Editor & Publisher

Colbert Shocks the Media Silent

For days the battle has raged on the Web: Did Stephen Colbert go too far in lampooning President Bush, to his face, at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday night? Is that why his barbs did not generate more laughter around the room of 2700 journalists, celebrities and other guests? Or was it because he suggested the press was spineless in failing to confront the president on Iraq? Or was Colbert just not that funny? [VIDEO]

In any case, the event has inspired debate on hundreds of political and media blogs, the posting of the video on dozens of sites, and massive traffic to E&P, where the first in-depth account of Colbert's performance was posted Saturday night.

You'd think from all the criiticism that the guy had based his routine on joking about launching a war and not finding the WMDs that inspired it. Oh, right, that was President Bush, two years ago.

Nevertheless, Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, appearing on Keith Olbermann's MSNBC program Monday night, joined the ranks of those who attended the dinner who felt Colbert "was not funny." On the other hand, he said the president's routine that night with a Bush impersonator was a howl.

This is the same Milbank who last June mocked a congressional forum on the Downing Street memo, and said it was led by a "hearty band of playmates."

Certainly, deciding what's funny is subjective, sometimes a matter of taste (or tastelessness), but increasingly, also, partisan. We bring our politics to everything nowadays, although some may be more open to good satire than others, even when someone on "your side" is hit.

Still, with the knocks on Colbert increasing, I have to ask: Where was the outrage when President Bush made fun of not finding those pesky WMDs at a very similar media dinner -- in the same ballroom -- two years ago? It represents a shameful episode for the American media, and presidency, yet is rarely mentioned today.

It occurred on March 24, 2004. The setting: The 60th annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (with many print journalists there as guests) at the Washington Hilton. On the menu: surf and turf. Attendance: 1,500. The main speaker: President George W. Bush, one year into the Iraq war, with 500 Americans already dead.

President Bush, as usual at such gatherings of journalists, poked fun at himself. Audiences love to laugh along with, rather than at, a president, for a change. It shows they are good sports, which many people (including the president) often doubt. It's all in good fun, except when it's in bad fun, such as on that night in March 2004.

That night, in the middle of his stand-up routine before the (perhaps tipsy) journos, Bush showed on a screen behind him some candid on-the-job photos of himself. One featured him gazing out a window, as Bush narrated, smiling: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere."

According to the transcript this was greeted with "laughter and applause" from the audience.

A few seconds later, he was shown looking under papers, behind drapes, and even under his desk, with this narration: "Nope, no weapons over there" (met with more "laughter and applause"), and then "Maybe under here?" (just "laughter" this time). Still searching, he settled for finding a photo revealing the Skull and Bones secret signal.

There is no record of whether Dana Milbank attended that dinner, but his paper the following day seemed to find this something of a howl. Jennifer Frey's report, carried on the front page of the Style section (under the headline, "George Bush, Entertainer in Chief"), led with Donald Trump's appearance, and mentioned without comment Bush's "recurring joke" of searching for the WMDs.

The Associated Press review was equally jovial: "President Bush poked fun at his staff, his Democratic challenger and himself Wednesday night at a black-tie dinner where he hobnobbed with the news media." In fact, it is hard to find any immediate account of the affair that raised questions over the president's slide show. Many noted that the WMD jokes were met with general and loud laughter.

The reporters covering the gala were apparently as swept away with laughter as the guests. One of the few attendees to criticize the president's gag, David Corn of The Nation, said he heard not a single complaint from his colleagues at the after-party. Corn wondered if they would have laughed if President Reagan, following the truck bombing of our Marines barracks in Beirut, which killed 241, had said at a similar dinner: "Guess we forgot to put in a stop light."

The backlash only appeared a day or two later, and not, by and large, emerging from the media, but from Democrats and some Iraq veterans. Then it was mainly forgotten. I never understood why Sen. John Kerry did not air a tape of the episode every day during his hapless final drive for the White House.

In any case, another 1,900 Americans have died in Iraq since Bush's ha-ha home video. As it happens, the Downing Street memo, and a similar British document that surfaced recently, suggested that Bush doubted WMDs existed and "fixed" the intelligence to take the nation to war. What a riot.

At that same Downing Street memo forum at the Capitol last year that Milbank mocked, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, after cataloguing the bogus Bush case for WMDs and the Iraqi threat, looked out at the cameras and notepads, mentioned the March 24, 2004 dinner, and acted out the president looking under papers and table for those missing WMDs. "And the media was all yucking it up ... hahaha," McGovern said. "You all laughed with him, folks." Then he mentioned soldiers who had died "after that big joke."

Dana Milbank, who seems to like a good laugh, did not mention this in his hit piece the following day.

Bush Takes a Beating

To watch a video of the below event, go to PEEK.

A blistering comedy "tribute" to President Bush by Comedy Central's faux talk-show host Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondent Dinner Saturday night left George and Laura Bush unsmiling at its close.

Earlier, the president had delivered his talk to the 2,700 attendees, including many celebrities and top officials, with the help of a Bush impersonator.

Colbert, who spoke in the guise of his talk-show character, who ostensibly supports the president strongly, urged Bush to ignore his low approval ratings, saying they were based on reality, "and reality has a well-known liberal bias."

He attacked those in the press who claim that the shake-up at the White House was merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. "This administration is soaring, not sinking," he said. "If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg."

Colbert told Bush he could end the problem of protests by retired generals by refusing to let them retire. He compared Bush to Rocky Balboa in the "Rocky" movies, always getting punched in the face -- "and Apollo Creed is everything else in the world."

Turning to the war, he declared, "I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq."

He noted former Ambassador Joseph Wilson in the crowd, just three tables away from Karl Rove, and that he had brought " Valerie Plame." Then, worried that he had named her, he corrected himself, as Bush aides might do, "Uh, I mean he brought Joseph Wilson's wife." He might have "dodged the bullet," he said, as prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald wasn't there.

Colbert also made biting cracks about missing WMDs, "photo ops" on aircraft carriers and at hurricane disasters, melting glaciers and Vice President Cheney shooting people in the face. He advised the crowd, "if anybody needs anything at their tables, speak slowly and clearly into your table numbers and somebody from the N.S.A. will be right over with a cocktail. "

Observing that Bush sticks to his principles, he said, "When the president decides something on Monday, he still believes it on Wednesday -- no matter what happened Tuesday."

Also lampooning the press, Colbert complained that he was "surrounded by the liberal media who are destroying this country, except for Fox News. Fox believes in presenting both sides of the story -- the president's side and the vice president's side." In another slap at the news channel, he said: "I give people the truth unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the No Fact Zone. Fox News, I own the copyright on that term."

He also reflected on the alleged good old days for the president, when the media was still swallowing the WMD story.

Addressing the reporters, he said, "Let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The president makes decisions, he's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know -- fiction."

He claimed that the Secret Service name for Bush's new press secretary is "Snow Job."

Colbert closed his routine with a video fantasy where he gets to be White House press secretary, complete with a special "Gannon" button on his podium. By the end, he had to run from Helen Thomas and her questions about why the United States really invaded Iraq and killed all those people.

As Colbert walked from the podium, when it was over, the president and first lady gave him quick nods, unsmiling. The president shook his hand and tapped his elbow, and left immediately.

Those seated near Bush told E&P's Joe Strupp, who was elsewhere in the room, that Bush had quickly turned from an amused guest to an obviously offended target as Colbert's comments brought up his low approval ratings and problems in Iraq.

Several veterans of past dinners, who requested anonymity, said the presentation was more directed at attacking the president than in the past. Several said previous hosts, like Jay Leno, equally slammed both the White House and the press corps.

"This was anti-Bush," said one attendee. "Usually they go back and forth between us and him." Another noted that Bush quickly turned unhappy. "You could see he stopped smiling about halfway through Colbert," he reported.

After the gathering, Snow, while nursing a Heineken outside the Chicago Tribune reception, declined to comment on Colbert. "I'm not doing entertainment reviews," he said. "I thought the president was great, though."

Strupp, in the crowd during the Colbert routine, had observed that quite a few sitting near him looked a little uncomfortable at times, perhaps feeling the material was a little too biting -- or too much speaking "truthiness" (Colbert's made-up word) to power.

Asked by E&P after it was over if he thought he'd been too harsh, Colbert said, "Not at all." Was he trying to make a point politically or just get laughs? "Just for laughs," he said. He said he did not pull any material for being too strong, just for time reasons. (He later said the president told him "good job" when he walked off.)

Helen Thomas told Strupp her segment with Colbert was "just for fun."

In its report on the affair, USA Today asserted that some in the crowd cracked up over Colbert, but others were "bewildered." Wolf Blitzer of CNN said he thought Colbert was funny and "a little on the edge."

Earlier, the president had addressed the crowd with a Bush impersonator alongside, with the faux-Bush speaking precisely and the real Bush deliberately mispronouncing words, such as the inevitable "nuclear." At the close, Bush called the imposter "a fine talent. In fact, he did all my debates with Sen. Kerry." The routine went over well with the crowd -- better than did Colbert's, in fact.

Among attendees at the black tie event: Morgan Fairchild, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Justice Antonin Scalia, George Clooney and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter of the Doobie Brothers -- in a kilt.

A Plea to Editors on Iraq

In his Sunday column for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof said he had a notion about how to solve our Iraq problem. One hangup: He won't let us in on it until his next column, on Tuesday. Oh well, we've waited this long.

All Kristof would say on Sunday is that he opposes both Bush's stay-the-course plan as well as an "immediate" withdrawal. This, of course, is simply knocking down straw men. Bush's strategy has been thoroughly discredited, and hardly anyone calls for bringing the troops home immediately, in time for Thanksgiving or even Christmas.

So what did Kristof come out with in the Tuesday column? We should pull "at least" half of our troops out of Iraq by the end of 2006 with the rest to follow by the end of the following year. Also, we should by then get rid of all of our military bases there. "All the Iraq options are bad," he declares. "But this is the least bad."

Kristof writes: "I met last month with three visiting Iraqi journalists, all of them anti-insurgency and pro-constitution. All three favored a target date for withdrawal." He adds: "A target date would also light a fire under all Iraqis to work out a modus vivendi. Time and again, deadlines have proved the only way to get Iraqi politicians to do anything."

While the pace could be quicker, this is a welcome and realistic step forward.

Kristof notes that many Democrats are coalescing around this outline (though not, alas, the Hillary-Biden wing of the party). Just Sunday, in a Washington Post op-ed, former candidate for vice president John Edwards admitted he was "wrong" to back the war three years ago and called for a U.S. withdrawal to begin early next year. His fellow former senator Tom Daschle has also re-surfaced recently, leading a drive to get Bush to at least set a timetable for a pullout.

Now that Kristof has floated his idea, I'll state my position now: It's time (actually, it's overdue) for newspaper editorial writers to take the lead in helping to bring this American tragedy to a close. I have been advocating this, rather fruitlessly, for over two years. I mention this not as an I-told-you-so but to point out what dithering has cost: 1,700 more American lives, and more fuel for the terrorists' fire.

I see Kristof is now referring to the situation in Iraq as a "quagmire." Two years ago when I suggested that, many poked fun. Yet he still refers to the neocons who got us into this mess, embracing cooked intel like a high-priced hooker, as "well-meaning."

It's true that this is not a black-and-white case. There is something to be said for giving a president and his team a further chance to fashion a better future for the Iraqis. But this is not that president and this is not that team. And the better future does not likely require our unlimited occupation.

The bottom line, which I humbly ask newspaper editorial boards to consider: Whatever your feelings about keeping Americans troops in place to protect Iraqi citizens, remember who is running the show back at the White House and Pentagon, and whether you trust them to manage this enterprise.

Most Americans have already answered this question. According to all major polls, they think the president misled the country into the war and is not to be trusted today, in general.

I'll put it this starkly: If you're not going to call for the impeachment of the president and the resignation of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld -- and I'm sure you're not -- then you really ought to increase pressure on them in your editorials to change direction in Iraq, and begin a phased (not immediate) withdrawal.

I've been pushing this idea for two years, suggesting that if at least one national newspaper backed a phased withdrawal it might start a stampede. No one responded the first three times, and no one expects The Washington Post, for example, to lead the charge (witness Sunday's Fred Hiatt column).

The Seattle Times did argue for a pullout several months ago, but until recently The New York Times was actually advocating sending more troops. The Times has run many tough editorials against the president and his conduct of the war, but the newspaper has not called for setting a timetable or beginning withdrawals.

Apparently they trust Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to handle this disaster just fine. Do you?

On Oct. 15, 2003, Kristof wrote a column backing the $87 billion bill for Iraq, adding, "Above all, to stave off catastrophe in Iraq, we must keep our troops there and provide security, for that is the glue that keeps Iraq together." How time flies.

It's worse than Waiting for Godot. It's Waiting for God Help Us. Secretary of State Rice recently said U.S. troops might still be in Iraq 10 years from now.

Besides Kristof and Edwards, another prominent figure weighed in on the war this weekend. General William Odom (ret.), former head of the National Security Agency under President Reagan, wrote an article for NiemanWatchdog.org earlier this year in which he argued that the war is serving the interests of Osama bin Laden, the Iranians, and extremists in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. According to Odom, all that we fear could go wrong if we "cut and run" is actually made more likely by staying in Iraq.

In his latest piece, which he calls a "postscript," Odom (now a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute and a professor at Yale University) calls Iraq "the worst place to fight a battle for regional stability. Whose interests were best served by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first place? It turns out that Iran and al-Qaeda benefited the most, and that continues to be true every day U.S. forces remain there. A serious review of our regional interests is required. Until that is accomplished and new and compelling aims for managing the region are clarified, continuing the campaign in Iraq makes no sense."

But Odom is not for total disengagement. He wants the U.S. to remain a force, but recognizes that we will gain no help from key allies until our troops are on the way out. Therefore, "it becomes clear that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is the precondition to winning the support of our allies and a few others for a joint approach to the region. Until that has been completed, they will not join such a coalition. And until that has happened, even we in the United States cannot think clearly about what constitutes our interests there, much less gain agreement about common interests for a coalition."

He adds: "Putting it bluntly, those who insist on staying in Iraq longer make the consequences of withdrawal more terrible and make it harder to find an alternative strategy for achieving regional stability.... To hang on to an untenable position is the height of irresponsibility. Beware of anyone, including the president, who insists that this is 'responsible' or 'the patriotic' thing to do."


Here's one of several letters from newspaper execs I've received in response to the above:

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How Bob Dylan Beat the Press

Surely, one of the non-musical highlights of the extraordinary Martin Scorsese film about Bob Dylan's early days, airing on PBS on Monday and Tuesday [Sept. 26 and 27], arrives when a press photographer, at a briefing, asks the young rock star to pose for a picture. "Suck on a corner of your glasses," the gentleman instructs.

Dylan, fingering his Ray-Bans, rebels. "You want me to suck on my glasses?" he asks incredulously.

"Just suck your glasses," the photog advises.

"Do you want to suck my glasses?" Dylan asks, handing them to the photog, who obliges by licking them. "Anybody else?" Bob wonders.

This exchange, from 1966, is only one of several press games/battles that play a key role in part II of the documentary, No Direction Home. In fact, they represent the climax of the film, as Dylan burns out, not just from the boos that greeted his switch from acoustic to electric but from inane questioning by the press. The film ends with Dylan begging for a long vacation, followed by end notes revealing that he had his famous motorcycle accident a few months later -- and then did not tour for seven years.

That's one way to Beat the Press.

But Dylan has always had a combative relationship with the media, and wrote one of the most scathing and, arguably, most influential attacks on the press in modern times, "Ballad of Thin Man." That song holds that memorable refrain: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?"

And he's still at it. Earlier this year, on "60 Minutes," Ed Bradley asked him about the passage in his recent memoir "Chronicles" where Dylan revealed that he always figured the press was something "you lied to." Bob told Bradley that he knew he had to answer to God, but not to reporters.

Of course, there was a time when some people thought Dylan was God.

In any case, the Scorsese film shows plenty of evidence of why Dylan turned off to the press long ago. Along with many of his fans, they just didn't "get" him, especially when he changed the face of popular music in the mid-1960s.

"You don't sing protest songs anymore," a reporter asks.

"All my songs are protest songs," Dylan replies evenly. "All I do is protest."

Later, someone at a press conference asks him how many other protest singers exist. It's as if the man is asking Sen. Joe McCarthy for the number of Communists in the State Department. Dylan ponders it, then replies, "About 136." No one laughs.

"You say about 136 -- or exactly 136?" the reporter asks.

"Either 136 or 142," Dylan says, settling it.

On another occasion, a reporter asks what "message" and "philosophy" he was trying to impart by wearing a Triumph motorcycle shirt on the cover of the greatest album of all time, "Highway 61 Revisited." Dylan says he just happened to be wearing it the day the photo was snapped, but the press guy persists. Finally Dylan pleads, "We all like motorcycles some, right?"

Then there's the young woman who credits him with a song he didn't write ("Eve of Destruction") and asks if his songs have a "subtle message." When Bob asks where she read that, she replies, "In a movie magazine."

On another occasion, a man asks, "For those of us well over 30, how do you label yourself and what's your role?"

Dylan laughs, then answers, "Well, I sort of label myself as well under 30 -- and my role is just to stay here as long as I can."

It only gets worse. One reporter asks if he agrees that his early records were better than his latest. Another wonders if he considers himself "the ultimate beatnik." Bob asks him what HE thinks about that. The man says he can't comment because he has never heard Dylan sing.

"You've never heard me sing and yet you want to sit there and ask me these questions?" Dylan replies.

Just before Dylan announces that he wants to quit for awhile, he is shown in a hotel room on the road discussing press coverage of his riotous 1966 tour of England with The Hawks, where audience members shouted out that he was a "traitor" or even "Judas" for abandoning folk music. Dylan comments that one story actually claimed that "everybody" walked out of one show.

"I saw one person walk out," he relates. Then he jokes that he will walk out of the next show. "I'll tell them Dylan got sick," he promises. Which was true enough. His semi-retirement soon followed.

In the Scorsese film, the current-day Dylan comments a bit about all of this. "I had no answers to any of those questions," he explains. "But it didn't stop the press from asking them. For some reason they thought performers had the answers to all these problems in society. It's absurd."

He also says: "People had a warped idea of me, usually those outside the music industry -- 'spokesman of a generation,' and all that."

Spokesman or not, "Ballad of a Thin Man" still rings true, exactly 40 years after it first appeared.

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Challenging the Times

What will it take, exactly, for The New York Times to declare on its editorial page that the United States should begin to bring to a close its adventure in regime change and national building Iraq? Other newspapers face the same question, of course, but as the nation's leading journal, and with plenty of influence -- at least in elite and left-liberal circles -- any shift by the Times is sure to have wide repercussions.

It wasn't long ago that the Times was actually calling for more U.S. troops in Iraq. Lately it has made no sweeping calls, up or down. But considering recent events, you'd expect a ringing call to disengage at any moment, especially since there is some evidence that at the Times -- in contrast to, say, The Washington Post -- the editorialists actually ponder what's in their own news pages. And those pages have been filled with plenty of fodder for arguing in favor of a phased withdrawal.

Just yesterday came news of the murder of a Times reporter/photographer, Fakher Haider, in Iraq. Surely this is not reason enough for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq -- but look at the circumstances. Haider was apparently killed not by insurgents or terrorists or even run-of-the-mill Sunnis or Baathists, but by Shiite militia and police ostensibly aligned with "our" side. Freelance American journalist Steven Vincent died under the same circumstances in August.

These two killings took place in Basra, long described as one of the major success stories in Iraq. In today's edition, the Times said the city "has grown increasingly violent, with a complex web of sectarian agendas playing itself out almost daily on the streets." Shiite militias, reporter Robert Worth noted, are even fighting British troops.

Just last week, the Times looked inside another "model" city, Najaf, and found similar or worse problems there, with reconstruction projects "hobbled by poor planning" and "corrupt contractors." Sure, these cities are relatively calmer than Baghdad, but is this reason enough to justify a never-ending U.S. presence? And what of all the new tales of rampant corruption or missing billions elsewhere in that land?

Then there's the cost of the Katrina catastrophe. The Times has lamented the true budgetary trainwreck that the hurricane will cause under the current Bush plans, or maybe under any scheme. If it was once true that we could not afford to fight a foreign war while also boosting homeland security, it is now certain that the hurricane recovery makes this impossible. Added to the possible costs: Some people actually want to spend a lot more money on reducing poverty.

The longterm post-Katrina threat to the American economy and our children's futures is enormous. So: Will the Times declare that it is not just desirable, but imperative, that we start to end our hideously costly occupation of Iraq?

If it did that, it could (and no doubt would) say that it does this with a heavy heart -- while pointing out that several years of sacrificing our treasury, and the lives and limbs of thousands of Americans, is quite enough to give the Iraqis a good head start on solving their own problems. And, more than ever, our own people need our help now.

The American public, if not the editorial boards of most newspapers, seem to understand this well enough. Polls in the past week clearly show that they want to shift spending from the New Iraq to the Old South.

Now, it's true that neither newspaper editors nor public officials should blindly follow public opinion on any matter. Yet it is startling to note the disconnect between public views of Iraq, as gathered by pollsters, and what opinion leaders and, even most Democratic politicians, are willing to declare.

Every major poll, for quite some time now, has revealed that the majority of American people feel that 1) invading Iraq was a mistake 2) based on misleading information or lies and that 3) things are going poorly for the U.S. in Iraq because 4) President Bush is handling the war badly so 5) we should immediately begin withdrawing. About 1 in 3 Americans take the "radical" position of a complete pullout ASAP.

The Times editorial board surely agrees with points one through four -- yet has not yet make the logical conclusion that is #5.

I haven't even mentioned other concerns, such as the loopholes in the Iraqi constitution, the new Iraqi leaders' possible alignment with Iran, and the coming threat to women's rights (all previously denounced by the Times). And if the Times needs just one more reason to shift course, surely it is provided in the fresh evidence, from the federal response to Katrina, that this gang occupying the White House does not deserve, and can not be trusted, to continue to carry out our open-ended commitment in Iraq. How many more years of "Rummy, you're doin' a great job," can we take?

For the sake of our physicial and financial security here at home, something has to give: and that something must be Iraq. Come on, New York Times board. We know you can say it. Probably, you even want to.

Hiroshima Cover-up Exposed

In the weeks following the atomic attacks on Japan almost 60 years ago, and then for decades afterward, the United States engaged in airtight suppression of all film shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings. This included footage shot by U.S. military crews and Japanese newsreel teams. In addition, for many years all but a handful of newspaper photographs were seized or prohibited.

The public did not see any of the newsreel footage for 25 years, and the U.S. military film remained hidden for nearly four decades.

The full story of this atomic cover-up is told fully for the first time at Editor & Publisher, as the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombings approaches later this week. Some of the long-suppressed footage will be aired on television this Saturday.

Six weeks ago, E&P broke the story that articles written by famed Chicago Daily News war correspondent George Weller about the effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki were finally published, in Japan, almost six decades after they had been spiked by U.S. officials. This drew national attention, but suppressing film footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was even more significant, as this country rushed into the nuclear age with its citizens having neither a true understanding of the effects of the bomb on human beings, nor why the atomic attacks drew condemnation around the world.

As editor of Nuclear Times magazine in the 1980s, I met Herbert Sussan, one of the members of the U.S. military film crew, and Erik Barnouw, the famed documentarian who first showed some of the Japanese footage on American TV in 1970. In fact, that newsreel footage might have disappeared forever if the Japanese filmmakers had not hidden one print from the Americans in a ceiling.
The color U.S. military footage would remain hidden until the early 1980s, and has never been fully aired. It rests today at the National Archives in College Park, Md., in the form of 90,000 feet of raw footage labeled #342 USAF.

When that footage finally emerged, I corresponded and spoke with the man at the center of this drama: Lt. Col. (Ret.) Daniel A. McGovern, who directed the U.S. military filmmakers in 1945-1946, managed the Japanese footage, and then kept watch on all of the top-secret material for decades.

"I always had the sense," McGovern told me, "that people in the Atomic Energy Commission were sorry we had dropped the bomb. The Air Force -- it was also sorry. I was told by people in the Pentagon that they didn't want those [film] images out because they showed effects on man, woman and child. ... They didn't want the general public to know what their weapons had done -- at a time they were planning on more bomb tests. We didn't want the material out because ... we were sorry for our sins."

Sussan, meanwhile, struggled for years to get some of the American footage aired on national TV, taking his request as high as President Truman, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward R. Murrow, to no avail.

More recently, McGovern declared that Americans should have seen the damage wrought by the bomb. "The main reason it was classified was ... because of the horror, the devastation," he said. Because the footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was hidden for so long, the atomic bombings quickly sank, unconfronted and unresolved, into the deeper recesses of American awareness, as a costly nuclear arms race, and nuclear proliferation, accelerated.

The atomic cover-up also reveals what can happen in any country that carries out deadly attacks on civilians in any war and then keeps images of what occurred from its own people.

Ten years ago, I co-authored (with Robert Jay Lifton) the book "Hiroshima in America," and new material has emerged since. On Aug. 6, and on following days, the Sundance cable channel will air "Original Child Bomb," a prize-winning documentary on which I worked. The film includes some of the once-censored footage -- along with home movies filmed by McGovern in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Japanese newsreel footage

On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, killing at least 70,000 instantly and perhaps 50,000 more in the days and months to follow. Three days later, it exploded another atomic bomb over Nagasaki, slightly off target, killing 40,000 immediately and dooming tens of thousands of others. Within days, Japan had surrendered, and the U.S. readied plans for occupying the defeated country -- and documenting the first atomic catastrophe.

But the Japanese also wanted to study it. Within days of the second atomic attack, officials at the Tokyo-based newsreel company Nippon Eigasha discussed shooting film in the two stricken cities. In early September, just after the Japanese surrender, and as the American occupation began, director Sueo Ito set off for Nagasaki. There his crew filmed the utter destruction near ground zero and scenes in hospitals of the badly burned and those suffering from the lingering effects of radiation.

On Sept. 15, another crew headed for Hiroshima. When the first rushes came back to Toyko, Akira Iwasaki, the chief producer, felt "every frame burned into my brain," he later said.

At this point, the American public knew little about conditions in the atomic cities beyond Japanese assertions that a mysterious affliction was attacking many of those who survived the initial blasts (claims that were largely taken to be propaganda). Newspaper photographs of victims were non-existent, or censored. Life magazine would later observe that for years "the world ... knew only the physical facts of atomic destruction."

Tens of thousands of American GIs occupied the two cities. Because of the alleged absence of residual radiation, no one was urged to take precautions.

Then, on Oct. 24, 1945, a Japanese cameraman in Nagasaki was ordered to stop shooting by an American military policeman. His film, and then the rest of the 26,000 feet of Nippon Eisasha footage, was confiscated by the U.S. General Headquarters (GHQ). An order soon arrived banning all further filming. It was at this point that Lt. Daniel McGovern took charge.

Shooting the U.S. Military footage

In early September, 1945, less than a month after the two bombs fell, Lt. McGovern -- who as a member of Hollywood's famed First Motion Picture Unit shot some of the footage for William Wyler's "Memphis Belle" -- had become one of the first Americans to arrive in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was a director with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, organized by the Army the previous November to study the effects of the air campaign against Germany, and now Japan.

As he made plans to shoot the official American record, McGovern learned about the seizure of the Japanese footage. He felt it would be a waste to not take advantage of the newsreel footage, noting in a letter to his superiors that "the conditions under which it was taken will not be duplicated, until another atomic bomb is released under combat conditions."

McGovern proposed hiring some of the Japanese crew to edit and "caption" the material, so it would have "scientific value." He took charge of this effort in early January 1946, even as the Japanese feared that, when they were done, they would never see even a scrap of their film again.

At the same time, McGovern was ordered by General Douglas MacArthur on January 1, 1946 to document the results of the U.S. air campaign in more than 20 Japanese cities. His crew would shoot exclusively on color film, Kodachrome and Technicolor, rarely used at the time even in Hollywood. McGovern assembled a crew of eleven, including two civilians. Third in command was a young lieutenant from New York named Herbert Sussan.

The unit left Tokyo in a specially outfitted train, and made it to Nagasaki. "Nothing and no one had prepared me for the devastation I met there," Sussan later told me. "We were the only people with adequate ability and equipment to make a record of this holocaust. ... I felt that if we did not capture this horror on film, no one would ever really understand the dimensions of what had happened. At that time people back home had not seen anything but black and white pictures of blasted buildings or a mushroom cloud."

Along with the rest of McGovern's crew, Sussan documented the physical effects of the bomb, including the ghostly shadows of vaporized civilians burned into walls; and, most chillingly, dozens of people in hospitals who had survived (at least momentarily) and were asked to display their burns, scars, and other lingering effects for the camera as a warning to the world.

At the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima, a Japanese physician traced the hideous, bright red scars that covered several of the patients -- and then took off his white doctor's shirt and displayed his own burns and cuts.

After sticking a camera on a rail car and building their own tracks through the ruins, the Americans filmed hair-raising tracking shots that could have been lifted right from a Hollywood movie. Their chief cameramen was a Japanese man, Harry Mimura, who in 1943 had shot "Sanshiro Sugata," the first feature film by a then-unknown Japanese director named Akira Kurosawa.

The suppression begins

While all this was going on, the Japanese newsreel team was completing its work of editing and labeling all their black & white footage into a rough cut of just under three hours. At this point, several members of Japanese team took the courageous step of ordering from the lab a duplicate of the footage they had shot before the Americans took over the project.

Director Ito later said: "The four of us agreed to be ready for 10 years of hard labor in the case of being discovered." One incomplete, silent print would reside in a ceiling until the Occupation ended.

The negative of the finished Japanese film, nearly 15,000 feet of footage on 19 reels, was sent off to the U.S. in early May 1946. The Japanese were also ordered to include in this shipment all photographs and related material. The footage would be labeled SECRET and not emerge from the shadows for more than 20 years.

The following month, McGovern was abruptly ordered to return to the U.S. He hauled the 90,000 feet of color footage, on dozens of reels in huge footlockers, to the Pentagon and turned it over to General Orvil Anderson. Locked up and declared top secret, it did not see the light of day for more than 30 years.

McGovern would be charged with watching over it. Sussan would become obsessed with finding it and getting it aired.

Fearful that his film might get "buried," McGovern stayed on at the Pentagon as an aide to Gen. Anderson, who was fascinated by the footage and had no qualms about showing it to the American people. "He was that kind of man, he didn't give a damn what people thought," McGovern told me. "He just wanted the story told."

In an article in his hometown Buffalo Evening News, McGovern said that he hoped that "this epic will be made available to the American public." He planned to call the edited movie "Japan in Defeat."

Once they eyeballed the footage, however, most of the top brass didn't want it widely shown and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was also opposed, according to McGovern. It nixed a Warner Brothers feature film project based on the footage that Anderson had negotiated, while paying another studio about $80,000 to help make four training films.

In a March 3, 1947 memo, Francis E. Rundell, a major in the Air Corps, explained that the film would be classified "secret." This was determined "after study of subject material, especially concerning footage taken at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is believed that the information contained in the films should be safeguarded until cleared by the Atomic Energy Commission." After the training films were completed, the status would be raised to "Top Secret" pending final classification by the AEC.

The color footage was shipped to the Wright-Patterson base in Ohio. McGovern went along after being told to put an I.D. number on the film "and not let anyone touch it -- and that's the way it stayed," as he put it. After cataloging it, he placed it in a vault in the top-secret area.

"Dan McGovern stayed with the film all the time," Sussan later said. "He told me they could not release the film [because] what it showed was too horrible."

Sussan wrote a letter to President Truman, suggesting that a film based on the footage "would vividly and clearly reveal the implications and effects of the weapons that confront us at this serious moment in our history." A reply from a Truman aide threw cold water on that idea, saying such a film would lack "wide public appeal."

McGovern, meanwhile, continued to "babysit" the film, now at Norton Air Force base in California. "It was never out of my control," he said later, but he couldn't make a film out of it any more than Sussan could (but unlike Herb, he at least knew where it was).

The Japanese footage emerges

At the same time, McGovern was looking after the Japanese footage. Fearful that it might get lost forever in the military/government bureaucracy, he secretly made a 16 mm print and deposited it in the U.S. Air Force Central Film Depository at Wright-Patterson. There it remained out of sight, and generally out of mind. (The original negative and production materials remain missing, according to Abe Mark Nornes, who teaches at the University of Michigan and has researched the Japanese footage more than anyone.)

The Japanese government repeatedly asked the U.S. for the full footage of what was known in that country as "the film of illusion," to no avail. A rare article about what it called this "sensitive" dispute appeared in The New York Times on May 18, 1967, declaring right in its headline that the film had been "Suppressed by U.S. for 22 Years." Surprisingly, it revealed that while some of the footage was already in Japan (likely a reference to the film hidden in the ceiling), the U.S. had put a "hold" on the Japanese using it -- even though the American control of that country had ceased many years earlier.

Despite rising nuclear fears in the 1960s, before and after the Cuban Missile Crisis, few in the U.S. challenged the consensus view that dropping the bomb on two Japanese cities was necessary. The United States maintained its "first-use" nuclear policy: Under certain circumstances it would strike first with the bomb and ask questions later. In other words, there was no real taboo against using the bomb. This notion of acceptability had started with Hiroshima. A firm line against using nuclear weapons had been drawn--in the sand. The U.S., in fact, had threatened to use nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis and on other occasions.

On Sept. 12, 1967, the Air Force transferred the Japanese footage to the National Archives Audio Visual Branch in Washington, with the film "not to be released without approval of DOD (Department of Defense)."

Then, one morning in the summer of 1968, Erik Barnouw, author of landmark histories of film and broadcasting, opened his mail to discover a clipping from a Tokyo newspaper sent by a friend. It indicated that the United States had finally shipped to Japan a copy of black & white newsreel footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese had negotiated with the State Department for its return.

From the Pentagon, Barnouw learned in 1968 that the original nitrate film had been quietly turned over to the National Archives, so he went to take a look. Soon Barnouw realized that, despite its marginal film quality, "enough of the footage was unforgettable in its implications, and historic in its importance, to warrant duplicating all of it," he later wrote.

Attempting to create a subtle, quiet, even poetic, black and white film, he and his associates cut it from 160 to 16 minutes, with a montage of human effects clustered near the end for impact. Barnouw arranged a screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and invited the press. A throng turned out and sat in respectful silence at its finish. (One can only imagine what impact the color footage with many more human effects would have had.) "Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945" proved to be a sketchy but quite moving document of the aftermath of the bombing, captured in grainy but often startling black and white images: shadows of objects or people burned into walls, ruins of schools, miles of razed landscape viewed from the roof of a building.

In the weeks ahead, however, none of the (then) three TV networks expressed interest in airing it. "Only NBC thought it might use the film," Barnouw later wrote, "if it could find a 'news hook.' We dared not speculate what kind of event this might call for." But then an article appeared in Parade magazine, and an editorial in the Boston Globe blasted the networks, saying that everyone in the country should see this film: "Television has brought the sight of war into America's sitting rooms from Vietnam. Surely it can find 16 minutes of prime time to show Americans what the first A-bombs, puny by today's weapons, did to people and property 25 years ago."

This at last pushed public television into the void. What was then called National Educational Television (NET) agreed to show the documentary on August 3, 1970, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of dropping the bomb.

"I feel that classifying all of this filmed material was a misuse of the secrecy system since none of it had any military or national security aspect at all," Barnouw told me. "The reason must have been--that if the public had seen it and Congressmen had seen it--it would have been much harder to appropriate money for more bombs."

The American footage comes out

About a decade later, by pure chance, Herb Sussan would spark the emergence of the American footage, ending its decades in the dark.

In the mid-1970s, Japanese antinuclear activists, led by a Tokyo teacher named Tsutomu Iwakura, discovered that few pictures of the aftermath of the atomic bombings existed in their country. Many had been seized by the U.S. military after the war, they learned, and taken out of Japan. The Japanese had as little visual exposure to the true effects of the bomb as most Americans. Activists managed to track down hundreds of pictures in archives and private collections and published them in a popular book. In 1979 they mounted an exhibit at the United Nations in New York.

There, by chance, Iwakura met Sussan, who told him about the U.S. military footage.

Iwakura made a few calls and found that the color footage, recently declassified, might be at the National Archives. A trip to Washington, D.C. verified this. He found eighty reels of film, labeled #342 USAF, with the reels numbered 11000 to 11079. About one-fifth of the footage covered the atomic cities. According to a shot list, reel #11010 included, for example: "School, deaf and dumb, blast effect, damaged ... Commercial school demolished ... School, engineering, demolished. ... School, Shirayama elementary, demolished, blast effect ... Tenements, demolished."

The film had been quietly declassified a few years earlier, but no one in the outside world knew it. An archivist there told me at the time, "If no one knows about the film to ask forit, it's as closed as when it was classified."

Eventually 200,000 Japanese citizens contributed half a million dollars and Iwakura was able to buy the film. He then traveled around Japan filming survivors who had posed for Sussan and McGovern in 1946. Iwakura quickly completed a documentary called "Prophecy" and in late spring 1982 arranged for a New York premiere.

That fall a small part of the McGovern/Sussan footage turned up for the first time in an American film, one of the sensations of the New York Film Festival, called "Dark Circle." It's co-director, Chris Beaver, told me, "No wonder the government didn't want us to see it. I think they didn't want Americans to see themselves in that picture. It's one thing to know about that and another thing to see it."

Despite this exposure, not a single story had yet appeared in an American newspaper about the shooting of the footage, its suppression or release. And Sussan was now ill with a form of lymphoma doctors had found in soldiers exposed to radiation in atomic tests during the 1950s -- or in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In late 1982, editing Nuclear Times, I met Sussan and Erik Barnouw -- and talked on several occasions with Daniel McGovern, out in Northridge, California. "It would make a fine documentary even today," McGovern said of the color footage. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a movie of the burning of Atlanta?"

After he hauled the footage back to the Pentagon, McGovern said, he was told that under no circumstances would the footage be released for outside use. "They were fearful of it being circulated," McGovern said. He confirmed that the color footage, like the black and white, had been declassified over time, taking it from top secret to "for public release" (but only if the public knew about it and asked for it).

Still, the question of precisely why the footage remained secret for so long lingered. Here McGovern added his considerable voice. "The main reason it was classified was...because of the horror, the devastation," he said. "The medical effects were pretty gory. ... The attitude was: do not show any medical effects. Don't make people sick."

But who was behind this? "I always had the sense," McGovern answered, "that people in the AEC were sorry they had dropped the bomb. The Air Force--it was also sorry. I was told by people in the Pentagon that they didn't want those images out because they showed effects on man, woman and child. But the AEC, they were the ones that stopped it from coming out. They had power of God over everybody," he declared. "If it had anything to do with nukes, they had to see it. They were the ones who destroyed a lot of film and pictures of the first U.S. nuclear tests after the war."

Even so, McGovern believed, his footage might have surfaced "if someone had grabbed the ball and run with it but the AEC did not want it released."

As "Dark Circle" director Chris Beaver had said, "With the government trying to sell the public on a new civil defense program and Reagan arguing that a nuclear war is survivable, this footage could be awfully bad publicity."


In the summer of 1984, I made my own pilgrimage to the atomic cities, to walk in the footsteps of Dan McGovern and Herb Sussan, and meet some of the people they filmed in 1946. By then, the McGovern/ Sussan footage had turned up in several new documentaries. On Sept. 2, 1985, however, Herb Sussan passed away. His final request to his children: Would they scatter his ashes at ground zero in Hiroshima?

In the mid-1990s, researching "Hiroshima in America," a book I would write with Robert Jay Lifton, I discovered the deeper context for suppression of the U.S. Army film: it was part of a broad effort to suppress a wide range of material related to the atomic bombings, including photographs, newspaper reports on radiation effects, information about the decision to drop the bomb, even a Hollywood movie.

The 50th anniversary of the bombing drew extensive print and television coverage -- and wide use of excerpts from the McGovern/Sussan footage--but no strong shift in American attitudes on the use of the bomb.

Then, in 2003, as adviser to a documentary film, "Original Child Bomb," I urged director Carey Schonegevel to draw on the atomic footage as much as possible. She not only did so but also obtained from McGovern's son copies of home movies he had shot in Japan while shooting the official film.

"Original Child Bomb" went on to debut at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, win a major documentary award, and this week, on Aug. 6 and 7, it will debut on the Sundance cable channel. After 60 years at least a small portion of that footage will finally reach part of the American public in the unflinching and powerful form its creators intended. Only then will the Americans who see it be able to fully judge for themselves what McGovern and Sussan were trying to accomplish in shooting the film, why the authorities felt they had to suppress it, and what impact their footage, if widely aired, might have had on the nuclear arms race -- and the nuclear proliferation that plagues, and endangers, us today.

High School Pentagon Sting

David McSwane had seen the military recruiters around town. He had seen them at the high school. And he knew that with recruitment rates down due to the Iraq war, they were working hard to attract new cadets. And it gave him an idea.

"I wanted to see how far they'd go to get another soldier," says McSwane, a reporter for the Westwind at Arvada West High School in Arvada, Colo. So he set up a sting investigation, posing as a high school dropout with a marijuana habit and went down to his local Colorado Army recruitment station to enlist.

McSwane, 17, knew he would have to document his conversations with the recruiters, so he taped the telephone conversations, enlisted his sister to pose as a proud sibling so she could photograph parts of the process, and asked a friend to operate a video camera across from a local head shop.

But how did McSwane get an recruiter to visit a head shop with him? Simple. The honor student, pretending to have a ganja habit he couldn't kick, went there to score a detoxifying kit the Army office claimed had helped two previous recruits pass drug tests, according to a taped phone conversation broadcast on local TV. McSwane told his recruiter he didn't know what the detox formula looked like, so the man agreed to go to the store with him.

Aside from his drug problem, McSwane said he had no high school diploma -- which at that time was true, as he graduated about two months later -- and that he had dropped out of high school. No problem, the recruiters told him. There are Web sites where anyone can order a diploma from a school they make up. "It can be like Faith Hill Baptist School or whatever you choose," one recruiter can be heard saying on one of the taped exchanges.

After the fruits of his investigation ran in the Westwind, there was a brief lull.

Then a Denver TV station picked up the story and ran with it, first airing McSwane's findings on April 28. Within a few days the boy's sting had made national headlines, and the U.S. Army froze recruiting operations nationwide for a day. (His two would-be recruiters were suspended.)

"It's been kind of cool to see a reaction from the Pentagon on a story done in a high school paper," the teen reporter says. He has appeared on local and national TV, and articles on his investigation have appeared in the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and The New York Times. One could understand if the school was a bit unaccustomed to all the media attention.

Rick Kaufman, a spokesman for Jefferson County Public Schools, said that after the initial report ran in Westwind, "the principal was very clear with David that the articles could not go any further into his undercover actions." Because the school paper is produced as part of a class, the principal reviews the paper prior to publication and has the power to spike any story.

McSwane says his scrupulous documentation has for the most part prevented naysayers from calling his investigation false. Still, he says, some have questioned the ethics involved in a deceptive operation like the one he orchestrated: "Any undercover investigation, you're going in there as a lie. And a lot of people don't like it."

In the fall McSwane plans to start on a journalism degree at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. But he's not taking it easy in the meantime. "I work retail graveyard shifts right now, because I've got to make money for college," he says, upon waking in the mid-afternoon. On his days off, he interns at the Arvada (Colo.) Press.

Like any good romance, McSwane's love of journalism started with something of an accident. "I guess I've always had a knack for writing," he says. "One day one of my English teachers just put me in newspaper class without my permission."

Yucking It Up In the Post

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, in a column on Friday, suggested that the congressional forum the previous day on the Downing Street memos was something of a joke. In his opening sentence he declared that House Democrats "took a trip to the land of make-believe" in pretending that the basement conference room was actually a real hearing room, even importing a few American flags to make it look more official.

Oddly, he seem less interested in the far more serious "make-believe" that inspired the basement session: the administration's fake case for WMDs in Iraq that has already led to the deaths of over 1,700 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. No, Milbank used the valuable real estate of the Post -- its only coverage of the event -- to mock Rep. John Conyers, who arranged the meeting, and his "hearty band of playmates."

This fun-loving "band" included a mother who had lost her son in Iraq.

The debate over the Downing Street memos has been covered elsewhere at E&P Online, going back to our first story on May 5, and including a new column on this site by William E. Jackson. So allow me to focus, instead, on one brief moment in the Thursday forum, which took me back to a connected, equally brief, Washington moment last year. It represents one of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of the American media, and presidency, yet is rarely mentioned today.

It occurred on March 24, 2004. The setting: The 60th annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (with many print journalists there as guests) at the Hilton. On the menu: surf and turf. Attendance: 1500. The main speaker: President George W. Bush, one year into the Iraq war, with 500 Americans already dead.

Now you may recall what happened. President Bush, as usual at such gatherings of journalists, poked fun at himself. Great leeway is granted to presidents (and their spouses) at such events, allowing them to offer somewhat tasteless or even off-color barbs. Audiences love to laugh along with, rather than at, a president, for a change. It's all in good fun, except when it's in bad fun, such as on that night in March 2004.

That night, in the middle of his stand-up routine before the (perhaps tipsy) journos, Bush showed on a screen behind him some candid on-the-job photos of himself. One featured him gazing out a window, as Bush narrated, smiling: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." According to the transcript this was greeted with "laughter and applause."

A few seconds later, he was shown looking under papers, behind drapes, and even under his desk, with this narration: "Nope, no weapons over there" (met with more "laughter and applause"), and then "Maybe under here?" (just "laughter" this time). Still searching, he settled for finding a photo revealing the Skull and Bones secret signal.

There is no record of whether Dana Milbank attended that dinner, but his paper the following day seemed to find this something of a howl. Jennifer Frey's report, carried on the front page of the Style section (under the headline, "George Bush, Entertainer in Chief"), led with Donald Trump's appearance, and mentioned without comment Bush's "recurring joke" of searching for the WMDs.

The Associated Press review was equally jovial: "President Bush poked fun at his staff, his Democratic challenger and himself Wednesday night at a black-tie dinner where he hobnobbed with the news media." In fact, it is hard to find any immediate account of the affair that raised questions over the president's slide show. Many noted that the WMD jokes were met with general and loud laughter.

The reporters covering the gala were apparently as swept away with laughter as the guests. One of the few attendees to criticize the president's gag, David Corn of The Nation, said he heard not a single complaint from his colleagues at the after-party. Corn wondered if they would have laughed if President Reagan, following the truck bombing of our Marines barracks in Beirut, which killed 241, had said at a similar dinner: "Guess we forgot to put in a stop light."

The backlash only appeared a day or two later, and not, by and large, emerging from the media, but from Democrats and some Iraq veterans. Then it was mainly forgotten. I never understood why Sen. John Kerry did not air a tape of the episode every day during his hapless final drive for the White House.

I was reminded of all this at the Thursday forum when former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, after cataloguing the bogus Bush case for WMDs and the Iraqi threat, looked out at the cameras and notepads, mentioned the March 24, 2004 dinner, and acted out the president looking under papers and table for those missing WMDs. "And the media was all yucking it up ... hahaha," McGovern said. "You all laughed with him, folks. But I'll tell you who is not laughing. Cindy Sheehan is not laughing."

This was the woman sitting next to him whose son had been killed in Iraq. "Cindy's son," McGovern added, "was killed 11 days after the show put on by the president ... after that big joke."

Dana Milbank, who seems to like a good laugh, did not mention this in his story the following day.

Papers Reach Iraq Boiling Point

Suddenly there seems to be something in the air -- the smell of death? Or something in the water -- blood? In any case, this past week, widely scattered newspaper editorialists roused themselves from seeming acceptance of the continuing slaughter in Iraq to voice, for the first time in many cases, outright condemnation of the war.

While still refusing to use the "W" word in offering advice to Dubya -- that is, "withdrawal" -- some at least are finally using the "L" word, for lies.

Memorial Day seemed to bring out the anger in some editorial writers, who at that time are normally afraid to say anything about a current conflict that might seem to slight the brave sacrifices of men and women, past and present. Maybe it was the steadily growing Iraqi and American death count, or the increasing examples of White House "disassembling" (to quote the president this week), or the horror stories emerging from Gitmo.

Or perhaps it's a hidden trend that might have even more impact than the rest: the writing on the wall spelled out by plunging military recruitment rates. That only adds to the sense that, overall, the Iraq adventure has made America far less safe in this world.

For whatever reason, it's possible that more than a few editorial pages may finally be on the verge of saying "enough is enough." Perhaps they might even catch up with their readers, as the latest Gallup polls find that 57% feel the war is "not worth it," and nearly as many want us to start pulling out troops, not sending more of them.

There were numerous signs of editorial unrest in the past week, too many to cite. The Sun of Baltimore, in its Memorial Day editorial, declared: "If the president truly wished to honor their memory, he would demonstrate to the nation that the government that has botched so much of the war at least has some inkling as to how to draw it to a successful conclusion -- so that the dead will not have died in vain." The Minneapolis Star-Tribune called Iraq "an unnecessary war based on contrived concerns. ... President Bush and those around him lied, and the rest of us let them. Harsh? Yes. True? Also yes."

Steve Chapman, syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune (and generally considered a conservative), on Thursday declared: "The dilemma the U.S. faces in fighting the insurgents is that military methods are not enough to solve the problem and may make it worse. If the movement is a reaction to the U.S. military presence, keeping American troops in Iraq amounts to fighting a fire with kerosene.

"That explains why the longer we stay, the more suicide attacks we face. And it suggests that the only feasible strategy is to withdraw from Iraq and turn the fight over to the Iraqi government. The alternative is to stay and keep doing what we've been doing for the last two years. But that approach has shown no signs of fostering success. It only promises to raise the cost of failure."

But perhaps the most powerful denunciation came from an unlikely source, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. An editorial in that Hearst paper this past Wednesday, just after Memorial Day, really thundered, and deserves reprinting here:

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Deep Source

At a time when journalists are increasingly coming under attack for using anonymous sources, history's most famous -- and well-protected (this side of Robert Novak) -- confidential source is being heard. And he emerged just in time to give anonymous sourcing everywhere new life.

W. Mark Felt, the former FBI deputy director whose identity as the famed Watergate source Deep Throat had remained secret for nearly 33 years, broke his silence Tuesday, admitting in a Vanity Fair article that he was The Friend who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down Richard Nixon.

In admitting this, Felt not only solved one of journalism's biggest mysteries, he also reminded skeptics that such reporting can be vital and positive. Moreover, the ability of Woodward, Bernstein and former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee to keep his identity a secret proved that whistleblowers who aid journalists can be protected even over three decades.

But more than solving a legendary Washington riddle, Felt's admission also breathed some much-needed life into the dying support for anonymous sources, which seems to have crippled journalistic credibility in many areas. From WMDs to the Valerie Plame case to Newsweek's recent stumble, confidential sourcing is a much battered journalistic tool.

"This is a case history and a case lesson of why it is so important that we have confidential sources," Carl Bernstein told The New York Times last night.

In recent years, newspapers have clamped down on the use of such sourcing, with tighter rules, stronger pressure to avoid no-name attribution, and more efforts to get information on the record. USA Today claims to have reduced anonymous sourcing by 75% in the past year.

While it is obviously preferable to have as much news on the record as possible, and the trend toward tightening anonymous sourcing can only lead to more reader confidence in news, the reminder of what the duo known as "Woodstein" and Felt accomplished through detailed, methodical, and multi-sourced reporting about a high-government scandal is important.

For a generation of readers who were not even around when Watergate occurred and view anonymous sourcing of today as merely bias, laziness, or cheap shots, a fresh look at Deep Throat's accomplishments, power, and positive contribution to U.S. history, is welcomed.

But it is also a reminder that proper sourcing is still needed. In each case that Deep Throat aided Woodward and Bernstein, he was never used as a sole, or even direct source. He was, as the nickname describes, always "on deep background." Watergate junkies also know quite well that the investigative duo forced themselves to have at least two sources on every story. That lesson remains even more important today, especially after the single-sourced Newsweek goof.

Some observers, such as former Nixon White House aide John Dean, have claimed the Bush administration is even more secretive and anti-press than Nixon's White House. The need for careful anonymous sourcing appears to be more obvious than ever.

And reminders of a past era when even the president could not hide his misdeeds - and a source could remain protected until he chose to come forward decades later - prove again that reporters need not hold back a story just because the sourcing might draw attacks, as long as the news is correct.

The Tillman Scandal

Where, in the week after the Great Newsweek Error, is the comparable outrage in the press, in the blogosphere, and at the White House over the military's outright lying in the coverup of the death of former NFL star Pat Tillman? Where are the calls for apologies to the public and the firing of those responsible? Who is demanding that the Pentagon's word should never be trusted unless backed up by numerous named and credible sources?

Where is a Scott McClellan lecture on ethics and credibility?

The Tillman scandal is back in the news thanks not to the military coming clean but because of a newspaper account. Ironically, the newspaper in question, The Washington Post -- which has taken the lead on this story since last December -- is corporate big brother to Newsweek.

The Post's Josh White reported this week that Tillman's parents are now ripping the Army, saying that the military's investigations into their son's 2004 "friendly fire" death in Afghanistan was a sham based on "lies" and that the Army cover-up made it harder for them to deal with their loss. They are speaking out now because they have finally had a chance to look at the full records of the military probe.

"Tillman's mother and father said in interviews that they believe the military and the government created a heroic tale about how their son died to foster a patriotic response across the country," White reported.

While military officials' lying to the parents have gained wide publicity in the past two days, hardly anyone has mentioned that they also lied to the public and to the press, which dutifully carried one report after another based on the Pentagon's spin. It had happened many times before, as in the Jessica Lynch incident.

Tillman was killed in a barrage of gunfire from his own men, mistaken for the enemy on a hillside near the Pakistan border. "Immediately," the Post reported, "the Army kept the soldiers on the ground quiet and told Tillman's family and the public that he was killed by enemy fire while storming a hill, barking orders to his fellow Rangers." Tillman posthumously received the Silver Star for his "actions."

The latest military investigation, exposed by the Post earlier this month, "showed that soldiers in Afghanistan knew almost immediately that they had killed Tillman by mistake in what they believed was a firefight with enemies on a tight canyon road. The investigation also revealed that soldiers later burned Tillman's uniform and body armor."

Patrick Tillman Sr., the father -- a lawyer, as it happens -- said he blames high-ranking Army officers for presenting "outright lies" to the family and to the public. "After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this," he told the Post. "They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy."

"Maybe lying's not a big deal anymore," he said. "Pat's dead, and this isn't going to bring him back. But these guys should have been held up to scrutiny, right up the chain of command, and no one has."

Mary Tillman, the mother, complained to the Post that the government used her son for weeks after his death. She said she was particularly offended when President Bush offered a taped memorial message to Tillman at a Cardinals football game shortly before the presidential election last fall.

Newsweek made a bad mistake in its recent report on Koran abuse at Guantanamo. But it was a mistake, not outright lying. Yet the same critics who blasted the magazine -- and the media in general -- are not demanding that same contrition or penalties for anyone in the military.

One Newsweek critic after another has asked in the past week that the media come up with just one case where they erred on the side of making the military look good, not bad. One hopes the Tillman example takes care of that request, though there are, of course, many others.

It is worth looking back at how Steve Coll of the Washington Post last December described the early weeks of the Pentagon spin on Tillman:

"Just days after Pat Tillman died from friendly fire on a desolate ridge in southeastern Afghanistan," Coll wrote, "the U.S. Army Special Operations Command released a brief account of his last moments.

"The April 30, 2004, statement awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for combat valor and described how a section of his Ranger platoon came under attack.

"'He ordered his team to dismount and then maneuvered the Rangers up a hill near the enemy's location,' the release said. 'As they crested the hill, Tillman directed his team into firing positions and personally provided suppressive fire. ... Tillman's voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy forces.'

"It was a stirring tale and fitting eulogy for the Army's most famous volunteer in the war on terrorism, a charismatic former pro football star whose reticence, courage and handsome beret-draped face captured for many Americans the best aspects of the country's post-Sept. 11 character.

"It was also a distorted and incomplete narrative, according to dozens of internal Army documents obtained by The Washington Post that describe Tillman's death by fratricide after a chain of botched communications, a misguided order to divide his platoon over the objection of its leader and undisciplined firing by fellow Rangers.

"The Army's public release made no mention of friendly fire, even though at the time it was issued, investigators in Afghanistan had already taken at least 14 sworn statements from Tillman's platoon members that made clear the true causes of his death.

"But the Army's published account not only withheld all evidence of fratricide, but also exaggerated Tillman's role and stripped his actions of their context. ... The Army's April 30 news release was just one episode in a broader Army effort to manage the uncomfortable facts of Pat Tillman's death, according to internal records and interviews."

Fake Letters-to-the-Editor

Every now and then, letters to the editor at the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times don't get posted to the paper's Web site with the rest of the day's paper, after midnight. When Dan Hatfield, the paper's editorial-page editor, arrived at the office at his usual 5:30 or 6 a.m. on those mornings, he'd find out right away that some letters hadn't made it up, because there would an angry e-mail waiting in his inbox from Kyle Vallone.

Hatfield could never understand why Vallone cared so much.

Times reporter Sarah Krupp solved that riddle in a story published Sunday. After a months-long investigation, Krupp exposed Vallone as the man behind an unusually sophisticated letter-writing campaign.

"We have always found a few little things," Hatfield told E&P about previous instances of dishonest letter-writers. "We had found a number of other people who were not nearly as sophisticated as this one."

Vallone went further than anyone, making up letter writers, securing false phone numbers, and even faking accents on the phone to match his made up names, the Times reported.

After months of reporting, and one earlier confrontation, Krupp got Vallone to admit that he had worked on as many as 200 false letters sent to at least three Northern California newspapers: the Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Tri-Valley Herald.

Krupp started looking into the letters when she was covering a local election and some suspicious letters surfaced in the campaign.

"She started going through mountains of letters looking for the same phone numbers, and she found a few," Hatfield said. Once she tracked down the numbers in question, she managed to contact Vallone, who at first denied any knowledge of the letters.

After Krupp found out more about Vallone and solidified the reporting for a story, Vallone came forward, saying he had started writing false letters when he was working for a Republican political campaign in 1994. During that campaign, staffers would write letters to the editor, which volunteers would sign and send in their names.

The Times and the Chronicle both verify letters to the editor by phoning the writer and sometimes by other means, but Vallone used free voicemail services to create fictitious identities, the Times reported. Vallone could not be reached for comment by E&P.

As Krupp's investigation progressed, the Times developed and implemented new procedures that Hatfield wouldn't discuss publicly. And with the publication of Sunday's article, the Chronicle has also started an investigation into any letters it received.

"We are certainly looking into it to determine if we also were targets of his letters, as the article indicated," John Diaz, the Chronicle's editorial-page editor, told E&P Monday afternoon. "It's obviously an area of great interest and concern to us."

Regardless of the outcome of the inquiry, Diaz said, the episode has called letter-verification procedures into question, and the Chronicle will "take steps to reduce the chances of this happening again."

But both Diaz and Hatfield acknowledge that there is probably no way to completely prevent false letters.

"I think it's probably not possible to build an absolute firewall against somebody who is bound and determined," Diaz said. Even with new measures, Hatfield agreed, "there is no fail-safe that I know of to guarantee that no [falsified] letter ever will get in there."

Both the Times and the Chronicle had caught Vallone for previous deceptions. The Times had caught him writing in the name of a local former mayor, and the Chronicle nailed him for plagiarizing portions of a letter from The Wall Street Journal -- a violation the paper corrected in print.

The papers simply didn't know that the same man was writing under other names. Only after Krupp's meticulous reporting did the facts become clear.

"She's the star of this show," Hatfield said. "This has certainly gotten her noticed here."

Gannon and the Bloggers

The Jeff Gannon affair has not yet morphed into a full-fledged political scandal, or retreated to the realm of embarrassing footnote, so this may be a good time to pause and reflect. At the center of the controversy: A man with no journalistic (but plenty of sex-site) experience who managed to cover the White House at close range for two years for an obscure online site called Talon News -- under an alias -- with the avowed aim of simply presenting the administration's case, unfiltered.

Whatever the merits of the uproar over this episode, it has proved extremely instructive for me, making possible my first immersion in the new world of blog-generated controversy.

Of course, I closely watched previous blog brouhahas, such as "Rathergate," but at some distance. This time I followed it from day one. The blogs helped drive E&P's online coverage (which drew national attention), and our coverage, in turn, fed the blogs. So this is an interesting case study in the tenuous new blog/mainstream relationship that has lately drawn much name-calling on either side.

The Gannon affair began in late January after the faux news reporter, who had drawn little notice, suddenly asked a too-puffy-to-ignore question at one of President Bush's rare press conferences. The fact that this strange fellow was not only in the room, but got called on, set tongues wagging. The Media Matters web site raised questions about Gannon and his long history of softball questions. Our own Joe Strupp got Gannon's phone number, and was first to interview him. He learned that "Gannon" was an alias, though the reporter would not reveal his true name.

By this time, the liberal blogs were probing Talon News, finding that it was closely affiliated with another site called GOPUSA.com. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of the "pajamadeen" went to work on the alias angle. A few days later, the popular blogger Atrios suggested that Gannon's real name was James D. Guckert.

This is when I really started following the pursuit. It was amazing to see how many participants, at how many sites, took part, and the skills at their command, mainly web-based. The material the detectives at DailyKos and other blogs drew out of obscure or abandoned web sites -- and caches -- regarding Talon, Gannon, and a dozen other threads was astounding, although I couldn't quite tell if any of the searches and grabs required talents well beyond the reach of even the most advanced computer wonks.

Within 24 hours, the gumshoes had confirmed that Gannon was Guckert. Meanwhile, someone linked Guckert to setting up half a dozen sex-oriented web sites with names like militaryescort.com. Hours later someone else posted a screen capture of a "JDG" in his underwear from an abandoned AOL hometown page, and he sure looked like Gannon/Guckert. Certainly that was just coincidence?

Then Gannon/Guckert told Strupp that he had indeed set up sex sites "for a client," but claimed they had never been activated.

Well, I was growing impressed with blog research. Cutting away the over-the-top rhetoric, snarkiness, and conspiracy theories, most of their far-fetched facts were standing up. So when Americablog uncovered what appeared to be nude photos of Gannon/Guckert advertising his wares as an escort, along with something of a paper trail linking him to those sites, I was no longer skeptical. Soon The Washington Post was citing this evidence.

I won't go into the rest of that week, except to note that Strupp managed to get exclusive interviews with current White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan and his predecessor, Ari Fleisher, who each made admissions that drew wide attention -- and gave the blogs even more leads. The mainstream media slowly came to the story, with the explosion occurring on Feb. 17, two weeks after the first Media Matters mention, although too many outlets have pooh-poohed the story.

Sure, there is plenty of junk-research out there on the blogs, and unproven or offensive comments still abound in the postings. But what surprised me the most were the resources the major blogs (as opposed to the Mom-and-Pop operations) can call upon for this type of story, enlisting experts around the country -- non-journalists, but people with similar, or even more highly developed, web skills.

And here's the nut of it: In the blogosphere, it's often asked, on both the left and right, "Why can't the mainstream media get to the bottom of these scandals like the blogs sometimes do?" Of course, one of the reasons is, they are simply too timid. But I understand another part of the answer now: No single news outlet has anywhere near the army of workers who toil, unpaid, at odd hours, for the larger blogs. To compete in this regard, Gannett would have to shut down some of its local papers and put their news staffs to work for USA Today. Then USA Today could throw a battalion of reporters at a hot issue -- like some blogs now can, and do.

Media Mangles Iraq Vote

Everyone, of course, is thrilled that so many Iraqis turned out to vote, in the face of threats and intimidation, on Sunday. But in hailing, and at times gushing, over the turnout, has the American media (as it did two years ago in the hyping of Saddam's WMDs) forgotten core journalistic principles in regard to fact-checking and weighing partisan assertions?

It appears so. For days, the press repeated, as gospel, assertions offered by an election official that 8 million Iraqis went to the polls on Sunday, an impressive 57% turnout rate. I questioned those figures as early as last Sunday, and offered the detailed analysis below on Wednesday. Finally, on Thursday night, John F. Burns and Dexter Filkins of The New York Times reported that Iraqi election officials have quietly "backtracked, saying that the 8 million estimate had been reached hastily on the basis of telephone reports from polling stations across the country and that the figure could change."

Then, in Friday's paper, Burns and Filkins noted that one election commision official was "evasive about the turnout, implying it might end up significantly lower than the initial estimate." They quoted this official, Safwat Radhid, exclaiming: "Only God Almighty knows the final turnout now." They revealed that the announcement of a turnout number, expected to be released this weekend, has been put off for a week, due to the "complex" tabulation system.

I'll be delighted if that figure, when it is officially announced, exceeds the dubious numbers already enshrined by much of the media. But don't be surprised if it falls a bit short. The point is: Nobody knows, and reporters and pundits should have never acted like they did know when they stated, flatly, that 8 million Iraqis voted and that this represents a turnout rate of about 57%.

Carl Bialik, who writes the Numbers Guy column for Wall Street Journal Online, calls this "a great question ... how the journalists can know these numbers – when so many of them aren't able to venture out all over that country." Speaking to E&P on Wednesday, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post – one of the few mainstream journalists to raise questions about the turnout percentage – referred to the "fuzzy math" at the heart of it.

Those with long memories may recall the downward-adjusted turnout numbers that followed violence-plagued elections in South Vietnam in 1967 and in El Salvador in 1984.

And one thing we now know for sure: the early media blather about a "strong" Sunni turnout has proven false. Adding a dose of reality, The Associated Press on Wednesday cited a Western diplomat who declared that turnout appeared to have been "quite low" in Iraq's vast Anbar province. Meanwhile, Carlos Valenzuela, the chief United Nations elections expert in Iraq, cautioned that forecasts for the Sunni areas were so low to begin with that even a higher-than-expected turnout would remain low.

In a rare reference to an actual vote tabulation, The New York Times on Thursday reports that in the "diverse" city of Mosul, with 60% of the count completed, the overall turnout seems slightly above 10%, or "somewhat more than 50,000 of Mosul's 500,000 estimated eligible voters."

This, of course, is no minor matter: Iraq's leading Sunni Muslim clerics said Wednesday that the country's election lacked legitimacy because large numbers of Sunnis did not participate in the balloting. Sure, many of them are simply sore losers (they lost an entire country) but that doesn't make their reaction any less troublesome for Iraq's future, especially with the cleric-backed Shiite alliance apparently headed for a landslide win.

Dexter Filkins of The New York Times warned Thursday that the widespread Sunni boycott "could even lead to the failure of the constitution; under the rules drafted last year to guide the establishment of a new Iraqi state, a two-thirds 'no' vote in three provinces would send the constitution down to defeat. The Sunnis are a majority in three provinces."

As for the overall Iraqi turnout: the more the better, but why is the press so confident in the estimates from an Iraqi commission with a clear stake in a high number?

For several days now, the press has routinely referred to the figure of 8 million Iraqi voters, following the lead of Farid Ayar, the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq. In the original press citations, what Ayar actually said (hedging his bets) was "as many as 8 million," which most in the media quickly translated as "about 8 million," and then, inevitably, "8 million."

Curiously, the day before the election, according to press reports, Ayar had predicted that 7 to 8 million would turn out, giving him some incentive to later spot the numbers in that neighborhood.

Also, one dares to ask: If the commission expected close to 8 million, and that's what happened – and there was less violence on election day than anticipated – why was the turnout greeted as such a surprise? Especially since U.S. and Iraqi leaders have spent months knocking the press for failing to report that the vast majority of regions in this country are safe and friendly.

The percentage of turnout supplied by Ayar came to 57% (happily rounded off by many in the press to 60%). This was based on what was described as 14 million potential voters divided by those 8 million who braved the potential bullets and bombs to go to the polls.

On Sunday, while hailing the millions going to the polls, I also raised questions about the 14 million eligible figure: was that registered voters, or all adults over 18, or what? Few on TV or in print seem to be quite sure, to this day.

It's a big difference. Since Sunday, countless TV talking heads, such as Chris Matthews, and print pundits have compared the Iraq turnout favorably to U.S. national elections, not seeming to understand that 80%-90% of our registered voters usually turn out. The problem in our country is that so few people bother to register, bringing our overall turnout numbers way down.

Howard Kurtz at least looked into the Iraqi numbers. In a Tuesday column, he observed that "the 14 million figure is the number of registered Iraqis, while turnout is usually calculated using the number of eligible voters. The number of adults in Iraq is probably closer to 18 million," which would lower the turnout figure to 45% (if, indeed, the 8 million number holds up).

To put it clearly: If say, for example, 50,000 residents of a city registered and 25,000 voted, that would seem like a very respectable 50% turnout, by one standard. But if the adult population of the city was 150,000, then the actual turnout of 16% would look quite different.

"Election officials concede they did not have a reliable baseline on which to calculate turnout," Kurtz concluded.

He also quoted Democratic strategist Robert Weiner as saying: "It's an amazing media error, a huge blunder. I'm sure the Bush administration is thrilled by this spin."

Bloggers quickly questioned Kurtz's upgrade to 18 million, noting that the population of the country, according to many sources, is 25 million or so, and the population is heavily teenaged and younger. But other current estimates run as high as 27.1 million.

The critics also hit Kurtz for not providing a source for his 18 million figure. But Kurtz told E&P on Wednseday, "I talked to a couple of experts, one of whom was Ken Pollack, from Brookings, and also ran it by two of my reporters in Baghdad. But it is definitely an approximation, just trying to give a sense that – the one thing everyone I consulted seems to agree on – is that the 14 million, the baseline, is a very fuzzy figure because there was no registration."

He said he thought it was Pollack, "who studies this for a living," who pegged the adult population of Iraq at 17 or 18 million. "Maybe he leaned more toward 18 million," Kurtz added. "I don't know if this is a definitive figure but I was just trying to explain the difference between whatever that figure is and the 14 million that was so widely used by all the media as if it were everyone eligible – which means, to me, everyone over 18. When in fact it was this concocted number about passive registration based on who got rations. The point is, it's all fuzzy math, and I was just trying to illustrate that."

He added: "This was my stab at just trying to tell readers the 60% figure that had been so widely touted was hardly definitive, and it may be lower."

All credit to the brave Iraqis who did vote, and in many places they did turn out in droves. But it occurred to me, watching the moving TV images on Sunday of people standing in line outside polling places in Sunni hot spots, that maybe, as so often, the camera lied. In many embattled Sunni cities, we'd been told, many if not most polling places never opened. Wouldn't this likely cause a crush, by even a few hundred voters, at the relatively few places that did open?

Not that anyone, that I know of, was asking.

PR for Soldiers

As the U.S. military approaches nearly two years in the Iraq conflict, media training for soldiers going into the war zone has been stepped up, becoming mandatory for Army troops since October, E&P has learned.

"Talking point" cards for military personnel, meanwhile, are being updated regularly as the war progresses – often as much as once a week – to keep up with the conflict's changing issues and the proximity of embedded reporters. Among the current talking points: "We are a values-based, people-focused team that strives to uphold the dignity and respect of all."

Soldiers preparing for deployment in hostile or critical areas have received some kind of media training in handling press inquiries since as far back as the first Persian Gulf War, according to several military press officers. Such training has also included pocket cards with suggested talking points for the combatants, which advise them how best to promote the military operation and avoid awkward or confrontational interviews.

"As situations happen, you will have ever-changing talking points, as much as every week," said Capt. Jeff Landis, a Marine Corps public-affairs spokesman. "They are tailored to the situation."

The media training consists of one or two hours of briefings by public-affairs specialists from the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md. In the past, such training was provided only to those Army units who requested it, according to Sgt. Don Dees, an Army spokesman based at the Baghdad press center. But, since October, it has become a mandatory requirement for all deploying Army troops.

"The Army just recently made it a common soldier task; it is one of the requirements they go through," Dees said. "It is in our best interest to provide them that training."

While the Marine Corps has made such training a requirement for years, it has taken on more importance in recent months as well. "There is more heightened awareness with this particular conflict," Capt. Landis told E&P, referring to the Iraq operation. "It has taken a higher priority."

During training, soldiers are urged to speak with the press as a way of promoting the positive elements of the operation, but not to lie or speak about issues with which they are not familiar.

"It is a standard part of deployment preparation," said Lt. Col. Gerard Healy, an Army spokesman based at the Pentagon.

Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Department of Defense spokesman, compared it to any other basic training. "It is a common task, much like firing your rifle," he said. "It has emerged over the past 10 years as a necessary skill."

The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., noted this week that the first talking point in a slide show for troops at Fort Bragg was: "We are not an occupying force."

A list of "wallet-card" talking points given to a group of Marines heading to Iraq, obtained by that newspaper, included:

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Pardoning Jack Johnson

It's widely known that filmmaker Ken Burns, whose four-hour documentary on Jack Johnson concluded last night on PBS (scheduled to rebroadcast this week), is now spearheading a drive to secure a presidential pardon for the boxer's Mann Act conviction. What's less known is what sparked his protest: racist editorials in leading newspapers, including The New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

Burns told The New York Times, in an article today, that the decision to seek the pardon "was born out of anger, from listening to the accumulated bile of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, spouting racial language about Johnson," back when he competing for the heavyweight crown in the early 1900s. "We were all sitting around a table and someone said maybe we should seek a pardon. And a light went on."

Burns' acclaimed film is called Unforgivable Blackness. Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, was eventually defeated by federal persecution and "great white hope" Jesse Willard.

Last Friday, the Los Angeles Times, in a kind of apology, ran an editorial quoting from one of its 1910 broadsides, and endorsed Burns' call for a pardon. It said that the newspaper's views "shamefully" did not rise above "the sentiments of the day." A portion of one of the paper's editorials, which ran on July 6, 1910, the day after Jackson defended his title against ex-champ Jim Jeffries, was read in the film to great dramatic effect by Billy Bob Thornton.

Two other excerpts from that editorial, not read, reminded whites of their "mental supremacy," which "cannot at the present be taken" from them. It also instructed blacks, "If you have ambition for yourself or your race, you must try for something better in development than that of the mule."

An E&P search found that The New York Times, in a May 12, 1910, editorial previewing that fight, wrote, "If the black man wins thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors."

On July 5, 1910, the day after the Jeffries fight, a cartoon in the Chicago Tribune pictured a Johnson fan as "Sambo" happily ordering a big meal. A editorial in that paper the same day called the champ "Little Arthur Johnson, a perfect specimen of smoked American." His victory had "made it necessary for us to look to intellectual employments for the racial superiority in the sensations of which we luxuriate."

A day earlier, an article in the paper had warned that a Jackson win would encourage blacks to challenge the "power" of whites.

Pundits Strike Out on bin Laden

On the morning after a new video from Osama bin Laden emerged, ABC's influential "The Note," the political/media online tip sheet, observed: "In the absence of any data to grab onto, it is a near certainty that the vast majority of weekend TV chatterers will assume that the tape is good for the President and bad for Kerry."

One expects the worst from TV new pundits, but one hoped that newspaper reporters and commentators would not lose their heads in a similar manner. For, as "The Note" noted, the outcome of the election may be determined "partly from how the candidates handle this and partly from how the press does."

Apparently the notion that the arrival of the new tape was good for Bush was based on the belief that he is "strong on terrorism," and the reappearance of Osama played into this. This quickly became the conventional wisdom and, possibly, a self-fulfiling prophecy.

Hardly getting equal weight was the idea that the tape reminds us that: (1) 9/11 happened on Bush's watch, (2) Bush has not yet caught bin Laden, perhaps because he (3) switched his attention to Iraq where (4) we have contributed to the terrorist threat against us in numerous tragic ways, not to mention suffering more U.S. casualties (dead and injured) than we absorbed in 9/11, with eight more U.S. Marines added to the tally on Saturday.

Would the press go along with other media, predicting a Bush surge, possibly allowing the bin Laden tape to sway the election (and then express regrets that they allowed this to happen in the weeks ahead)?

The early returns were not good. But the evidence, as of Sunday, apparently proves the pundits wrong.

Here was the early word from Mark Z. Barabak of the Los Angeles Times: "Most analysts thought it would aid Bush, at the least, by changing the subject from stolen Iraqi weapons, doctored campaign ads and other developments that had thrown the president on the defensive for the last few days."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank noted that the tape could cut both ways, but added: "Weighing in Bush's favor is that Americans have typically rallied around the president when they have felt threatened, and bin Laden's tape is menacing. Also, the fact that bin Laden was making his presence known through a videotape rather than through a Madrid-style attack could be seen as evidence that Bush had done his job of protecting the public."

Then there was David Brooks in his New York Times column: "One of the crucial issues of this election is, 'Which candidate fundamentally gets the evil represented by this man? Which of these two guys understands it deep in his gut – not just in his brain or in his policy statements, but who feels it so deep in his soul that it consumes him?'" Guess who Brooks favors?

On the other hand, The Washington Post's Dana Priest and Walter Pincus pointed out: "Although he directed statements to the American public, many intelligence and other counterterrorism experts concluded bin Laden's primary goal was to use the U.S. campaign season to enhance his public profile rather than to sway the election.

"'The tape is more about his own audience, about getting himself reelected as the head of the movement, than anything else,' said Winston P. Wiley, former CIA deputy director of intelligence.

"Inside the CIA, one senior U.S. counterterrorism official said, 'I've heard it argued either way ... but listen to what he's saying. It doesn't matter who's president.'"

The Boston Globe, after a balanced assessment, closed by quoting Kerry foreign policy adviser Richard Holbrooke: "The important thing, unfortunately, is that Osama bin Laden is alive and looks pretty well. [The tape] raises a much deeper question: How can this grotesque mass murderer be out there on international television more than three years after 9/11?"

Or as Maureen Dowd put it in her Sunday column: "The Bushies' campaign pitch follows their usual backward logic: Because we have failed to make you safe, you should re-elect us to make you safer. Because we haven't caught Osama in three years, you need us to catch Osama in the next four years. ... You'd think that seeing Osama looking fit as a fiddle and ready for hate would spark anger at the Bush administration's cynical diversion of the war on al Qaeda to the war on Saddam."

Her home paper, The New York Times, on Sunday showed the divide between pundits who rely on unnamed insiders and reporters out on the road.

Adam Nagourney weighed in today with a "news analysis" that repeatedly emphasized the "somewhat welcome news for President Bush." Nagourney repeated himself, stating that the tape "reinforced what has been the defining rationale of Mr. Bush's re-election candidacy" and later affirming that the campaign had come full circle "to the moment that has defined Mr. Bush's presidency and shaped his re-election campaign."

But in the same paper today, on the front page, came a report from Kirk Johnson in Colorado, headlined: "Voters, Their Minds Made Up, Say bin Laden Changes Nothing."

Even more telling: numerous daily tracking polls (even the one from Fox News) released Saturday and Sunday showed absolutely no boost for Bush since Friday and, if anything, a slight hike for Kerry. So much for the Bush bounce.

Unreal Debates

Start paying attention. Presidential debate season is upon us.

The first one, this Thursday at the University of Miami, will focus on foreign policy, the eminent issue so far between President Bush and Sen. Kerry, if you don't count the who-did-what during Vietnam mud fling.

American voters should expect a chance to scrutinize the candidates under pressure as they argue their views on important issues during a presumably dramatic affair. "If only that were true," lamented The Christian Science Monitor last week on its commentary page. "The debates have become too staged and the answers too canned."

Voters apparently sense that, too. As the Monitor noted, when challenger Ronald Reagan took on President Jimmy Carter in 1980, the first debate I covered, about 80 million viewers tuned in. The last match-up between Dubya and Al Gore four years ago (in the closest modern presidential election) seemed important enough for watching to only 47 million.

It's not that these events are inherently boring, and certainly they can be influential, as shown in Reagan overtaking Carter that year, helped by a late debate victory ("There you go again!"). But the public senses an insult to the concept of a perfect democracy.

Mark Memmott of USA Today last week wrote of another dispiriting development in the debate syndrome. The Bush and Kerry campaigns both have asked the four moderators of the imminent debates to sign a 32-page "memorandum of understanding": acceptance of rules drawn up and mutually agreed upon by Democratic and Republican strategists.

And 32 pages? What's with that? This makes moderating a debate almost as complicated as doing your taxes or buying a house. It strikes some journalists and election experts in academia as somewhat similar to the "loyalty oaths" Reform Party candidate Ross Perot asked his supporters to sign in 1992.

Memmott quoted Northeastern University professor Alan Schroeder as calling the request "ludicrous" and commenting "They cover these guys. How can they climb into bed with them?"

After covering six presidential campaigns, and nine presidential debates, myself, I think I can put this in plain English: Campaign bigwigs for both Kerry and Bush are worried some ringer might slip in a tough question.

Consider the second presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 8 in St. Louis. It's a town hall format, and ABC's Charles Gibson, who's moderating, is supposed to pre-select written questions and then "cut off" anyone who changes the wording submitted. Neither Gibson, nor Jim Lehrer who moderates in Miami, nor Gwen Ifill of PBS (who moderates the sole vice presidential debate Oct. 5 in Cleveland) would comment to Memmott. Bob Schieffer of CBS, who runs the last presidential debate in Tempe, Ariz. on Oct. 13, said he had "no problem" with the rules.

Put me down in the "Severely Disappointed" column. This is yet another black eye for print and electronic journalism.

The quartet of respected journalists should tell both Democrat and Republican campaign poobahs to take a hike. The presidential debates increasingly smell like rig jobs with preconceived answers to cream-puff questions. The formats resemble the high-concept scripts of those dopey survivor shows.

We might as well ask Donald Trump to moderate, or let the candidates' wives do the questioning.

Chris Matthews Plays Hardball with Zell Miller

Probably the most incendiary moment in all of the television coverage of the Republican National Convention so far occurred shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday night, during a Chris Matthews interview with Senator Zell Miller on MSNBC, which started hot and then grew even hotter after a question about reporters and freedom the press.

"You're hopeless," Miller told Matthews, dead serious, speaking over a hook-up from Madison Square Garden, where he had earlier delivered the keynote address. "I wish I was over there with you where I could get in your face." He also said, "I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel."

Later Miller said, "I don't know why I came on this program" and "I think we ought to cancel this interview."

After the interview, off the air, Matthews called it "an incredible moment" and said that Miller must have come "loaded for bear." He said he hoped they could continue their debate on his show Thursday night.

Other Miller retorts: "Don't pull that kind of stuff on me....I don't have to stand here and listen to that kind of stuff...Do you know what a metaphor is?"

And: "You get in my face, and I'm going to get back in your face. And the only reason you're doing it is because you're standing way over there in Herald Square."

Matthews had gotten on Miller's case right from the start, asking him if he really believed what he had said in his speech about Senator John Kerry wanting to defend America with "spitballs." As Miller fudged his answer, and Matthews in his customary style cut him short or talked over him, they each started shouting. Miller told Matthews to "get out of my face."

Then Matthews asked him why he had said in his speech that "it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press." Matthews said it was such an obvious thing to say, wasn't he just looking for an easy "anti-media" applause line? Miller went ballistic again and nearly stalked off, with Matthews, not exactly backing down, struggling to calm him, which he did, after another few seconds of shouting.

The interview closed with Matthews saying that now Miller probably disliked him, but invited him back on the show Thursday night when he could talk with Joe Scarborough who, he said, would probably be kinder. Miller didn't answer yes or no.

Matthews later suggested that since Miller had said he wanted to get in his face he ought to appear with him in person Thursday night.

The New York Times Mea Culpa

After months of criticism of The New York Times' coverage of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- mainly directed at star reporter Judith Miller -- the paper's editors, in an extraordinary note to readers this morning, finally tackled the subject, acknowledging it was "past time" they do so. Following the sudden fall last week of Ahmad Chalabi, Miller's most famous source, they probably had no choice.

While it does not, in some ways, go nearly far enough, and is buried on Page A10, this low-key but scathing self-rebuke is nothing less than a primer on how not to do journalism, particularly if you are an enormously influential newspaper with a costly invasion of another nation at stake.

Today's critique is, in its own way, as devastating as last year's front-page corrective on Jayson Blair, though not nearly as long.

Nowhere in it, however, does the name of Judith Miller appear. The editors claim that the "problematic articles varied in authorship" and point out that while critics have "focused blame on individual reporters ... the problem was more complicated."

Yet, clearly, even in the Times' own view, Miller was the main culprit, though they seem reluctant, or ashamed, to say so. This is clear in analyzing today's critique. The editors single out six articles as being especially unfortunate, and Judith Miller had a hand in four of them: writing two on her own, co-authoring the other two with Michael Gordon. The only two non-Miller pieces were the earliest in the chronology, and they barely receive mention.

Starting nearly a year ago, E&P called on the Times to reassess Miller's work, and renewed the call more often than any other publication.

While refusing to name Miller, the Times' critique plainly and persistently finds fault. In referring to one of the bogus Miller pieces, the editors explain, "it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in." Then, just as tellingly, they add: "And until now we have not reported that to our readers."

The editors observe that administration officials now acknowledge "they sometimes fell for misinformation" from exile sources, mentioning Chalabi as one. So, they note, did many news organizations, adding, "in particular, this one," an amazing admission.

Then consider this mea culpa:

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