A Fish Called Kurtz
August 27, 2004
By David Swanson
On August 18, 2002, the Washington Post's ombudsman Michael Getler
complained about the Post's warmongering. On August 22, 2004,
the Washington Post's media critic Howard Kurtz complained about
readers complaining about the Post's war mongering. Such is progress
in the heart of media darkness in downtown D.C.
In the movie A Fish Called Wanda a character struggles to say
"I'm sorry," resorting to meditation in his fruitless attempt to
get those syllables to pass his lips. I have reason to believe that
the actor was secretly coached by Howard Kurtz, a claim the Washington
Post should now be trumpeting on its front page, because it would
be very hard for Kurtz to prove he was not involved. That would
be proving a negative, the inability to do which justifies all reckless
reporting according to Kurtz's reasoning.
Of course I'm not the occupant of the White House, so my wacky
claims don't go onto the front page until someone can prove a negative.
I'm expected, in fact, as a mere human, to prove a positive before
being taken seriously. Why the Post can't hold everyone to that
standard is a question Kurtz does not address.
In fairness, Getler didn't address it either. His concern two
years ago was that certain big shots in the administration and the
military were having doubts about the proposed war which the Post
was not reporting, and that the result of the war could "be devastating
if weapons of mass destruction are unleashed by a dictator who knows
he is going down, or if he slips some of those weapons to terrorist
groups who can deliver them in different ways at later dates against
That sounds more like fear mongering than noble but failed attempts
to prove that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
The notion that George W. Bush should have to prove the existence
of an imminent danger before launching a war hasn't even occurred
to the Post's pseudo-critics. If that were the standard, of course,
not many wars would ever get fought. As Bush himself says, "once
it's imminent it's too late."
Kurtz claims that the Post has no point of view, that as in philosopher
Thomas Nagel's incoherent fantasy, the Post takes the "view from
nowhere." This pretense is bad enough when it leads to equal coverage
of, on the one hand, Bush administration lies and, on the other,
documented detailed explanations of why the opposite is true, without
any attempt by the Post to determine what the facts are.
But the Post's stance on the war - in fact the marketing job the
Post performed for this lemon - is not a problem of pretended "balance."
Worse, it's an endless sin of omission. Opposition to the war has
almost never made it into print at the Post, not even as one side
of a "balanced" article.
Take a look at the Aug. 18, 2002, issue, the same issue in which
the ombudsman expressed his solemn doubts. On this same day, the
Post ran an editorial and three op-eds about a potential U.S. attack
on Iraq, as well as two related articles.
One article, placed on the top of the front page, reported on
a memo that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had sent to the White House
and the media. Defense officials were worried that countries such
as Iraq or Iran could use cruise missile technology to attack "U.S.
installations or the American homeland." The article admitted that
"no particular piece of new intelligence prompted the warning."
The fact that this fear was ludicrous, to borrow a term from Kurtz,
The second Post article on Aug. 18, 2002 urged Bush to hurry up
and argue for an attack on Iraq before opponents of such an attack
raised their voices too loudly. The headline was, "White House Push
for Iraqi Strike Is On Hold: Waiting to Make Case for Action Allows
Invasion Opponents to Dominate Debate." While the article did touch
ever so slightly on some of the opponents' arguments, it mainly
focused on arguments about how best to persuade the American public
and European politicians to support a war. Invasion opponents never
dominated any debate in the pages of the Post.
The Post's editorial also urged the White House to make
its case for war, and advised it to do so on the grounds that Hussein
had refused to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. That fact,
and a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Hussein rid
himself of such weapons, the Post said, tended to make the proposed
war "legitimate." By some coincidence - to credit Kurtz's tales
of walls of separation - this editorial fit seamlessly with the
two articles on the same topic.
But is a demand by the U.N. Security Council really a good enough
excuse to bomb people? What, after all, had the United States done
to promote peace? We'd deprived Iraqis of drinkable water and otherwise
driven them to illness and death through malnutrition and disease.
We'd abandoned those who'd assisted in the previous war. We'd sent
spies to Iraq under the guise of weapons inspectors. We'd recalled
our actual weapons inspectors and then claimed falsely that Hussein
had kicked them out. We'd maintained troops throughout the region
in proximity to religious sites. And we'd labeled the nation of
Iraq "evil." Not only were various weapons inspectors, Congress
Members, and former spies shouting that there were no weapons, but
some were making the case that our whole policy in the Middle East
was counterproductive. The Post maintained a careful obliviousness
to all such information.
The best of the Post's three columns on Aug. 18, 2002 - David
Broder's - questioned the accuracy of CIA information on Iraq, briefly
mentioned a few concerns, and then joined the chorus urging Bush
to make his case so the war could start
The worst of the op-eds - which was placed at the top center of
the page and illustrated by a clenched fist with an Uncle Sam sleeve
pounding on a map of Iraq - was by former national security advisor
Zbigniew Brzezinski. The title was "If We Must Fight," and the claim
was that we must.
The Post's final op-ed that day was by Charles "Liberals
are Stupid" Krauthammer, who attacked the New York Times for biased
coverage against attacking Iraq. Krauthammer was upset that the
Times had covered some of the stories that the Post's ombudsman
criticized the Post for not covering - including the expression
of opposition to or concern about attacking Iraq on the part of
various legislators and officials.
The Times has nonetheless - in its own half-hearted way - finally
apologized for its general war mongering, while Kurtz continues
to stammer out his "I'm s... I'm s...s...."
David Swanson served as press secretary for Dennis Kucinich
for President. His website is www.davidswanson.org.