A Knight-Ridder poll before the war found that half of Americans believed there were Iraqis among the Sept. 11 hijackers; and only 17 percent knew that none of the hijackers were Iraqis, a group outnumbered by the 21 percent who thought "most" of the hijackers were Iraqis.
Why the Media Don't Call It as They See It
By Paul Waldman
Sunday, September 28, 2003; Page B04
True or false: Saddam Hussein helped plan the Sept.11 attacks.
As those who read or heard President Bush's recent statement on the issue are aware, that assertion is false. Then why have so many Americans -- 69 percent, according to a Washington Post survey last month -- been telling public opinion pollsters they believe it is likely that Saddam was involved?
The administration's critics think they know whom to blame for this: President Bush and those who work for him. I think they're right. But I would also name an accessory: The nation's media, which have yet to find a clear and effective way to report incorrect impressions and untruthful statements, particularly those that emanate from the White House.
For the past year, Bush administration officials have hinted and insinuated that there's a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Few have been as persistent as Vice President Cheney. Some of the vice president's most outlandish statements have come in interviews on NBC's "Meet the Press." In three appearances dating back to December 2001, Cheney has said there is information suggesting that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague months before the attack, a story that the FBI, the CIA and the Czech government all say is fictional (Atta was in the United States at the time of the alleged meeting). But it was Cheney's most recent appearance, on Sept. 14, that brought matters to a head.
It started when host Tim Russert questioned him about the Post poll result and the basis for the public's perception of a Saddam-al Qaeda link. Cheney gave a coy answer, "I think it's not surprising that people make that connection." Russert asked directly if such a connection existed. Cheney said, "We don't know."
But later in the show, without prompting, Cheney offered a new and startling assertion tying Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks, calling it "the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."
The geographic base of the 9/11 terrorists was, of course, Afghanistan. That's why we invaded that country one month after those attacks.
Until this statement, which was more direct than previous ones, few in the media had challenged the administration. This time, the reaction from some members of the press corps was swift and sure. The Post and the Boston Globe wrote tough stories examining Cheney's questionable claims. In perhaps the strongest statement, a Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial said, "Cheney fell woefully short of truth. On Iraq, the same can be said for President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. . . . . It's past time the principals behind this mismanaged war were called to account for their deliberate misstatements."
Why didn't the media go after the administration sooner on this issue? Aren't reporters, especially in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, all too ready to show their skepticism about our leaders and what they say?
Only to a point. Journalists are notoriously reluctant to use the word "lie" when describing the statements of public officials. This is understandable. Reporters don't know what they don't know. So they point out deceptions with euphemisms. "Presidential embroidery" was the phrase that a widely noted Washington Post story used last year to describe how White Houses, past and present, sometimes handle the facts. Even the Star Tribune's editorial, as tough as it was, avoided directness by referring to "deliberate misstatements," which is something of an oxymoron.
The immediate consequence of the backlash over Cheney's statements was that reporters put the question directly to Bush, and the president decided to go on the record himself. "No, we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th," the president said on Sept. 17. Bush's statement, while obvious, made news -- although not as big news as you would think. According to the trade publication Editor & Publisher, of the 12 largest-circulation daily papers, three ran a story about Bush's admission on the front page and seven ran stories inside (the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal didn't mention Bush's statement at all).
So what had changed? After all, the administration began drawing connections between Iraq and al Qaeda months before the war began. Reading the coverage, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that reporters saw Cheney's "Meet the Press" appearance and said, "Enough is enough."
Their frustration may have grown in part from seeing the disconnect between the poll numbers and the known evidence. A Harris poll in August found that 50 percent of Americans believed that "clear evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda has been found in Iraq." A Knight-Ridder poll before the war found that half of Americans believed there were Iraqis among the Sept. 11 hijackers; and only 17 percent knew that none of the hijackers were Iraqis, a group outnumbered by the 21 percent who thought "most" of the hijackers were Iraqis.
How did so many Americans arrive at these beliefs? For some, it was no doubt just the feeling that one evil Middle Easterner is the same as the next, and since Saddam and Osama bin Laden are both bad guys, they must be in cahoots. No one in the administration ever said, "Saddam helped plan Sept. 11," but the rhetoric before and after the war contained innumerable suggestions to that effect. It is hard to believe that the White House was unaware that if the words "Saddam Hussein" and "Sept. 11" were mentioned in the same sentence or the same paragraph, people would not make the link on their own.
This is an example of what scholars of rhetoric call enthymematic argumentation. In an enthymeme, the speaker builds an argument with one element removed, leading listeners to fill in the missing piece. On May 1, speaking from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush said, "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001, and still goes on. . . . With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got." This is classic enthymematic argumentation: We were attacked on Sept. 11, so we went to war against Iraq. The missing piece of the argument -- "Saddam was involved in 9/11" -- didn't have to be said aloud for those listening to assimilate its message.
This was hardly the first time that the American people's knowledge of important events left something to be desired. For as long as they have studied public opinion, political scientists have fretted over the fact that many Americans don't seem to know very much about the details of policies being fought over in Washington. In response, some scholars have explored how people who have limited information can still make accurate conclusions through the use of heuristics, or "information shortcuts," while others have devised ways to engage the public through civic education in the hopes of boosting their political knowledge. Some even argue that given how little impact each person's vote makes, it is irrational for people to spend a great deal of time becoming informed.
Research shows that the way we interpret information and arrive at conclusions is colored by what we already believe. Democrats may find Bush inherently untrustworthy and be more likely to discount the arguments he makes; Republicans may trust him implicitly and give him the benefit of the doubt, whether or not he has offered a compelling case.
Those of us not privy to the administration's internal deliberations have no way of knowing whether there was a strategy to help Americans make the connection between Saddam and 9/11. If the administration was intentionally deceiving the public, the blame for the widespread misunderstanding rests with it.
But that does not make the media blameless. When politicians or government officials lie, reporters have an obligation not only to include the truth somewhere in the story or let opponents make a countercharge, but to say forthrightly that the official has lied. When a politician gets away with a lie, he or she becomes more likely to lie again. If the lie is exposed by vigilant reporters, the official will think twice before repeating it.
Once misconceptions are known, journalists have an obligation to highlight the facts in a prominent way, writing stories specifically about where people have misunderstood or been misled, and correcting the misimpressions. The average citizen can't be expected to wade through the euphemisms and competing claims, research the evidence, and come to a conclusion about who's telling the truth and who isn't.
That's what reporters are for.
Paul Waldman is co-author of "The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World" (Oxford University Press)./lj-cut>