the shame of the press

Imagine that the entertainment sections of the NYT, the Washington Post, and the LA Times had all devoted most of their coverage to the choice of Jessica Simpson as best actress in the run up to the Oscars. Suppose that they did this in spite of the fact that there was abundant evidence that Jessica Simpson was not considered even an outlying candidate for best actress by insiders. Suppose that she got not a single vote.

If this had happened, it would be a major media scandal. There would be questions about the honesty of the critics involved, and whether there had been some kind of quid pro quo with Simpson’s PR people, or some studio. Certainly there would be, at least, some comment to explain the bizarre behavior of the critics.

Now consider the Iraqi elections. Again. The results are now, semi-officially, in. In the run up to the election, did we have American papers running big profiles of, say, Abdul Aziz Hakim? He is the head of SCIRI. Or how about Ibrahim Jaafari? The head of Dawa. No. As has been the case for three years, the overwhelming amount of media in this country went to … Ahmed Chalabi. A man whose party did not earn enough votes to even give him a seat in the Iraqi parliament. Enter Chalabi’s name in the Factiva database, and you get 27, 925 entries. Enter Hakim’s name in the database, you get 1232 entries. The 27 to 1 disproportion between the man who couldn’t even gain a seat with the votes of the exiles and the man who the Washington Post calls “the most powerful Shiite politician” is an accurate reflection of the delusiveness of the media, which not only bought the Bush administration’s illusions and lies at the beginning of the war but has added to it their own so that Americans trying to understand what is happening in Iraq have as much chance of getting good information from, say, the U.S. Defense department – which is, remember, run by the worst and most mendacious Secretary of Defense in our history, and staffed with his appointees -- as from the NYT.

Let’s take a look, for comedy’s sake, at Dexter Filkins, the NYT’s Iraq reporter who is bad enough to surely merit some kindly nickname by our prez. Here, before the elections, is a typical Filkins lede. On December 12, 2005, under the headline, Boys of Baghdad College Vie for Prime Minister, Filkins wrote:

“The three Iraqi political leaders considered most likely to end up as prime minister after nationwide elections this week -- Ayad Allawi, Ahmad Chalabi and Adel Abdul Mahdi -- were schoolmates at the all-boys English-language school in the late 1950's, fortunate members of the Baghdad elite that governed Iraq until successive waves of revolution and terror swept it away.”

Imagine someone including, in a story about the three most likely Democratic presidential candidates, the name Dennis Kucenich. You get the picture. Filkins is the clown prince of the Iraqi reporting team for the NYT. Edward Wong is a better reporter – one doesn’t feel like he takes massive doses of acid before he files his stories. But his story before the election, with the headline Iraq’s Powerful Shiite Coalition shows Signs of Stress before the Election (9 December) goes on for ten grafs before we get the inevitable:

“This time, though, the rivalries have grown more heated and the potential for an irreparable split is greater, Iraqi and Western officials say. Many coalition members have broken away and started their own parties, and there has been a palpable drop in support among moderate voters and the leading ayatollahs, who are disenchanted with the performance of the current Shiite government.

“A fracturing of the conservative coalition could set the conditions for a realignment of Iraq's political spectrum, creating an opening for a more secular Shiite candidate like the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, or even Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite, to assemble enough allies to claim the top spot in the new government.”

On November 30, 2005, ABC’s Nightline did its duty to inform its audience of the impending election in Iraq by doing a whole show entitled: “THE POWER BROKER A LOOK AT AHMED CHALABI.” Of course, the advantage of this is you don’t have to hire a translator – translating is so boring on TV, and it might give the viewing audience the idea that Iraqis don’t normally speak English.

Here is a typical snippet from that show:
(OC) Terry, you've been spending lots of time with one of the more controversial and powerful figures in Iraq. And you have his story tonight.
(OC) Ahmed Chalabi, Cynthia. He is quite a character. He was in exile from this country for more than 40 years. Saddam Hussein's archenemy. He's now a candidate. It is election season here. You sense it in the air. People talk about it in cafes. There's posters and banners. And Chalabi wants to run the country he left for 40 years. No matter what you think of him, he's a man to be reckoned with.
(VO) There is no one else in Iraq like him. And that may be a good thing. Ahmed Chalabi is the canniest, wiliest, most effective, most elusive political player in the new Iraq. And he just might be the man best-positioned to help the US achieve its goal of a stable, secular, democratic government here. Or maybe not. You never know what Ahmed Chalabi could do next.”

Actually, to give a little credit where credit is due, John Burns, the pro-war NYT correspondent, did appear and say reasonable things on the Charlie Rose show – things that were entirely unreflected in the coverage of the election by his paper:

“CHARLIE ROSE: How does the election look today, and how do you measure that this new parliament or assembly, whatever they`re going to call it, might elect Chalabi?
JOHN BURNS: No, I don`t think. Personally, I don`t think that there`s the remotest chance of that. Mr. Chalabi`s party, I would think, would be lucky to get two seats.
What he will do with those two seats and with his own good self after that I don`t know. He envisages himself as a compromise candidate for prime minister. I think that`s probably beyond the reach of even so canny a politician as Mr. Chalabi.
I think that this election is likely to produce an unsurprising result. I think we`ve seen it before.”

The Washington Post, meanwhile, focused on an unlikely pro-Israel candidate running in Basra (wow, how about that for giving us a feeling about the country) and unleashed their no. 1 Iraqi expert and all around Middle Eastern savant – I am talking, of course, about the ever repugnant Sally Quinn – to do a 2000+ word profile of Chalabi on November 17, 2005. Quinn famously did a profile of Chalabi in 2003 in which he the varieties of his silky genius were highlighted, and contrasted, comically, with the boobish Iraqi pols that he brought with them – many didn’t speak English or possess table manners! And the grease in their hair! My how we laughed. 30-50, 000 Iraqi deaths later, we return to this always risible subject.

This is Quinn, speaking with the collective wisdom of D.C.:

“Spending time with Ahmed Chalabi is like disappearing down the rabbit hole. People are either throwing him tea parties or crying "off with his head."

Normally in Washington, people ask not to be identified when they have something negative to say about a person in the news. With Chalabi, it's the opposite. On the heels of his week-long visit to the United States, few want to be quoted by name saying anything positive. Yet suddenly many have positive things to say.
It was only a year and a half ago that his Baghdad office and home were raided and trashed by U.S. and Iraqi forces. He had gone from being the darling of the neo-cons to a pariah. Many thought he was dead politically.

But today he is a strong contender for prime minister in next month's elections, and highly placed sources say he has become the choice of many U.S. officials to lead the country. He has managed to resurrect himself because he is seen as the one person who can get U.S. troops out of Iraq, and Washington is pragmatic enough to recognize that.”

Can one love enough that last sentence? I don’t think so. Quinn is a rare human being: she is the local genius of the Washington Post, the very distillation of its editorial and journalistic attitude. Shameless, hubristic, triumphantly bigoted, privileged, and convinced that insider knowledge = real knowledge. Of course, insider knowledge is really a pack of the delusions and panics that make the governing class at this particular point in time a thing for the angels to both weep and laugh over.

Now, here’s LI’s bet. Our bet is that not once, not once in the next week or month will there be any discussion whatsoever of the curiously distorted coverage of the Iraqi election going into it, and the more than curious inflation of stories about a man whose main achievement seems to be to have gotten to know American journalists. Nobody will ask, why is it that there are not 2,000 word portraits of Hakim in the WP style section? Why isn’t there a series in the NYT, the men who run Iraq? The obvious answer is that the American public can’t bear too much reality – at least, that is what our guardians think. So much better to make up the country of Iraq lock stock and barrel and present it, a steaming pile of horseshit, to the American citizenry – just so we don’t get too worried about what we are sending Americans to die for, or to be head injured for, or to be legless for, or to have their spines broken for, or to be permanently traumatized for.

PS -- LI's correspondent, Mr. T, wrote a note about the above graf:

"I sense from your post that you already read this, but a few free-styled comments:

'Corporal Poole has no memory of the explosion or even the days before it, although he has a recurring dream of being in Iraq and seeing the sky suddenly turn red.'

"He is not competitively employable."

'...people with a brain injury have increased odds of sustaining another one'

I remember a weekend afternoon in late 2003 sitting around drinking with a friend of mine and his brother-in-law - the bro-in-law, F., is a fine guy and very talented doctor who was (still is?) working at a VA hospital as a part of "paying-off" his loans for med school. I flippantly asked how he was doing taking care of our men in uniforms; he quietly said only "So many head injuries." Immediately I felt a vacuous fool; I apologized for my ignorant bluster and asked him what he meant. He meant exactly what he said, elaborating only that he was somewhat troubled (when he had a chance to think about it) by his capacity to retain somatic life: were all of the elaborate and sophisticated capacities that he and his peers had at their disposal really worth it?

We then, with a few more cups in us, started to talk about how lives are lived longer, soldiers who "should" be dead try to live their lives after extreme trauma, manipulation of the genome......this good doctor said this: with every dead patient he feels a failure, but he knows that the ways to die are incalculable; his fear is that he might "interfere" with death at the wrong time."


Patrick J. Mullins said…
Roger-thanks, in particular for pointing out how recently it was that Chalabi was a pariah. I don't notice as many silences about things, but I have not seen in any of the stories about Chalabi in the last few months even a word about the pariah period--I've been astonished even as an amateur reader of journalism how that isn't pointed out every single time. (It must have been some of the time, but I never saw it.)