TCS Daily

Oops, They Did It Again

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - January 20, 2004 12:00 AM

The Blogosphere continues to effectively critique and correct Big Media's coverage on stories of the day. Consider the latest manifestation of this phenomenon in the coverage of Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, which critiques the Bush Administration through the opinions and recollections of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. Suskind's book received favorable coverage in a segment done recently for 60 Minutes. But the program missed a number of holes, discrepancies, and inconsistencies in its telling of Suskind's and O'Neill's story. And while 60 Minutes dropped the ball, the Blogosphere picked it up, and became a resource for much needed perspective on the story of Suskind's book.

One of the allegations made by Suskind, O'Neill and 60 Minutes was that the Bush White House planned to attack Iraq and overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein since its early days -- almost immediately after the inauguration of George W. Bush. This would appear to lend credibility to the charge that the Administration's policy of preemption and regime change is a radical one that wasn't even prompted by the attacks of September 11th, that the supposedly monomaniacal need of the Administration to have Saddam overthrown may have led to misinterpretations or misrepresentations of intelligence on Iraq, that George W. Bush was just out to avenge his father and inflate his own popularity, and so on.

But there is a big problem with this theory -- one that 60 Minutes failed completely to mention: Changing regimes in Iraq has been official U.S. policy since the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 -- an Act that won overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, and was signed by President Clinton. As blogger Glenn Reynolds reports, President Clinton and Vice President Gore had high praise for the policy, and expressed their full commitment towards its implementation. Given that the Act was passed before the advent of the Bush Administration, it should surprise precisely no one that the Administration was committed to its implementation -- just as the Clinton Administration was with the signing of the Act. It should also surprise no one that the Bush Administration had contingency plans in effect and was examining other contingency plans aimed at dealing with regime change in Iraq. It would have been contrary to the terms and policy set down by the Act to do otherwise.

Ah, but 60 Minutes and Suskind make another allegation as well. They allege that the war in Iraq was really about -- wait for it! -- oil. Referencing documents marked "SECRET," that were delivered to Suskind by O'Neill, Suskind and 60 Minutes trumpeted classified plans that had to do with keeping tabs on which oil companies drill in certain sections of Iraq, and how the exploration of Iraqi oil might be conducted in an atmosphere where the regime of Saddam Hussein may have fallen. 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl triumphantly proclaimed in regard to these documents that the war really was about the oil.

Well . . . no. As the blog PowerLine points out, documents existed keeping track of the various oil and gas exploration projects in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well. Far from being an indication that the United States was after Iraqi oil, the secret documents merely demonstrated that as a part of its intelligence gathering operations on Persian Gulf countries, the United States keeps tabs on oil exploration projects going on in those countries. The documents represent, therefore, standard operating procedure for the U.S. government, and are not a precursor to invasion. Needless to say, 60 Minutes addressed none of this.

Finally, there were the personal comments relayed by O'Neill to Suskind and to 60 Minutes regarding O'Neill's impression of President Bush. O'Neill portrayed the President as disengaged, stating that when it came to policy, George W. Bush was like " blind man in a room full of deaf people." The story line was irresistible for 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes played the story to the hilt.

But klaxons should have been going off in the brains of 60 Minutes producers when O'Neill -- confronted with his derogatory quotes -- expressed surprise that anyone would think he had a low opinion of the President. O'Neill's rhetorical backtracking should have caused 60 Minutes to ask O'Neill just how familiar he was with the Suskind book, and whether he thought that he might be misrepresented in the book. Predictably, 60 Minutes failed to follow up. As it turned out, O'Neill ended up retracting many of his criticisms on the Today show -- with Suskind sitting right next to him -- and stating that he would probably vote for the President in the 2004 election because he found the Democratic candidates to lack seriousness. Not surprisingly, the transcript of the Today show appearance ended up on a blog.

We're not even a year into 2004, and it may very well be that we have seen the year's most overhyped story. It didn't have to be that way, and more perspective could have been brought to the Paul O'Neill saga if 60 Minutes had followed some basic journalistic practices. But it failed, and the perspective had to be offered largely by the Blogosphere instead. It's becoming a habit for blogs to fill in for the failures of Big Media, and while that speaks well for the Blogosphere, it's clear that Big Media has some catching up to do if it wants to attain the high journalistic standards it once may have held.


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