and its commander in chief may have felt. And a willing – nay, complicit – media was exploiting his indiscretion.
Wikipedia, the always-current online encyclopedia, traces the beginning of Wilson’s disinformation campaign to May 3, 2003: “Wilson, Plame and Kristof meet for breakfast. Wilson tells Kristof about his trip to Niger, on the condition that Kristof not name Wilson as his source.” “Kristof” is Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times reporter. Plame, of course, is Wilson’s wife Valerie, a WMD specialist at the CIA. If Wikipedia is accurate, Wilson almost assuredly revealed the identity of his wife to Kristof long before Miller knew. As previously reported, Wikipedia cites as source a flattering article on the Wilsons written by Vicky Ward for Vanity Fair magazine. Kristof has yet to respond to my e-mails asking for clarification.
Although Kristof is typically referred to as “a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist,” he launched the Wilson-Niger story in a smarmy, know-it-all May 6, 2003, op-ed piece that would have seemed more at home in the Village Voice than in the New York Times, especially given the uncertainty of the situation in Iraq just weeks after the capture of Baghdad.
In the piece, Kristof offers his fervent hope that the military finds “an Iraqi superdome” filled with the various WMDs that the Iraqis were alleged to have. Adds Kristof with ill-disguised contempt, “I don’t want to believe that top administration officials tried to win support for the war with a campaign of wholesale deceit.” As his tone suggests, the last thing Kristof hoped the U.S. would find is a major cache of WMDs. Just four weeks after the fall of Baghdad, he was already insinuating “wholesale deceit.”
Wilson played right into Kristof’s hands. Here is how Kristof would report his conversation with Wilson in that same column three days after their breakfast meeting:
I’m told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president’s office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the CIA and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.
As is now well established, this reporting is false on several different levels. Wilson never told the CIA that the information was “unequivocally wrong” and the documents in question were not forged. Eight months after Wilson’s trip, French intelligence, using an Italian journalist as a cut-out, apparently slipped a set of forged documents into the mix to discredit the case for war in Iraq. Wilson never saw these forged documents, nor even the original, legitimate documents that prompted his trip.
Although Kristof could have broken Wilson’s story with five minutes of online fact checking, he has faced none of the internal criticism that drove Miller from the Times. Wilson was an open book. A bitter Al Gore partisan, he had been a public critic of the Bush administration’s war plans for a year before approaching Kristof. He was not shy about expressing his opinions, and these opinions were quickly changing over time.
Had he bothered to look, Kristof would have learned that Wilson’s trip to Niger had not proved to him the emptiness of Saddam’s WMD boasts. Not at all. When Wilson first put his anti-war sentiments in writing for the San Jose Mercury News on Oct. 13, 2002 – eight months after his trip to Niger – he argued that threatening to oust Saddam “will ensure that Saddam will use every weapon in his arsenal to defend himself.” By every weapon, of course, Wilson meant the soon-to-be mocked WMDs. “As the just-released CIA report suggests,” Wilson continues, “when cornered, Saddam is very likely to fight dirty.”
The CIA had published the report in question – titled “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction” – just two weeks earlier. “Iraq [has been] vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake,” reads the report. “Acquiring either would shorten the time to produce nuclear weapons.” Plame was a WMD specialist at the CIA. Her husband’s trip eight months earlier had obviously failed to persuade Plame and her colleagues that Iraq was not seeking yellowcake. She could have easily shared this fact with Wilson and Kristof over breakfast or elsewhere.
The CIA report and Wilson’s article were entirely accessible to Kristof. If Wilson had proved the information “unequivocally wrong,” as Kristof would write, why were he and the WMD team at the CIA still fretting about Iraq’s WMDs and its pursuit of yellowcake eight months later. In repeating Wilson’s story in May 2003, Kristof was proving himself either a knowing propagandist or a negligent reporter. Neither alternative is attractive.
In June 2003, Wilson continued his disinformation campaign with the equally complicit Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. Here is how Pincus reported the story on June 12, 2003:
During his trip, the CIA’s envoy spoke with the president of Niger and other Niger officials mentioned as being involved in the Iraqi effort, some of whose signatures purportedly appeared on the documents.
After returning to the United States, the envoy reported to the CIA that the uranium-purchase story was false, the sources said. Among the envoy’s conclusions was that the documents may have been forged because the “dates were wrong and the names were wrong,” the former U.S. government official said.
Pincus, like Kristof, could also have broken Wilson’s story with five minutes of online research, but he chose not to. He, too, obviously liked the drift of Wilson’s lament. To complicate matters, his wife Ann Pincus hailed from Little Rock, served as a Clinton appointee to the U.S. Information Agency, and was then transferred to the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, another key player in the WMD saga.
Wilson’s fabrications, which he also shared with the New Republic in June 2003, seemed to have caught up with him in July 2004. At that time Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post, among others, wrote an article based on an addendum to a report produced by the Senate Intelligence Committee. A critical portion of the Senate addendum refers directly to the Pincus article and reads:
Committee staff asked how the former ambassador could have come to the conclusion that the “dates were wrong and the names were wrong” when he had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports.
According to the Senate report, Wilson admitted to the senators that he had “misspoken” to the reporters. The Schmidt article, in particular, caused Wilson some major loss of face, and he has used the paperback preface of his book, “The Politics of Truth,” to rehabilitate himself.
Wilson spends a full page of the preface attacking Schmidt. Like most daily news, the Schmidt piece was imperfect. Her worst sin was to refer to an addendum written by Senate committee chair Pat Roberts and two other Republican senators as the “bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report.” This “sloppy” reporting outraged Wilson. He chides her for allegedly having been cozy with Ken Starr and echoes a blogger’s reference to Schmidt as “Mikey” of Life Cereal fame “for her willingness to consume Republican tales without critical reflection.”
In the preface, Wilson implies that the fuss about his credibility centered on the “possible impression that I had claimed to have seen [the forged documents].” He traces this impression to a “badly worded reference” in the original Kristof article, and he assures the readers that he “called Kristof the day the article appeared to remind him that I had never seen the documents.”
As will become obvious, Wilson uses the word “seen” like Clinton used the word “sex,” a word to be danced around.
If Wilson called Kristof to dispel the impression of his having seen the documents, it is hard to understand why he soon would leave the same impression with Pincus and New Republic writers John Judis and Spencer Ackerman.
In their June 30, 2003, piece, “The Selling of the Iraq War: The First Casualty,” Judis and Ackerman are led even further from the truth than were Kristof or Pincus. “[Wilson] returned after a visit to Niger in February 2002 and reported to the State Department and the CIA that the documents were forgeries,” write the authors. “The CIA circulated the ambassador’s report to the vice president’s office, the ambassador confirms to TNR.” Again, Wilson did not debunk the forgeries – they did not exist yet – and he had no reason to believe that the vice president or his office had received his report. For that matter, he never wrote a report.
After being chastised by Pat Roberts and his Senate colleagues in the summer of 2004, Wilson turned to the most authoritative of his backers, the New York Times, and its always reliable, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Nicholas Kristof. Wilson secured an e-mail from Kristof to help firm up his account.
Kristof claims to have been “driving through red states” when he received Wilson’s e-mail in Salt Lake City. This presumably accounts for the faulty punctuation that Wilson insists on capturing in Kristof’s response:
don’t worry, i remember you saying that you had not seen the documents. my recollection is that we had some information about the documents at that time – e.g. the names of the people in them – but i do clearly remember you saying that you had not been shown them.
If this particular detail was so critical that Kristof could remember it “clearly” more than a year later, why did he not qualify Wilson’s comments in his original op-ed piece? In fact, he did just the opposite. In writing that the Niger yellowcake information was “unequivocally wrong” and that “the documents had been forged,” Kristof leaves the distinct impression that Wilson must have seen them. His use of the word “recollection” here should be something of a red flag. In providing an alibi for Wilson, he allows a legal escape clause for himself.
The disparate treatment of Miller and Kristof follows something of an historic pattern at the Times. In his otherwise absurd memoir, “Burning Down My Masters’ House,” disgraced Times reporter Jayson Blair does make one compelling point. How is it, he asks, that his mischief is considered “a low point” in the paper’s history when truly destructive Times’ luminaries like Walter Duranty and Herbert Matthews have gone unpunished?
Blair first encountered Walter Duranty when he toured the New York Times during an internship. He found Duranty’s gold-framed photo in the Times’ hallowed hall of Pulitzer winners on the 11th floor. All that distinguished Duranty from his fellow honorees was an asterisk beneath his picture and a disclaimer: “Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage.” The disclaimer was in small type. The headlines would be reserved for Blair.
For the record, Duranty almost single-handedly concealed one of the 20th century’s most egregious holocausts, the Soviet terror-famine that killed some 7 million innocent people, most of them Ukrainian farm families. Herbert Matthews merely rescued Fidel Castro from obscurity with a series of exclusive articles assuring the world that Castro was a democrat and an anti-communist with a “new deal” for Cuba.
“In the end-justifies-the-means environment I worked in,” writes disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair in his memoir, “Burning Down My Masters’ House,” “I had grown accustomed to lying.”
At the Times at least, the “end” that Kristof pursued – the discrediting of George Bush – made his “means” much more palatable.