Close to power, far from truth

There is little more risky than writing about a television program that won’t air until after my deadline — but a program you will have seen by the time you read this. It is just that the juxtaposition of Saturday’s White House Correspondents Dinner with the Wednesday-night broadcast of PBS’s “Bill Moyers Journal” is just too enticing to resist.

The glitzy annual gathering at the Washington Hilton is one of the most fascinating parties of the year. Those who report the news mingle with those they report on at cocktail parties sponsored by the owners of media carrying those reports. Add to this the clients and their consultants who buy the ads that pay reporters’ salaries and pitch them stories and you have a party that could only be thrown in this town. I plead guilty to being a small cog in that giant machine. I advise clients, craft messages, place ads and once a week try to step back and come up with 750 or so unbiased words for this newspaper. If I have a dog in a particular fight I try to always make that clear, but I suspect I’ve not written some interesting columns because of whom they might offend.

Do events such as the correspondents’ dinner blur the lines between those who make news and those who cover them? That seems to be the premise of “Buying the War,” the premier episode of the new “Bill Moyers Journal,” particularly when it comes to coverage of the war in Iraq.

Moyers recently said, “The press has never come to grips with its complicity in helping this administration market a war that is being fought under false pretenses.” That is a pretty damming statement. And it comes from a man who helped sell another such war over 40 years ago. Speaking of former President Lyndon Johnson and current President George W. Bush, Moyers says, “Both presidents rushed to judgment on premature and flawed intelligence … Each thought anything less than all-out victory would stigmatize his presidency.” He says the lesson of both Vietnam and Iraq is that “You shouldn’t got to war for a grand theory on a hunch.” In another interview, Moyers wonders, “How many Americans is this president willing to sacrifice on the altar of his ego?”

In one of a few clips I’ve seen before the broadcast, Moyers interviews Bob Simon, the CBS “60 Minutes” reporter imprisoned by Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Simon says, “From overseas we had a clearer view — the absurdity of putting up a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. … Those of us who spent weeks walking the streets of Baghdad were just scratching our heads.” Simon makes the case that the Washington press corps is just too close to the administration to take a clear view. They travel in a bubble with the president or secretary of state — a bubble not unlike the self-feeding loop of sources, reporters and talk show hosts that sets the agenda for reporting inside the Beltway.

From what I’ve seen the hero of this program is John Walcott, chief of the Washington bureau of what was then Knight Ridder. At the time his bureau fed some 32 papers around the country. “Our readers aren’t the people who send other people’s kids to war,” he says, “they get sent to war.” He wanted them to have the truth, and many of the things said about Iraq didn’t make sense. He and his reporters dug deep and talked to confidential sources with access to intelligence data. The reporters concluded the administration was stretching little bits and pieces of information to make a case for war that was not based on hard evidence.

One of the most disturbing revelations Walcott makes is that a number of newspapers in his chain ignored his Washington bureau’s reports. They had access to New York Times and wire service stories and preferred to go with the flow of consensus stories rather than the facts being dug up by their own dogged reporters. It was easier to buy what the administration was selling.

There is a message for all of us in this story. Bill Moyers summed it up nicely in a recent interview: “When I left Washington 40 years ago it took me a while to realize that what’s important is not how close you are to power but how close you are to the truth.” Would that everyone in black tie and evening gown last Saturday night understood that.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.