By IAN BURUMA
As a former theater critic, Frank Rich has the perfect credentials for writing an account of the Bush administration, which has done so much to blur the lines between politics and show business. Not that this is a unique phenomenon; think of Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul and master of political fictions, or Ronald Reagan, who often appeared to be genuinely confused about the difference between real life and the movies. Show business has always been an essential part of ruling people, and so is the use of fiction, especially when going to war. What would Hitler have been without his vicious fantasies fed to a hungry public through grand spectacles, radio and film? Closer to home, in 1964, to justify American intervention in Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson used news of an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never took place. What is fascinating about the era of George W. Bush, however, is that the spinmeisters, fake news reporters, photo-op creators, disinformation experts, intelligence manipulators, fictional heroes and public relations men posing as commentators operate in a world where virtual reality has already threatened to eclipse empirical investigation.
Remember that White House aide, quoted by Rich in his introduction, who said that a “judicious study of discernible reality” is “not the way the world really works anymore”? For him, the “reality-based community” of newspapers and broadcasters is old hat, out of touch, even contemptible in “an empire” where “we create our own reality.” This kind of official arrogance is not new, of course, although it is perhaps more common in dictatorships than in democracies. What is disturbing is the way it matches so much else going on in the world: postmodern debunking of objective truth, bloggers and talk radio blowhards driving the media, news organizations being taken over by entertainment corporations and the profusion of ever more sophisticated means to doctor reality.
Rich’s subject is the creation of false reality. “The Greatest Story Ever Sold” is not about policies, or geopolitical analysis. The pros and cons of removing Saddam Hussein by force, the consequences of American military intervention in the Middle East and the threat of Islamist extremism are given scant attention. The author, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, has his liberal views, which are not strikingly original. I happen to agree with him that Karl Rove and George Bush manipulated public fear and wartime patriotism to win elections, and that Dick Cheney and his neocon cheerleaders favored a war in Iraq long before 9/11 “to jump-start a realignment of the Middle East.” Whether Rich is right to say that this has “little or nothing to do with the stateless terrorism of Al Qaeda” is debatable. The neocons may well have believed that an American remake of the Middle East was the best way to tackle terrorism.
They were almost certainly mistaken. But the point of Rich’s fine polemic is that the Bush administration has consistently lied about the reasons for going to war, about the way it was conducted and about the terrible consequences. Whatever the merits of removing a dictator, waging war under false pretenses is highly damaging to a democracy, especially when one of the ostensible aims is to spread democracy to others. If Rich is correct, which I think he is, the Bush administration has given hypocrisy a bad name.
This is how the war was sold: We were told by Dick Cheney in late 2001 that an official Iraqi connection with the 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta was “pretty well confirmed.” In the summer of 2002, Cheney said that Saddam Hussein “continues to pursue a nuclear weapon” and that there was “no doubt” he had “weapons of mass destruction.” The vice president mentioned aluminum tubes (they had been reported on by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller in The New York Times), which Hussein would use “to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.” This uranium, we were told, had been procured by the Iraqis from Niger. President Bush, in October 2002, said, “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
We now know that none of these claims, which together constituted the official reason for unleashing a war, were even remotely true. The later excuses about honest beliefs based on faulty intelligence would have been more convincing if a memo had not surfaced from the British government, quoting the head of British intelligence as saying that the Bush administration had made sure that “the intelligence and facts” about the W.M.D.’s “were being fixed around the policy” of going to war. He said this in July 2002, eight months before the invasion of Iraq. Even without the memo, it has long been clear that some of the United States government’s own analysts had cast severe doubts on the reasons for going to war.
Yet — and this is where Rich is particularly acute — most serious papers published the White House claims on their front pages, and buried any doubts in small news items at the back. Political weeklies with a liberal pedigree, like The New Republic, fell in line with the neoconservative Weekly Standard, stating that the president would be guilty of “surrender in the war on international terrorism” should he fail to make an effort to topple Saddam Hussein. Bob Woodward, the scourge of the Nixon administration, wrote “Bush at War,” a book that seemed to take everything his White House sources told him at face value.
As soon as the fighting began, showbiz kicked in. Already in Afghanistan, the Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer had been given access to the troops to make a television series about American bravery, even as reporters from papers like The Washington Post were kept away from the scene. Then in Iraq, heroic stories, like the brave battle of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, were invented and packaged for the press, and those who pointed out the fakery were denounced as leftist malcontents. President Bush dressed up as Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” and landed on an aircraft carrier for a photo op declaring a great victory. And the press, by and large, took the bait.
How could this have happened? How could some of the best, most fact-checked, most reputable news organizations in the English-speaking world have been so gullible? How can one explain the temporary paralysis of skepticism? This is perhaps the most painful question raised by Rich’s book, since his own newspaper was clearly implicated. An air of intimidation, which hung over the United States like a noxious vapor after 9/11, is part of the explanation. Susan Sontag became a national hate figure just for saying that United States foreign policy might have had something to do with violent anti-Americanism. When John Ashcroft declared to the Senate that people who challenged his highly questionable policies “give ammunition to America’s enemies,” he was simply echoing the ranters and ravers of talk radio. But they are poisonous buffoons. He was the attorney general. No wonder that the mainstream press, after being continuously accused of “liberal bias,” preferred to keep its head down.
Newspaper editors should not have to feel the need to prove their patriotism, or their absence of bias. Their job is to publish what they believe to be true, based on evidence and good judgment. As Rich points out, such journals as The Nation and The New York Review of Books were quicker to see through government shenanigans than the mainstream press. And reporters from Knight Ridder got the story about intelligence fixing right, before The New York Times caught on. “At Knight Ridder,” Rich says, “there was a clearer institutional grasp of the big picture.”
Intimidation is only part of the story, however. The changing nature of gathering and publishing information has made mainstream journalists unusually defensive. That more people than ever are now able to express their views, on radio shows and Web sites, is perhaps a form of democracy, but it has undermined the authority of editors, whose expertise was meant to act as a filter against nonsense or prejudice. And the deliberate confusion, on television, of news and entertainment has done further damage.
The Republicans, being more populist than the Democrats, have exploited this new climate with far greater finesse. Accusing the media of bias is an act of remarkable chutzpah for an administration that pitches its messages straight at radio talk show hosts and public relations men. Rich gives many examples. One of the more arresting ones is of Dick Cheney appearing on a TV show with Armstrong Williams, a fake journalist on the government payroll, to complain about bias in the press. Something has gone askew when one of the most trusted critics of the Bush administration is Jon Stewart, host of a superb comedy program. It was on his “Daily Show” that Rob Corddry, an actor playing a reporter, lamented that he couldn’t keep up with the government, which had created “a whole new category of fake news — infoganda.” Rich is right: “The more real journalism fumbled its job, the easier it was for such government infoganda to fill the vacuum.”
THERE may be one other reason for the fumbling: the conventional methods of American journalism, marked by an obsession with access and quotes. A good reporter for an American paper must get sources who sound authoritative and quotes that show both sides of a story. His or her own expertise is almost irrelevant. If the opinions of columnists count for too much in the American press, the intelligence of reporters is institutionally underused. The problem is that there are not always two sides to a story. Someone reporting on the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 would not have added “balance” by quoting Joseph Goebbels. And besides, as Judith Miller found out, what is the good of quotes if they are based on false information?
Bob Woodward, one of Rich’s chief bêtes noires, has more access in Washington than any journalist, but the weakness of his work is that he never seems to be better than his sources. As Rich rightly observes, “reporters who did not have Woodward’s or Miller’s top-level access within the administration not only got the Iraq story right but got it into newspapers early by seeking out what John Walcott, the Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief, called ‘the blue collar’ sources further down the hierarchy.” This used to be Woodward’s modus operandi, too, in his better days. Fearing the loss of access at the top and overrating the importance of quotes from powerful people, as well as an unjustified terror of being accused of liberal bias, have crippled the press at a time when it is needed more than ever. Frank Rich is an excellent product of that press, and if it ever recovers its high reputation, it will be partly thanks to one man who couldn’t take it anymore.
Ian Buruma is the Henry Luce professor at Bard College. His latest book is “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.”