Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Great Moments in Unbiased Journalism

Ok, before going to read this CNN story, see if you can guess, from the following excerpts, what the headline on this story is:

Based in part on interviews with Saddam, the report from the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group also will conclude that he wanted to acquire weapons of mass destruction because he believed they kept the United States from going all the way to Baghdad during the first Gulf War.
The report also will find that Iraq made strenuous efforts to evade U.N. sanctions and pursued an aggressive strategy to try to get them lifted, which included subverting the U.N. oil-for-food program… the report will name names of individuals and countries that illegally did business with Saddam.
Other U.S. officials confirmed to CNN Tuesday that the report from the Iraq Survey Group will cite evidence that Iraq's intelligence agency used clandestine labs to manufacture small quantities of biological weapons in recent years, although probably for use in assassinations, rather than mass casualty attacks.

Ready for CNN's headline?
"Report: No WMD stockpiles in Iraq"

Now, granted, I've only quoted the bits in the story that focus on Bad Things that Iraq was doing. But I did that to make a point, that when you’re summarizing the key points of a document, it's very easy to control how it sounds by deciding which points to select as "key points" to include in the summary.

MSNBC reports on the same story, under the headline "Report discounts Iraqi arms threat". In the CNN version of the story, the first bit I quoted came from the second paragraph. In MSNBC's version, you have to get to paragraph seven before they even mention that Hussein intended to reconstitute his weapons programs as soon as he could get the UN sanctions lifted.

Fox News, reporting on the same story with the opposite bias, says "Report May Undercut Bush's Iraq Rationale". I particularly like the "may" qualifier in there ("You never know, just because it concludes there were no WMD stockpiles, doesn't necessarily mean it undercuts the reasoning behind the war..."). They also prominently feature White House spokesman Scott McClellan saying "that Saddam Hussein had the intent and the capability", while MSNBC, for example, tells us that according to their sources, the report itself concludes that "Hussein had the desire but not the means" to produce WMD.

Fox, however, does something interesting that the others do not: They juxtapose a series of quotes from Bush (and Chaney) made before the war next to a list of the things US forces actually found over there. It's not exactly flattering. Although if you wanted to get all Clintonian about it, you could probably parse Bush's statements in a way that would make them be technically not untrue, just mere overstatements.

All of this illustrates why, when anyone asks me what they can do to be an informed participant in the political process, I tell them that one of the most important things you can do is make sure you get your news from multiple sources.

1 comment:

Kwik2Jujj said...

I chuckled a bit when you wrote that you've only quoted the "Bad Things" that Iraq was doing. Because I want to see the laundry list of all the Good Things Iraq was up to. Let's see, Saddam was having millions live in squalor rather than release the stranglehold on his Oil For Graft program. He used billions of dollars in oil revenue to maintain his own thugocracy and engage in an elaborate kickback scheme wherein he co-opted the United Nations bureaucracy as well as government figures from the nations of the Security Council itself (especially Russia and France). He jealously guarded his WMD brain trust and technical base, looking forward to the impending collapse of the international sanctions at which time he could have biological weapons again in mere months. And we're supposed to be impressed that he "did not have WMD stockpiles." Ooooo! Gold star!!

I concur with your advice, Salvius: Get thy news from multiple sources. Better yet, when possible read important reports oneself rather than depend on media filters.