Once upon a time, it was considered news when a senior official in Washington blatantly lied to a Senate Committee.
If the Bush administration has proven anything, it is that the Big Lie is just as effective today as it was 60 years ago.
One of the most egregious examples of this occurred a few days ago when Senator Hillary Clinton challenged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over his constant optimism about Iraq. “I know you feel strongly about it,” she said, “but there’s a track record here. This is not 2002, 2003, 2004, ’5, when you appeared before this committee and made many comments and presented many assurances that have, frankly, proven to be unfulfilled.”
“Senator,” Mr. Rumsfeld replied, “I don’t think that’s true. I’ve never painted a rosy picture. I’ve been very measured in my words. And you’d have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I’ve been excessively optimistic.”
Oh, so homey, so Rumsfeld-esque—and so utterly absurd.
And yet this is how America’s leading news organizations covered this exchange:
The Washington Post and The New York Times didn’t quote this part of their exchange at all.
The Los Angeles Times said Mr. Rumsfeld “issued a point-by-point defense and insisted that he had not been overly positive about Iraq.”
The Associated Press and NBC Nightly News ended their stories with Mr. Rumsfeld’s denial and offered no rebuttal of it.
The CBS Evening News noted that Mr. Rumsfeld “disputed” Clinton’s contention that he had painted an overly rosy picture.
Chris Wallace reported on Fox News that “Rumsfeld gave as good as he got.”
Now it took me five minutes and three Google searches to produce a slew of evidence that the Defense Secretary was telling a whopper. Last December, The Washington Post reported that “Defense Secretary Rumsfeld today urged Americans to be more optimistic about the situation in Iraq, saying that people on the ground there have more optimistic views than what is being portrayed in the U.S. media.” Tim Russert quoted Senator Chuck Hagel on Meet the Press last year as saying “things aren’t getting better, they’re getting worse,” to which Mr. Rumsfeld responded, “That’s just flat wrong. We are not losing in Iraq.” And so on.
It may be too much to ask these harried reporters to perform three Google searches on deadline. But Senator Clinton had actually anticipated that. After Mr. Rumsfeld spoke, she inserted into the record her own list to prove her point: seven quotes from Mr. Rumsfeld in front of Congressional committees—including “My impression is that the war was highly successful,” and “I do believe we’re on the right track”—and another six from press interviews. These included such memorable lines the following: “I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq would last five days, or five weeks, or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” And, of course, this one, in response to a question from Jim Lehrer in 2003 asking how American troops would be received in Iraq: “There is no question but that they would be welcomed.”
But none of the leading newspapers or networks offered a single one of these examples in their stories about the day’s hearing—or even mentioned the fact that Senator Clinton had submitted such a list.
Most of them also failed to challenge any of Mr. Rumsfeld’s other lies during the same appearance, including his claim that the number of troops on the ground “reflected the best judgment of the military commanders on the ground [and] their superiors.” (Actually, the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, told Congress before the war that “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be required for an occupation of Iraq” and was rewarded for his prescience with early retirement.)
On the Web, of course, it was a different story, with a number of prominent blogs reproducing Mrs. Clinton’s rebuttal in its entirety.
I am a diehard defender of the mainstream media. But it’s getting harder all the time to remain that way.
For two years, Jon Stewart’s “fake news” show has been the most reliable and the most sophisticated source for news about Iraq. That can only mean one thing: There are a whole lot of “important” reporters in Washington who have forgotten how to do their jobs.
Charles Kaiser is a press critic and the author of The Gay Metropolis. He is completing The Cost of Courage, about a French family that fought in the Resistance in Paris during World War II.