"...it has almost ceased altogether to be a newspaper."
-- Renata Adler
On July 24, around noon, President Bush delivered an important speech at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. He discussed in considerable detail the links between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the central leadership of Al Qaeda, reflecting the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community. About four hours later, the New York Times posted a news story by Times reporter Brian Knowlton about the speech. It was a good example of straightforward journalism - not something one sees all the time at the Times. Here are the first three paragraphs from Knowlton's report:
"President George W. Bush argued forcefully today that an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Iraq is linked tightly to the central Al Qaeda leadership, and that for American forces to leave Iraq without defeating the terror group would be "dangerous for the world and disastrous for America."
"He made the remarks at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, at a time of fierce debate in Washington over Iraq policy. Last week a major intelligence report concluded that the international Al Qaeda organization of Osama bin Laden had successfully regrouped, probably in rugged northwest Pakistan, and that it is once again as strong as it was before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"In a half-hour speech clearly aimed at his Democratic critics, Mr. Bush said that those who argued that the affiliated group, called Al Qaeda in Iraq or AQI, was a local group with local objectives, and not a serious threat to Americans at home, were seriously misinformed."
Knowlton's report (which continued for an additional 17 paragraphs) was generally a fair summary of the President's principal points and the passion with which he had delivered his speech (a video is here). But Knowlton's article didn't appear the next day in the paper version of the Times. Instead a different article, by different reporters, was published. The news story in the national edition of the Times was written by Jim Rutenberg and Mark Mazzetti. Here are the first three paragraphs from their report:
President Bush sought anew on Tuesday to draw connections between the Iraqi group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the terrorist network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, and he sharply criticized those who contend that the groups are independent of each other.
At a time when Mr. Bush is trying to beat back calls for withdrawal from Iraq, the speech at Charleston Air Force Base reflected concern at the White House over criticism that he is focusing on the wrong terrorist threat.
Mr. Bush chose to speak in the city where Democrats held their nationally televised presidential debate on Monday, a forum at which the question was not whether to stay in Iraq but how to go about leaving. . . .
Boy -- what a difference. In Knowlton's report, Bush was portrayed as "forcefully arguing" that Al Qaeda Iraq and the rest of Al Qaeda were "linked tightly," and -- speaking in the wake of a new "major intelligence report" and a "fierce debate" in Washington about "policy" -- that people without access to the facts he laid out were "seriously misinformed."
But in Rutenberg and Mazzetti's report, Bush was portrayed as simply seeking "anew" (there he goes again) to "draw connections" (as if there were any) between Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (where?), reflecting White House "concern" over "criticism," as the Democrats moved on to the real issue -- "not whether to stay in Iraq but how to go about leaving."
The two Times reports are examples of how the same event can be covered in distinctly different ways by different reporters for the same newspaper. But perhaps those are merely differences in style, tone and emphasis (although style, tone and emphasis count for a lot). The more important point is how Rutenberg and Mazzetti "reported" on Bush's substantive points. Here is the seventh paragraph of their story, in its entirety:
The Iraqi group is a homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group with some foreign operatives that has claimed a loose affiliation to Mr. bin Laden's network, although the precise links are unclear.
Rutenberg and Mazzetti flatly state -- as pure fact, without any reference to authority -- that Al Qaeda in Iraq is a "homegrown" group with merely "some foreign operatives" that has "claimed" a "loose affiliation" with bin Laden, but with links that are "unclear." Rutenberg and Mazzetti simply refute Bush ex cathedra, without even presenting the facts from his speech. So let's look at what Bush actually said, to see how it fits with Rutenberg and Mazzetti's report:
Al Qaeda in Iraq was founded by a Jordanian terrorist, not an Iraqi. His name was Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Before 9/11, he ran a terrorist camp in Afghanistan. He was not yet a member of al Qaida, but our intelligence community reports that he had longstanding relations with senior al Qaida leaders, that he had met with Osama bin Laden and his chief deputy, Zawahiri.
In 2001, Coalition forces destroyed Zarqawi's Afghan training camp, and he fled the country and he went to Iraq, where he set up operations with terrorist associates long before the arrival of coalition forces. In the violence and instability following Saddam's fall, Zarqawi was able to expand dramatically the size, scope, and lethality of his operation. In 2004, Zarqawi and his terrorist group formally joined al Qaida, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and he promised to "follow his orders in jihad."
Soon after, bin Laden publicly declared that Zarqawi was the "Prince of Al Qaida in Iraq" -- and instructed terrorists in Iraq to "listen to him and obey him." It's hard to argue that al Qaida in Iraq is separate from bin Laden's al Qaida, when the leader of al Qaida in Iraq took an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden.
According to our intelligence community, the Zarqawi-bin Laden merger gave al Qaida in Iraq -- quote -- "prestige among potential recruits and financiers." The merger also gave al Qaida's senior leadership -- quote -- "a foothold in Iraq to extend its geographic presence ... to plot external operations ... and to tout the centrality of the jihad in Iraq to solicit direct monetary support elsewhere." . . . .
Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces in June 2006. He was replaced by another foreigner -- an Egyptian named Abu Ayyub al-Masri. His ties to the al Qaida senior leadership are deep and longstanding. He has collaborated with Zawahiri for more than two decades. And before 9/11, he spent time with al Qaida in Afghanistan where he taught classes indoctrinating others in al Qaida's radical ideology.
After Abu Ayyub took over al Qaida's Iraqi operations last year, Osama bin Laden sent a terrorist leader named Abd al-Hadi al Iraqi to help him. According to our intelligence community, this man was a senior advisor to bin Laden, who served as his top commander in Afghanistan. Abd al-Hadi never made it to Iraq. He was captured, and was recently transferred to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. The fact that bin Laden risked sending one of his most valued commanders to Iraq shows the importance he places on success of al Qaida's Iraqi operations.
According to our intelligence community, many of al Qaida in Iraq's other senior leaders are also foreign terrorists. They include a Syrian who is al Qaida in Iraq's emir in Baghdad, a Saudi who is al Qaida in Iraq's top spiritual and legal advisor, an Egyptian who fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s and who has met with Osama bin Laden, a Tunisian who we believe plays a key role in managing foreign fighters. Last month in Iraq, we killed a senior al Qaida facilitator named Mehmet Yilmaz, a Turkish national who fought with al Qaida in Afghanistan, and met with September the 11th mastermind Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, and other senior al Qaida leaders.
Of course, there was in fact at least one Iraqi leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, but he's been captured, and disclosed something about the other leaders:
A few weeks ago, we captured a senior al Qaida in Iraq leader named Mashadani. Now, this terrorist is an Iraqi. In fact, he was the highest ranking Iraqi in the organization. Here's what he said, here's what he told us: The foreign leaders of Al Qaida in Iraq went to extraordinary lengths to promote the fiction that al Qaida in Iraq is an Iraqi-led operation. He says al Qaida even created a figurehead whom they named Omar al-Baghdadi. The purpose was to make Iraqi fighters believe they were following the orders of an Iraqi instead of a foreigner. Yet once in custody, Mashadani revealed that al-Baghdadi is only an actor. He confirmed our intelligence that foreigners are at the top echelons of al Qaida in Iraq -- they are the leaders -- and that foreign leaders make most of the operational decisions, not Iraqis.
Bush concluded this portion of his speech with the following information, to demonstrate the breadth and importance of the foreign leadership and participation in Al Qaeda Iraq:
Foreign terrorists also account for most of the suicide bombings in Iraq. Our military estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of suicide attacks in Iraq are carried out by foreign-born al Qaida terrorists. It's true that today most of al Qaida in Iraq's rank and file fighters and some of its leadership are Iraqi. But to focus exclusively on this single fact is to ignore the larger truth: Al Qaida in Iraq is a group founded by foreign terrorists, led largely by foreign terrorists, and loyal to a foreign terrorist leader -- Osama bin Laden. They know they're al Qaida. The Iraqi people know they are al Qaida. People across the Muslim world know they are al Qaida. And there's a good reason they are called al Qaida in Iraq: They are al Qaida ... in ... Iraq.
So Rutenberg and Mazzetti's report was a single sentence asserting -- without reference to the intelligence they had just listened to -- that the "Iraqi group" is a "homegrown" group with "some foreign operatives" that claim a "loose affiliation" to bin Laden's "network."
Rutenberg and Mazzetti took a presidential address intended to inform the nation about the intelligence community findings regarding Al Qaeda in Iraq and not only (1) did not lay out the evidence the President presented, but even worse (2) downplayed and contradicted it, and thus contributed to the misinformation the President sought to correct.
Here is the next paragraph (in its entirety) of Rutenberg and Mazzetti's "news story," reporting on what Bush allegedly did not say:
In his speech, Mr. Bush did not try to debunk the fact - repeated by [Senator Harry] Reid - that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia did not exist until the United States invasion in 2003 and has flourished afterward.
But Bush had in fact "debunked" the significance of Reid's observation that Al Qaeda showed up in force after the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein and stayed to support the establishment of a democracy in Iraq:
Some note that al Qaida in Iraq did not exist until the U.S. invasion -- and argue that it is a problem of our own making. The argument follows the flawed logic that terrorism is caused by American actions. Iraq is not the reason that the terrorists are at war with us. We were not in Iraq when the terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. We were not in Iraq when they attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. We were not in Iraq when they attacked the USS Cole in 2000. And we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001.
. . . The al Qaida terrorists now blowing themselves up in Iraq are . . . part of a network that has murdered men, women, and children in London and Madrid; slaughtered fellow Muslims in Istanbul and Casablanca, Riyadh, Jakarta, and elsewhere around the world. If we were not fighting these al Qaida extremists and terrorists in Iraq, they would not be leading productive lives of service and charity.
Rutenberg and Mazzetti did refer to the fact that Bush was referencing intelligence information, but then seemed to challenge the intelligence:
Mr. Bush referred throughout his speech to what his aides said was newly declassified intelligence in his effort to link Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the central Qaeda leadership that is believed to be operating from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. Although the aides said the intelligence was declassified, White House and intelligence officials declined to provide any detail on the reports Mr. Bush cited.
Rather than report the details Bush presented (on grounds that the White House and intelligence officials "declined to provide any detail"), Rutenberg and Mazzetti simply stated that "In stark terms, Mr. Bush laid out a case that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia had taken its cues from the central Qaeda leadership, and that it had been led by foreigners who have sworn allegiance to Mr. bin Laden."
In other words, they reported that Bush "laid out a case" but did not report the case itself. And they treated the case as one that was contrary to the facts they themselves set forth in their article.
For years, readers have looked in the Times for what was once its unsurpassed strength: the uninflected coverage of the news. You can look and look, now, and you will not find it there. Some politically correct series and group therapy reflections on race relations perhaps. . . . But nothing a reader can trust any longer, either. Certainly no reliable, uninflected coverage of anything, least of all the news. The enterprise, whatever else it is, has almost ceased altogether to be a newspaper.
In the last six years, the Times has gotten immeasurably worse, and now is virtually the school newspaper of the Democratic Party, publishing its talking points and inserting them into its stories. As indicated by the replacement of Brian Knowlton's report with the much different one by Jim Rutenberg and Mark Mazzetti, straight news is okay for a quick report on the web, but it is not fit to print.
Rick Richman edits Jewish Current Issues.