Monday, March 24, 2008

You Get What You Pay For

We have a free press. I am thankful for that. But the herd instinct of our press corps means that the vast majority of "reporters" do nothing of the sort. The Saddam-al Qaeda link is a case in point:

Newly published Iraqi documents reveal just how extensive Saddam's involvement with international terrorism was. The summary of these documents, published under the heading Saddam and Terrorism, has been reported across the world and read by almost no one.

Its first paragraph reads: "The Iraqi Perspectives Project review of captured Iraqi documents uncovered strong evidence that links the regime of Saddam Hussein to regional and global terrorism. Despite their incompatible long-term goals, many terrorist movements and Saddam found a common enemy in the US.

"At times these organisations worked together, trading access for capability. In the period after the 1991 Gulf War, the regime of Saddam Hussein supported a complex and increasingly disparate mix of pan-Arab revolutionary causes and emerging pan-Islamic radical movements."

We get too little real journalism about these subjects and too much "churnalism", in which a single sometimes misleading wire report is repeated by thousands of commentators while nobody bothers to read the source document.

The world was misled about this report because of the focus on one single sentence of the report, which said: "This study found no smoking gun (that is, a direct connection) between Saddam's Iraq and al-Qa'ida."

However, the report does portray a vast network of Iraqi support for terrorist organisations that includes numerous groups the report identifies as "part of al-Qa'ida". The misleading and declaratory sentence presumably refers only to Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida central itself.

For example, the report states: "Captured documents reveal that the regime (of Saddam) was willing to co-opt or support organisations it knew to be part of al-Qa'ida, as long as that organisation's near-term goals supported Saddam's long-term vision." This included, for example, Saddam providing financial support for Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy.

Acknowledging this support, but saying there's no smoking gun directly to al-Qa'ida itself, means the report is taking an incredibly restrictive and precise view of al-Qa'ida.

But in any event this report is not claiming, as wrongly reported in the wires, that there was no link with al-Qa'ida, merely that it found no absolute smoking gun in the translated documents.

We continue to see the same churnalism among our elite reporters when it comes to the Iranian nuclear question.

One day, perhaps, we'll establish journalism schools to teach these people how to actually report on news events instead of issuing opinion pieces under color of news. But I'm a dreamer. Or perhaps naive. As if describing what you see should require a specialized degree in "reporting" rather than subject manner education!

So rejoice that we have a free press. But remember that sometimes you get what you pay for.