De Mortuis nil nisi Bonum
Show: Morning Edition (NPR)
I watched the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS the other day. Filling in for Lehrer, Gwen Ifill [no pun intended] had invited four historians to reflect on the political legacy of Ronald Reagan who had passed away just two days earlier. I was surprised to spot Professor Wilkins among her guests, a man known to be a unrelenting critic of Reagan policies. Would he be able to hold his venom and say something nice about the late President?
The Gipper, 1911-2004 [©AFP]
Of course not. After a few words by Michael Beschloss about the enduring significance of the Reagan revolution, Ifill turned to Roger Wilkins:
To their credit, Beschloss and the other two guests, Richard Norton Smith and Haynes Johnson, totally ignored Wilkins' attack.
It didn't take long before I would hear from him again. Three days later, Wilkins repeated his attack, almost word for word, in an interview with Juan Williams on NPR's Morning Edition. In an all too transparent attempt to create the appearance of some balance, Williams first talked to two of Reagan's former political advisers, Frank Donatelli and Ed Rogers, before he called on Wilkins.
Of course, if Williams just wanted to hear from a black American, he could have asked any number who have a more favorable opinion of the late President, such as Colin Powell who served as Reagan's Deputy National Security Adviser, or Thomas Sowell who, only days before, had written a very nice tribute to him. But Williams wasn't interested in saying something nice about this dead president. Maybe, his Latin isn't so good.
Williams was not the only one this morning on Morning Edition eager to diminish the legacy of the Gipper, one day before he was going to be laid to rest. Commentator Kevin Phillips argued that Reagan's persona can be reduced to being the "great communicator," luckily for him that in his last years he managed "to outlive most of his critics." The defeat of Communism — Reagan's greatest accomplishment in the eyes of many admirers — Phillips didn't even grace with a single word.
Interim Morning host Steve Inskeep portrayed the late President as a man living in a fantasy world, or as Clark Clifford once famously observed, "the amiable dunce." In an interview with Evan Cornog, author of a forthcoming book on presidential speeches, Inskeep was curious:
I don't know why Inskeep and Cornog picked this particular quote. In general, progressives have a hard time to support the peaceful use of nuclear energy, although this way of generating electricity is much less damaging to the environment than the burning of fossil fuels, for example. The sole emission of a nuclear power plant is water vapor which, in a matter of days, is recycled to the surface of this earth in the form of rain. Thus, the main argument of opponents of nuclear power has always been that nuclear power plants are dangerous to operate — which they are not — and that they leave behind huge quantities of nuclear waste which is impossible to safely dispose of.
The funny thing about this quote is that Reagan got it right — not wrong. The average nuclear power plant in the U.S. burns between 15 and 20 metric tons of nuclear fuel each year. As the specific weight of uranium is very high (19.05 kg/liter), the volume of the spent fuel is, at least in theory, small enough to fit under a desk. In real life, of course, spent fuel rods are kept in large water tanks for temporary storage, with lots of space between them to help dissipate the residual heat production.
This is not to say that Reagan never made a blooper. I have a vivid recollection of a press conference during the Iran-Contra affair in which Reagan mistakenly described the TOW missile as a shoulder-fired weapon. In fact, the TOW is one of the few tube-fired anti-tank missiles that has to be mounted on a vehicle because its launching tube is too heavy to be carried around. Oh boy, did the press have fun with that one!
A Pretty Good Week
Show: All Things Considered (NPR)
It looked like a pretty good week for the Bush administration.
Last Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee came out with a report that pre-war intelligence which the administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq — while flawed — was the same intelligence that the French, Russians, Germans, Italians, and just about everybody else had at the time. More importantly, the report did not cite a single instance in which the administration distorted or exaggerated the information given to them in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, nor did it support the claim that the administration leaned on the intelligence community to come up with the "right conclusions" .
Ambassador Wilson on Meet The Press
Moreover, it must have been sweet news for Bush that Ambassador Joe Wilson, who in a New York Times op-ed had called him a liar, was found guilty of lying himself. Not only did he lie about the role that his wife played in sending him to Niger, but also about what he had learned of the Iraqi attempts of buying yellow cake from the African nation. One of the more glaring lies was that he immediately recognized the contracts that the CIA showed him were fakes, at time when the CIA wasn't even aware that these contracts existed, much less was in possession of them.
To top it all off, the Lord Butler's commission reported this week that the British intelligence maintains that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from Niger . Apparently, the source for this assessment were high-ranking officials of the Niger government — not the forged documents mysteriously handed over to an Italian journalist. Moreover, an investigative report by the Financial Times revealed that France and several other European governments had additional evidence of Iraqi attempts to buy uranium. The French connection is especially noteworthy since France was (and still is) overseeing the uranium sales in the Republic of Niger.
Even if Wilson was right that Saddam didn't try to buy yellow cake, this would not have made Bush a liar. Bush merely said that the British government had learned of such attempts, which was undoubtedly true. Here are the by now famous 16 words that Bush used in his 2003 State of the Union address:
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Of course, if Bush knew at the time that the British intelligence reports were bogus, you could accuse him of being less than completely honest — almost Clintonesque — as in the phrase "it depends what the meaning of is is." The problem with this argument is, however, that Bush could not have known that the information was bogus if it turns out to be correct.
NPR Correspondent Eric Westervelt [©NPR]
Indeed, it was a good-news week for the administration unless you got your news from NPR News. Pentagon correspondent Eric Westervelt summarized the findings of the two commissions for All Things Considered. The introduction to his piece already sounded like another indictment of the Bush administration:
Two critical reports on intelligence, one from Britain and one from the U.S. Senate, shed new light on a key assertion used by the Bush administration to bolster its case for war with Iraq. Both reports deal with the claim that Saddam Hussein's regime tried to buy uranium from the African nation of Niger.
The way Westervelt is spinning the story is pretty slick. While he dutifully discloses that the Senate Intelligence Committee caught Wilson lying about his wife, he conveniently forgets to mention that the Ambassador was caught lying about the intelligence findings themselves. Westervelt spends a lot of time talking about the forged Italian documents and brings them in direct connection with Bush's State of the Union address:
It doesn't matter that the 16 words in the State of the Union address about Saddam's alleged attempts to buy uranium from Africa have nothing to do with the forged Italian documents. The listener won't be able to tell since he never hears Bush utter the line. Instead, we are treated to a sound bite from an earlier Bush speech in which he warns about the danger of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists. Nice work, Herr Westervelt.
Another Request Pending: The Sequel
Show: Morning Edition (NPR)
Exactly four month ago, Bob Edwards received a "surprising" phone call from Democratic presidential contender John F. Kerry. The resulting interview which aired the next day on Morning Edition was unremarkable — consisting of well-worn material from his stump speeches. Tucked away on the NPR web site, however, was an extended version of the conversation in which Kerry, to my surprise, called the Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr "a legitimate voice in Iraq," while criticizing the Bush administration for shutting down an Iraqi newspaper in which Sadr was calling for an uprising against the coalition forces.
One of Kerry's answers which, at the time, seemed rather banal as it reflected the received wisdom of all the pundits turned out to be clairvoyant. Asked by Edwards whether the coalition can hold on to the planned transfer of powers on June 30th, Kerry angrily replied that the deadline "is a fiction." Indeed, trying to frustrate Iraqi insurgents who may have wanted to derail the transfer of power, the event took place two days earlier, on June 28.
Kerry kicks off the "Believe in America" tour at the Democratic Convention
Today, Morning Edition aired another interview with John Kerry. This time, the Senator did not have to call in; Steve Inskeep, the new host of the program, joined the Democratic ticket on the "Believe in America" whistle-stop tour in Missouri, in the relative comfort of a wood-paneled antique railroad dining car. Naturally, I was curious whether Kerry had changed his mind about Muqtada al-Sadr whose Mehdi militias had killed scores of Iraqi police and civilians since the last interview. Moreover, I was hoping for a word or two about "fictional deadlines," but to no avail: Inskeep had only easy questions for the candidate who used the opportunity to point out that he can do everything better than the Republican incumbent.
In another respect, the interview reminded me of Bob Edwards' earlier interview of Kerry: both ended with a disclaimer. Edwards concluded by saying that Morning Edition had a "request pending" for an interview with President Bush. After today's interview, co-host Renée Montagne added the line [almost drowned out by an early start of the intermission music]:
Of course, it is not very likely that Bush will agree to an interview, at least not as long as NPR acts like a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic party. During the last presidential campaign Bush made the mistake to accept an invitation to speak at the annual NAACP convention, only to be called everything from a racist to a homophobe at an hastily arranged press conference of Texan delegates, just one hour before he was scheduled to speak. I don't think that Bush will fall for it a second time.
Again, the NPR web site contains an extended version of the interview. A comparison of the two versions reveals a pretty sophisticated cut-and-paste job.
In the broadcast version, Kerry answers the question whether he knew any of the men in the swift boat veterans ad in this way:
KERRY: Yea, I knew the commanding officers, but they weren't there.
In the extended and, presumably, less edited version he says:
KERRY: Yea, I knew one or two — that's about it. I mean no, excuse me, I knew the commanding officers, but they weren't there.
At first, Kerry seems to suggest that he doesn't know the guys in the ad, so, how can they say anything about him? Of course, the swift boat veterans would have a heyday with this answer as it could be easily disproved.
In either version, Kerry goes on to say that the same commanding officers wrote "glowing fitness reports" of him, which, of course, begs the question what these reports mean if those who wrote them weren't even there. But Inskeep missed this finer point.
I asked NPR's ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin what he thought of the editing job. So far, no response.
Show: Weekend Edition-Sunday (NPR)
Honest, I didn't want to do it, but lately truth squads have become such a nuisance on NPR that I simply had to write something nasty about them.
The squad dispatched today was charged to find out the truth about the Swift Boat Veterans' TV ads attacking John Kerry's war record. To assist in the mission, host Liane Hansen had enlisted Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. After two minutes the truth was found: there's nothing to the charges. Case closed.
The evidence? Several swift boat veterans who had previously kept quiet came out of the closet in support of the Democratic candidate's version of the events. The clincher? One of them, an editor of the Chicago Tribune.
By the standards of the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem witch trials, indeed, the evidence seems overwhelming, but not if you would ask the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. On their web site, the vets swiftly adjusted their case against Kerry. The faded black-and-white photo that previously showed only one swift commander siding with the Senator now has a crowd of three on his side.
This is not to say that NPR is wrong and the swift boat veterans are right about Kerry's Vietnam record. I wasn't there, so I don't know. Nevertheless, it is a bit disingenuous of the network to play the numbers game on the veterans. After all, there are almost 300 of them, 64 co-authoring a book about the candidate with the less than flattering title "Unfit For Command." Whether Kerry's band of brothers, in my last count 12, about half of them serving on his boat, include an editor of a liberal newspaper or not doesn't make much of difference to me.
If the press was serious about finding the truth, they would file a lawsuit against the government, forcing it to turn over all the records about Kerry's tour in Vietnam, conduct interviews with shipmates, fellow swift boat commanders, doctors and superior officers — in short, all the things they have done in questioning the National Guard service of the other candidate, President Bush. But don't hold your breath.
The chance that journalists will go after Kerry is rather slim.
In a recent survey of 547 journalists and news media executives conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press only 7% described themselves as conservative while 34% said they were liberal. Although the majority claimed to be moderate, in all areas polled, covering topics such as gay rights, gun control, abortion or the death penalty, the people of the press held views that were far left of the public in general, even far left of registered Democrats.
Asked whether they knew a network that was particularly liberal or conservative, 69% thought that the Fox News Channel had a conservative bias, just 2% suspected that NPR was liberal. What else do you expect from the folks who believe that Fahrenheit 9/11 is a documentary?
Back from old Europe — just in time to watch the first presidential debate — I was treated to another Morning Edition truth squad. The day after, Steve Inskeep checked the claims made by the candidates and came to the conclusion that both, Kerry and Bush, stretched the truth a little bit, but were essentially truthful in what they were saying.
To my surprise, Inskeep failed to mention two "stretches" that I had noticed. One was Kerry's contention that the subway was shut down during the Republican convention in New York City, seemingly proving that Bush hadn't done anything to make the homeland more secure. I could not remember any news story like this, so I checked with the wire services whether there were any closings. The result: none.
Moreover, another one of Kerry's remarks seemed suspect, considering that there was a huge spike of violence leading up to the handover of power in Iraq:
The truth which Inskeep was unable to uncover is that there were 140 soldiers killed in the month of April, 84 in May, and 50 in June. Yes, after the month of June, the casualties started rising again, but not to the heights they had reached before.
Not much of fact-checking there.