A Fish Called Kurtz

August 24, 2004
On August 18, 2002, the Washington Post’s ombudsman Michael Getler complained about the Post’s war mongering. On August 22, 2004, the Washington Post’s media critic Howard Kurtz complained about readers complaining about the Post’s war mongering. Such is progress in the heart of media darkness in downtown D.C.

In the movie “A Fish Called Wanda” a character struggles to say “I’m sorry,” resorting to meditation in his fruitless attempt to get those syllables to pass his lips. I have reason to believe that the actor was secretly coached by Howard Kurtz, a claim the Washington Post should now be trumpeting on its front page, because it would be very hard for Kurtz to prove he was not involved. That would be proving a negative, the inability to do which justifies all reckless reporting according to Kurtz’s reasoning.

Of course I’m not the occupant of the White House, so my wacky claims don’t go onto the front page until someone can prove a negative. I’m expected, in fact, as a mere human, to prove a positive before being taken seriously. Why the Post can’t hold everyone to that standard is a question Kurtz does not address.

In fairness, Getler didn’t address it either. His concern two years ago was that certain big shots in the administration and the military were having doubts about the proposed war which the Post was not reporting, and that the result of the war could “be devastating if weapons of mass destruction are unleashed by a dictator who knows he is going down, or if he slips some of those weapons to terrorist groups who can deliver them in different ways at later dates against this country.”

That sounds more like fear mongering than noble but failed attempts to prove that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.

The notion that George W. Bush should have to prove the existence of an imminent danger before launching a war hasn’t even occurred to the Post’s pseudo-critics. If that were the standard, of course, not many wars would ever get fought. As Bush himself says, “once it’s imminent it’s too late.”

Kurtz claims that the Post has no point of view, that as in philosopher Thomas Nagel’s incoherent fantasy, the Post takes the “view from nowhere.” This pretense is bad enough when it leads to equal coverage of, on the one hand, Bush administration lies and, on the other, documented detailed explanations of why the opposite is true, without any attempt by the Post to determine what the facts are.

But the Post’s stance on the war – in fact the marketing job the Post performed for this lemon – is not a problem of pretended “balance.” Worse, it’s an endless sin of omission. Opposition to the war has almost never made it into print at the Post, not even as one side of a “balanced” article.

Take a look at the Aug. 18, 2002, issue, the same issue in which the ombudsman expressed his solemn doubts. On this same day, the Post ran an editorial and three op-eds about a potential U.S. attack on Iraq, as well as two related articles.

One article, placed on the top of the front page, reported on a memo that “Defense” Secretary Rumsfeld had sent to the White House and the media. “Defense” officials were worried that countries such as Iraq or Iran could use cruise missile technology to attack “U.S. installations or the American homeland.” The article admitted that “no particular piece of new intelligence prompted the warning.” The fact that this fear was ludicrous, to borrow a term from Kurtz, went unmentioned.

The second Post article on Aug. 18, 2002, urged Bush to hurry up and argue for an attack on Iraq before opponents of such an attack raised their voices too loudly. The headline was, “White House Push for Iraqi Strike Is On Hold: Waiting to Make Case for Action Allows Invasion Opponents to Dominate Debate.” While the article did touch ever so slightly on some of the opponents’ arguments, it mainly focused on arguments about how best to persuade the American public and European politicians to support a war. Invasion opponents never dominated any debate in the pages of the Post.

The Post’s editorial also urged the White House to make its case for war, and advised it to do so on the grounds that Hussein had refused to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. That fact, and a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Hussein rid himself of such weapons, the Post said, tended to make the proposed war “legitimate.” By some coincidence – to credit Kurtz’s tales of walls of separation – this editorial fit seamlessly with the two articles on the same topic.

But is a demand by the U.N. Security Council really a good enough excuse to bomb people? What, after all, had the United States done to promote peace? We’d deprived Iraqis of drinkable water and otherwise driven them to illness and death through malnutrition and disease. We’d abandoned those who’d assisted in the previous war. We’d sent spies to Iraq under the guise of weapons inspectors. We’d recalled our actual weapons inspectors and then claimed falsely that Hussein had kicked them out. We’d maintained troops throughout the region in proximity to religious sites. And we’d labeled the nation of Iraq “evil.” Not only were various weapons inspectors, Congress Members, and former spies shouting that there were no weapons, but some were making the case that our whole policy in the Middle East was counterproductive. The Post maintained a careful obliviousness to all such information.

The best of the Post’s three columns on Aug. 18, 2002, David Broder’s, questioned the accuracy of CIA information on Iraq, briefly mentioned a few concerns, and then joined the chorus urging Bush to make his case so the war could start.

The worst of the op-eds — which was placed at the top center of the page and illustrated by a clenched fist with an Uncle Sam sleeve pounding on a map of Iraq — was by former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. The title was “If We Must Fight

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