Reading Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public by Helen Thomas, it’s tempting to get swept up in her eyewitness accounts of history (really!). But then you reach a passage on the current Bush administration that is so full of inaccuracies, and you come back down to earth and start to wonder whether you can take any of Thomas’s stories at face value.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. In her chapter on press secretaries, Thomas writes:
In the long run-up to the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, [former press secretary Ari] Fleisher intoned repeatedly from the podium “9/11-Saddam Hussein,” a significant staple dating back to World War II. Repetition is the key marker of falsehoods.
Thomas should know. She repeats the falsehood that the administration blamed Saddam for 9/11 several times throughout the book. That’s one key marker that her analysis shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Fleisher never said Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, but it should come as no surprise that he would mention both in the same statement. The 9/11 attacks were a key justification for the invasion of Iraq because they demonstrated the danger of allowing regimes with ties to terrorism to pursue weapons of mass destruction.
Thomas omits another inconvenient fact: If the administration’s goal was to convince the public that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, it did a very poor job. CNN took a poll right after Sept. 11th that showed that 78 percent of Americans believed that it was at least somewhat likely that Saddam Hussein was involved. CNN asked the same question in March of 2003. This time, only 51 percent thought that Saddam Hussein played a role. Fleisher’s “repetition” of the “falsehood” — a falsehood he never told — resulted in a 30-percent decrease in the number of Americans who believed Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11.
Neither is Thomas entirely truthful about Joe Wilson and his prewar intelligence claims. In a chapter on “heroic leakers,” she writes:
During the summer of 2003, someone decided to reveal to reporters that former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife was an undercover CIA agent. Wilson had been a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s reasons for waging war on Iraq, discrediting the administration’s assertion that Iraq had bought yellowcake uranium from Africa.
Wilson attacked the administration’s credibility, but he did not discredit anything. Although he (and Thomas) implied otherwise, the administration never claimed that Iraq actually bought yellowcake from Africa. Bush only said that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from Africa — an assertion which held up rather well.
In a chapter ironically titled “Spinning the News,” Thomas spins the facts about a June 28, 2005 speech Bush gave at Fort Bragg, North Carolina:
In the speech before seven hundred or so in the U.S. army stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the president’s “stay the course” words didn’t elicit much of a response from those watching their commander in chief in person – so Bush’s advance team initiated applause for the televised event.
But an exchange at the next day’s White House press briefing clarified the matter. A reporter asked then-press secretary Scott McClellan:
A Bragg PAO told me that the White House had left somewhat ambiguous how the troops should comport themselves during the speech last night, that he didn’t want a big pep rally with the rousing hooahs that you always get at most of these base speeches. But then, at the same time, you weren’t really expecting that there wouldn’t be any applause, and that the person who went up to instruct the troops on protocol sort of overinterpreted what the White House was looking for. Is that a fair assessment?
The troops didn’t applaud because they had been instructed not to. The White House staff instigated one round of applause because the person who instructed the troops not to cheer went overboard. This exchange took place during the White House briefing, which Thomas regularly attends.
Besides the multiple instances in which Thomas distorts the truth in order to make her arguments, Watchdogs of Democracy? also suffers from Thomas’s exaggerations about the so-called “obsequious press during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.” In the chapter “Lapdogs of the Press,” she makes roughly the same accusations that Eric Boehlert made in his book Lapdogs, which I’ve written about before. According to their logic, the press should have given Saddam the benefit of the doubt when he told inspectors he had given up his desires to obtain WMDs.
Thomas writes that in the run-up to the war in Iraq, reporters should have asked questions more “tough questions” like the ones she asked. She is not too modest to provide some examples:
Helen: Does he know of any connection with the current fight against terrorism by Iraq? Does he have any evidence?
Ari: Well, when the President referred to the axis of evil, and identified North Korea, Iran and Iraq, what the President was referring to is their – not only their support of terrorism, which is plain – they are on the State Department list of terrorist states – but also their development of weapons of mass destruction, their willingness in the case of several of those nations to export technology and material and provide weapons of mass destruction. And the President does fear the marrying of any of these nations with terrorist organizations.
Helen: Well, we have weapons of mass destruction and we don’t permit any inspection.
Ari: Helen, if you’re suggesting that there’s a moral equivalence between the United States’ success in keeping the peace for 60 years with our weapons and the actions of terrorists, I would urge you to reexamine that premise. I see no moral equivalence.
Helen: At the earlier briefing, Ari, you said that the President deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world? And I have a follow-up.
Ari: I refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack on Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. And the President, as he said in his statement yesterday, deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.
Helen: My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?
Thomas doesn’t seem to realize that by including such examples, she weakens her own argument. No matter what Saddam’s actual weapons capabilities were, few doubted he wanted to acquire them, and fewer still saw any similarities between Israel having weapons and a regime like Saddam’s having them.
All these distortions and exaggerations would be harmless enough if journalists weren’t actually taking them seriously. Unfortunately, the press has experienced a classic overcorrection in an effort to shake the “lapdog” charge. The result, as the late Casper Weinberger and Wynton C. Hall point out in their new book Home of the Brave: Honoring the Unsung Heroes in the War on Terror, is a press that has covered the war in a relentlessly negative way for the past three years.
At times as I was reading Watchdogs, I must confess that I found Thomas’s anecdotes from past administrations interesting and funny. But her passages about the current administration were so inaccurate, it made me highly skeptical about everything else in the book. It made me think of one of the many clichés Thomas uses liberally: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Especially if your mother is Helen Thomas.
– Stephen Spruiell reports for National Review Online’s Media Blog.