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The world little noted, but at some point late last year the American search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ended. We will, however, long remember the doomsday warnings from the Bush administration about mushroom clouds and sinister aluminum tubes; the breathless reports from TV correspondents when the invasion began, speculating on when the "smoking gun" would be unearthed; our own failures to deconstruct all the spin and faulty intelligence. – New York Times editorial, Jan. 13
The timorous admission made by the White House last week that it had given up pretending to search for WMDs in Iraq was an occasion for much smugness and finger-pointing in most of the major dailies.
Among the rest of the population, this laughably tiny news item – I'm writing this column on Jan. 13, but by the time this hits the newsstands on the 18th, it will surely, and amazingly, have been a dead story for days – was mainly fodder for two minutes of office water-cooler gloating among the anti-Bush crowd.
It is unrealistic to expect anything different. In the run-up to the war, every major daily and television network in the country parroted the White House's asinine WMD claims for months on end, all but throwing their panties on stage the instant Colin Powell showed what appeared to be a grainy aerial picture of a pick-up truck to the U.N. Security Council.
Justice would seem to demand that a roughly equivalent amount of coverage be given to the truth, now that we know it (and we can officially call it the truth now, because even Bush admits it; previously the truth was just a gigantic, unendorsed pile of plainly obvious evidence). But that isn't the way things work in America. We only cover things around the clock every day for four or five straight months when it's fun.
O.J. was fun. Monica Lewinsky was fun. "America's New War" was fun – there was a war at the end of that rainbow. But "We All Totally Fucked Up" is not fun. You can't make a whole new set of TV graphics for "We All Totally Fucked Up." There is no obvious location where Wolf Blitzer can do a somber, grimacing "We All Totally Fucked Up" live shot (above an "Operation We All Totally Fucked Up" bug in the corner of the screen). Hundreds of reporters cannot rush to stores to buy special khakis or rain slickers or Kevlar vests in preparation for "We All Totally Fucked Up." They would have to wear their own clothes and stand, not in front of burning tanks or smashed Indonesian hovels, but in front of their own apartments.
That is why we will never get four months of the truth, to match four months of preposterous bullshit. The business is not designed for it. It just can't happen.
Most Americans instinctively understand this and accept it. Even those people who are consciously offended by this set of circumstances accept it. It is as natural to us as the weather.
However, there are times when this phenomenon seems to go a little too far. This is one of those times.
Countless news organizations last week took the same pathetic, transparently disingenuous position vis-a-vis the WMD flap that The New York Times did in the above passage. The basic media lie – the new lie, not the old lie – was a two-pronged thing. It went something like this:
First, Bush admitted there were no WMDs, but so few people cared that it was "little noted" around the world. Phrases such as "quiet conclusion" (CBS News) or "quietly ended" ( USA Today ) or "quiet denouement" (the Virginia Pilot) reinforced this idea that the story was somehow inherently quiet and of small import.
Descriptions of the story's small stature were usually followed by a similarly quiet mea culpa . They usually read something like this: Now that we know the truth for sure, we media organizations must try to unravel how it "could have happened" – how we failed to see through it all, or "deconstruct all the faulty spin and intelligence," as the Times put it.
Regarding the first point, what could be funnier than the sight of The New York Times calling a story "little noted," when the paper itself only gave the story 3.5 inches on Page A16! Like almost all the rest of the papers in the country, what the Times meant was not "little noted," but little covered. Amazingly, only two major dailies in the entire country – The Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News – even put the official end to the WMD search on the front page. The rest of the country's news organs buried the story deep in the bowels of their news sections, far behind Prince Harry's Nazi suit and the residual tsunami stuff. And then they have the balls to turn around and say this news was "quiet"?
As for the second question – how it could have happened – I have an answer. It is an answer that will not require the convening of a special symposium at the Columbia Journalism School, the commission of a new study by the Brookings Institution, or a poll by Poynter. The answer is this: You lied!
It's really as simple as that. Everyone knew it was bullshit. I defy Bill Keller to stare me in the face and tell me he didn't know the whole Iraq war business was a lie from the start. Whether or not there were actually WMDs in Iraq is a canard; this was essentially unknowable at the time. It was the rest of it that was obviously idiotic, yet even the pointiest heads in the business, like the folks at the Times, swallowed it with a smile.
There was the idea that Saddam Hussein, a secular dictator whose chief domestic enemies were Islamic fundamentalists, was somehow a natural potential ally for bin Laden. There was the supposition, credulously reported for months, that if Saddam "disarmed," we would back off (we were going in anyway, everyone could see that; all of the "inspections" coverage, that whole drama, was a pathetic fraud). There was the idea that Bush and Co. were sincerely moved to grave concern by "intelligence" about Saddam's weapons (on the contrary, there was a veritable mountain of evidence that the Bush administration was turning over every couch pillow in Washington in search of even the flimsiest fig leaf to stick on its WMD claims; the source of the WMD panic was clearly the White House, not Langley or any other place). There was the idea that a pre-emptive invasion was not a revolutionary idea, not illegal, not an outrage. And so on.
The problem wasn't a small, isolated ethical error, like Judith Miller's Chalabi reporting. The error here was not a mistake of fact. The problem was that a central tenet of our system of news reporting dictates that lies of consensus will never be considered punishable mistakes. In other words, once everyone jumps in the water, a story acquires its own legitimacy.
And now we get papers like the Times wondering aloud why they didn't feel the ground under their feet. Answer: you jumped in the water. And you knew what you were doing.
Matt Taibbi lives in New York. He covers politics for Rolling Stone and the New York Press .