No Comment — December 1, 2007, 4:44 pm

‘Is Barack a Vegetarian,’ ‘Rumsfeld on Chávez’ and Other Stories from a Newspaper in Decline

The Washington Post continues to be a curious blend of abysmally bad editorial and op-ed writing and far more serious reporting. Perhaps someday this ship will right itself, but for the moment it really makes for something of a spectacle.

We start with increasing evidence that the paper’s editorial feeble-mindedness is creeping into its news coverage. This was, of course, the struggle in the lead-up to the war, in which vital critical coverage was routinely consigned to the deep interior of the paper while White House and Pentagon transcription services filled the first three pages (not to mention, of course, the editorial page).

In the past week, one article attracted quite a bit of comment from media critics—it was Perry Bacon’s article on Thursday entitled “Foes Use Obama’s Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him.” The piece opens with these lines:

In his speeches and often on the Internet, the part of Sen. Barack Obama’s biography that gets the most attention is not his race but his connections to the Muslim world.

Since declaring his candidacy for president in February, Obama, a member of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Chicago, has had to address assertions that he is a Muslim or that he had received training in Islam in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 10. While his father was an atheist and his mother did not practice religion, Obama’s stepfather did occasionally attend services at a mosque there.

Bacon’s article is a textbook example of wholly irresponsible reporting. But given the trackrecord of the Post, I come away thinking not that this is something an editor should have caught and fixed. The more likely explanation is that the absurdities of the article resulted from editorial oversight.

The radical right has had a rumor campaign percolating against Obama for half a year at least, insinuating that he is a Muslim—it manifests itself with some regularity on right wing talk shows, and is the message that Mitt Romney is cueing into when he “accidentally” refers to Obama as “Osama.” This is a classic Rovian defamation scheme which would be a legitimate target of an investigative piece. However, the copy that Bacon submits could pass pretty closely for a script by Rush Limbaugh, slightly watered down. Notice that in twelve inches of copy, Bacon quotes a lot of sources but never seems to get around to telling his readers outright that the smear campaign is just that—Obama is not a Muslim and there is no credible basis for the insinuations that are spread, including, now, by Bacon.

Of the many who penned critiques of Bacon pathetic article, pride of place belongs to the Post’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, Tom Toles. Take a second to examine the cartoon itself here. The cartoon looks over the shoulder of a typical Tolesian conehead, reading the Washington Post. “Obama’s eating of vegetables fuels rumors about him” reads the headline. Then the text underneath: “Barack Obama doesn’t hide his enjoyment of peas and beans, fueling Internet rumors that he’s a jihadist vegetarian who will take the oath of office with his hand on a slab of damp tofu. He denies the rumors, but sure does eat a lot of vegetables, including tofu at times, and the real significance of the rumors is how they will hurt him if they get repeated enough.” And then the carry-over:

“INSIDE: Are the rumors true? More discussion of them first.”

Toles’s tiny commentator in the corner says “Yea, so much discussion they ran out of space for the word ‘lies.’”

Toles sums it up perfectly. Good political reporting is not a “he said, she said” narrative. It takes the time to ascertain whether the claims have factual content, and it isn’t shy about calling a political figure on a lie. Bacon’s story is about a pathetic lie. He regurgitates it all over the pages of the Post and never gets around to telling his readers that it’s a lie. In doing this, he makes himself a servant of the lie, not of the truth.

The great Ludwig Börne summed up the journalist’s responsibilities in a circumstance like this, when he wrote “In the service of truth it doesn’t suffice simply to display your intellect. You must show courage as well.” A journalist who doesn’t adhere to that credo doesn’t deserve to call himself a journalist. Toles understands the point. Bacon does not. And most alarmingly, neither do Bacon’s editors.

Which is why, of course, it is no surprise to pick up this morning’s Post and discover that Donald Rumsfeld has supplied another op-ed. Rumsfeld made his exit from the Pentagon less than a year ago, and he’s eager to assume the status of national gray eminence. That’s an appropriate role, generally, for a former secretary of defense. Is it a suitable role, however, for a man widely viewed as the worst secretary of defense in American history? Moreover, for a man who is considered, around the country and around the world, a war criminal who evades criminal accountability only due to the vigorous protection of the Bush Administration? For a man who happily scapegoats enlisted personnel to cover for his own errors in judgment?

Perhaps this is the first in a series that WaPo has commissioned. What might the successive pieces be?

• Alberto Gonzales, on the need to be candid with Congress?
• Jack Abramoff, on the needs for campaign finance reform?
• Charles (“Chuckie”) Taylor, on the need to change international human rights law?
• Duke Cunningham, on the needs for secrecy in defense spending?

The frightening thing is that I can actually see some of these pieces running in the Post. It wouldn’t be far from the sort of thing they print already.

But Rumsfeld’s topic is Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez. My friends in the Office of Secretary of Defense tell me that “With Saddam gone, and with so many people piling on with Ahmadinejad, Rummy was eager to ‘adopt’ Chávez. He developed something of an obsession with the guy.” Of course, oil had something to do with that, not to mention Chávez’s grand affront: insulting George W. Bush in front of the United Nations. Now if Saddam’s attempt on the life of Dubya’s father in Kuwait warranted the invasion and occupation of Iraq, surely Chávez’s cracks about sulphur are enough to justify the invasion and occupation of Venezuela. Seems Rumsfeld busily tasked Pentagon planners to lay out the framework for an invasion and occupation of Venezuela, muttering all the time about some failed CIA coup. (“Tack on Bolivia,” he apparently added as an afterthought, reflecting a rather poor grasp of Latin American geography).

And the hooks that Rumsfeld pick reflect a very dark humor.

Today the people of Venezuela face a constitutional referendum, which, if passed, could obliterate the few remaining vestiges of Venezuelan democracy. The world is saying little and doing less as President Hugo Chávez dismantles Venezuela’s constitution, silences its independent media and confiscates private property. Chávez’s ambitions do not stop at Venezuela’s borders, either. He has repeatedly threatened its neighbors. In late November, Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe, declared that Chávez’s efforts to mediate hostage talks with Marxist terrorists from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were not welcome.

Let’s get this straight. Chávez’s big offenses are that he asked his people in a referendum to change the Venezuelan constitution. But hold it, that’s just the beginning. He also volunteered to mediate a conflict in a neighboring country!

Astonishing. Of course, we known what Rumsfeld thinks about modifications to the Constitution. You don’t talk about them; you don’t go to the people, or even to Congress. You just do it. So for instance, you feel free to have your DOD intelligence operations spy on American citizens notwithstanding the prohibitions of the Posse Comitatus Act (who cares about that—why the title is even in Latin!) And as for mediating a conflict with guerillas—well, Rumsfeld spoke decisively on that in his Defense Policy Statement of 2005, in which he calls recourse to courts and mediation a “strategy of the weak,” and equated it with terrorism! And no one can top Donald Rumsfeld when it comes to silencing an independent media. On his watch, the Pentagon repeatedly issued directions telling soldiers that they should view journalists as “the enemy.”

But this is not to say that Chávez is beyond reproach or criticism. He has undermined democracy in Venezuela. He has done so using techniques that are remarkably like the ones favored by Rumsfeld. The question is whether Donald Rumsfeld is a marginally credible critic. And all of us, excepting of course, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, know the answer to that.

Update
The WaPo editor behind the Perry Bacon hit job steps forward to take his licks. Here’s what he has to say to the Politico:

Assistant Managing Editor Bill Hamilton, who oversees political coverage and edited the article, said that he was “a little puzzled” that readers didn’t see that the paper’s intention was to call into question rumors that Obama is secretly a Muslim (rather than a Christian), and was educated in an Indonesian madrassa. . .

The paper’s intention, Hamilton said, was “to write a story about the kind of rumors that are out there,” and added that “saying something is a rumor is not saying it’s true.” “We didn’t say it was a false rumor,” Hamilton added. “To me, a rumor is not true.”

I just reread the article again. If Hamilton’s intention in editing the piece was to “call into question rumors,” then it’s time for him to turn in his blue pencil. It doesn’t do that at all. It fans the flames. Then he goes on to say “to me, a rumor is not true.” Hamilton desperately needs to buy a dictionary. He’s dead wrong. His remarks simply don’t ring true in any event, he’s trying to curtail damage.

The Columbia Journalism Review nailed this when it wrote that the article “may be the single worst campaign ‘08 piece to appear in any American newspaper so far this election cycle.” And now we can add to that strong evidence of editorial malpractice, if not actual malice.

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